31 October 2009

Does striking work?

Clearly the unions say it does and the companies involves strenuously argue the opposite.

Many years ago, I was involved in a heated debate with a friend who was of the opinion that bus drivers were perfectly entitled to strike if they wished, so long as they acknowledged that they'd never, ever win. His reasoning was based on the fact that the first time a bus company's local management gave in to their workforce, credence to other depots' drivers would be given, who'd also start to ask for that little bit more (at least to the level achieved by the first, victorious depot) and would strike if they didn't get it. Consequently, large bus companies - specifically involved in our dispute was one of the 'big five' - would never give in as this would be a sign of weakness.

But what makes workers return to work following a strike? Clearly one side has given more than the other, though 'spinned' outcomes to the local media will put pay to this ever being admitted, yet think of all the times you've heard of bus, coach and train company employees manning the picket lines. They're not still out there now, so did the unions win or the companies?

In South Yorkshire, the dominant operator, First, is in a bit of bother with its workforce. Strike action by drivers at its Sheffield depot took place on 25 & 26 October and is planned to reoccur again today. Planned strikes at Doncaster and Rotherham were halted after additional ground was gained by Unite, the union involved in negotiations.

Initially, a 2.5% pay rise was offered to the entire First South Yorkshire workforce, though was unanimously rejected. A revised offer of 3% was made, to commence in 2010; a free pass for a nominated child of each employee; a £100 shopping voucher; and a financial settlement regarding a dispute concerning accrued holiday pay.

It's worth pointing out that none of the above was included in First's original offer to its workforce. We understand, from contacts employed in the organisation there, that initially a 'no strings' offer of 2.5% was made. Many would argue that this was far better than that received by other bus companies in the country at this moment in time. Unite's members in South Yorkshire want to see their pay rival that of First's sister depots in West Yorkshire, specifically Leeds and Bradford.

Proving membership of a trade union has been beneficial for First's employees in South Yorkshire, it was Unite's stewards who brokered the increased offer by First and we understand nothing has been given away by the workforce in return, save a small delay to the implementation of the proposed 3% pay rise. First can easily 'lose' shopping vouchers and free child passes in its system, as they won't be shown allocated against its wage budget, so will find favour with its balance sheet. The union will claim it has forced the UK's largest transport provider to increase its pay offer by 0.5% to almost treble what the Police were offered recently.

Sir Moir Lockhead will be all too aware of the solidarity within his workforce in South Yorkshire. There are many pockets of militancy all over the country, that are deep-rooted and have the potential for lengthy periods of action taken. Sheffield is one of these locations, hence why this depot continues to strike, though latterly as a result of a grievance over disciplinary matters. First's drivers in Bolton, Wigan and Bury have been on strike for eight consecutive Mondays, after being offered a pay increase of 0.5% immediately and 2.25% next year. Competition from a major competitor is not as prominent in the north west as it is in South Yorkshire, with Stagecoach making significant inroads at First's expense. This will also feature strongly in the decision to offer First South Yorkshire drivers a 3% pay rise.

Clearly, my friend's opinion that strike action will never succeed is wrong. In the case of Rotherham and Doncaster, only the threat of action has seen their offer increase by 0.5% and a raft of add-ons that will have a real financial benefit to them. Save the disciplinary matter in Sheffield, and the implication is that calm would have descended on the streets of South Yorkshire by now. At the same time, First has managed to substantially increase the offer made to its drivers and done so in a manner that won't be detrimental to its balance sheet.

Can everyone really be a winner? (GWB)