Unite is the UK’s second biggest trade union and they are ramping up their campaign strategy under their new leader Sharon Graham. A visit to the news page of their website gives a very good picture of what’s going on – calendar style entries show activity by sector and region of the country, tracking the progress of every campaign and event, and there’s plenty going on. So how can employer’s plan for the prospect of industrial action, or leverage tactics, which target them? We’ll come onto that in a moment.
Unite operates in the private sector with over 1.4 million members across construction, manufacturing, transport, logistics, among many sectors. The general secretary is Sharon Graham who was elected on 25 August 2021, the former head of its leverage department. She is organised, pragmatic and has a reputation as a tough operator. Here’s a clip from BBC Radio 4’s Profile programme:
BBC Radio 4 – Profile/Sharon Graham
Employers that fail to prepare not only risk losing business and money, they can also find themselves in a weaker position to negotiate a resolution or win a war of attrition with a union. As with any crisis management, putting in the groundwork before a dispute happens will put you in the best position to respond, contingency planning in other words. So, let’s consider this. Jon Coley is an industrial relations specialist who joined me by video-link to discuss how he helps clients with their contingency planning, and the role of HR:
Jon Coley: “Absolutely, Joe, it's critical and one of the challenges we always have with clients is, once the industrial unrest starts, almost communication stops, they forget the fact that they're talking to their colleagues, their fellow employees. It’s very important from an HR perspective to liaise with internal comms, and to make sure that the message that we want to deliver goes out, and that the message is not through the filter, or the lens, of the trade union because, very often, the trade union rhetoric will distort our message, will not get across the real message that we want to get across to the workforce, to our fellow colleagues. Therefore, that's a vital role that HR have to play at this stage to actually increase the comms, to make sure our message is put across clearly and in a way that employees understand.”
Joe Glavina: “Just thinking about the balloting and possible ‘voter apathy’ - members who are inclined not to bother voting one way or the other, with the risk you get a ‘yes’ vote by default?”
Jon Coley: “I think that's absolutely right, Joe, and that is a real risk and one of the roles that HR can play through the communication, and just through general engagement, is to make sure that those who would not vote, or inclined to a no vote, actually do go out and ballot. Very often the lack of turnout represents the no vote, people rather than voting no just don't bother voting and actually to have the no vote is ultimately what you're aiming for and the challenge that you're facing. I had a client who ran a very successful campaign recently and actually managed to defeat a union vote for strike action through its comms plan through actually engaging and making sure that the workforce did make their feelings known to the trade union.”
Joe Glavina: “Can I come on to leverage campaigns Jon. Len McCluskey, Unite’s former leader, recently wrote an article saying how, so far, Unite has used this tactic defensively, but under Sharon Graham, he sees it being used in advance as part of a strategic push to gain union recognition. Thoughts on that?”
Jon Coley: “Well that’s a really interesting observation, Joe, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out with Sharon Graham, the new head of Unite, its General Secretary, who used to be head of their leverage team and therefore it will be interesting to see how Unite do adopt leverage tactics more moving forwards because, of course, it means that their members aren't necessarily out on strike, but they can still seek to cause embarrassment, inconvenience, in relation to the employer without necessarily calling, as I say, they're members out on strike action. We had a really good example of the sort of campaign that they could launch recently when a Unite colleague and member left on one of my client’s desks a copy of their leverage research report that they had done on that particular client. It ran to 70, 80, 90 pages and it was focused on all the pain points of that client, all the points where the trade union could cause the maximum embarrassment. It was clearly left as a threat in terms of, if we don't get a deal this is where we're going to go, but it was interesting to see the lengths they had gone to, and the research they had gone to, in terms of what tactics they could deploy to cause maximum disruption, maximum embarrassment, with minimal impact on the members.”
Jon went on to talk about maintaining business as usual, using temporary staff to keep services going, re-deploying staff and the legal risks around that. We will be covering all of that in a programme next week. Meanwhile, the BBC’s Profile programme on Sharon Graham is available on BBC iPlayer in case you interested in listening to that in full. We have put a link to it in the transcript of this programme.
- Link to BBC Radio 4’s Profile on Sharon Graham