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How should private sector businesses respond to workers on strike?

As we face another month of public sector strikes, with politicians and trade union bosses trading blows over who is to blame for the disruption, we are also seeing a growing trend of private sector workers going on strike. What are the key differences with the strikes? And how should businesses respond to striking workers?

November 2022 saw 423 days of work lost due to strike action in the private sector, a miniscule number when compared to the 417,000 days of work being lost in the public sector in October 2022. But it’s still an increase - there were no private sector strike days recorded between February 2020 and May 2022. With news that Amazon workers have staged their first ever UK walkout, and inflation and cost of living pressures continue to hit workers, the trend could be here to stay.

So how should businesses in the private sector deal with workers on strike? One of the biggest differences is that the employer is going to have to wholly own the communications response. Unlike with nurses or rail workers, there is not a Minister that can be put up for a broadcast round and pointed to as responsible for the disruption.

The employer is also going to have to own how the business operates. In some of the highest profile private sector strikes, pay is often not the only or even predominant issue. Amazon workers are using this strike to highlight the “severe” conditions they are working in, with managers tracking staff’s ‘idle’ time and loo breaks, criticising workers for not being productive enough. Similarly, Royal Mail workers went on strike over management trying to turn the newly privatised company into a “gig economy-style parcel courier, reliant on casual labour.”

At the end of the day, pay rises are likely to solve much of the disgruntlement employees face, but a sufficient pay rise will not always be the silver bullet private sector bosses are hoping for. Significant operational and cultural shifts may be necessary in order to assure employees that they are not attempting to cut corners and put profit above employee welfare. Unfortunately, cultural and operational changes do not happen overnight. They’re often expensive and you have to bring people with you.

Looking beyond pay to how a business treats their workers needs to form a key element of any private sector response. Yes, a recession may be coming, but the battle for talent is still very much alive and striking workers isn’t going to attract prospective employees. Every business facing striking workers will have its own challenges but winning back workers’ goodwill is about more than just short term disruption.


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