Peter Harwood: the man in the middle

April 13, 2010

Your business is Peter Harwood’s business — at least it becomes his business if you seek the help of employment relations service Acas to help mediate a collective conflict in your workplace.

As chief conciliator at the Advisory, Concilation and Arbitration Service, Harwood has mediated hundreds of employment tribunal cases over the past 20 years, including recent high-profile disputes between British Airways and Unite union; Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union; Network Rail and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers; oil company Total and Unite.

Media coverage may give the impression that strike action increased in Britain during the recent economic downturn, but — in keeping with patterns during periods of recession — it has dropped, a new Acas policy discussion paper reports. The pattern of industrial action is similar to the one that emerged in the recession of the 1990s, it suggests.

“Stoppages fell to 121 in the year to June 2009 from 155 in the same period in the previous non-recessionary year,” writes Sarah Podro, the author of the study. “Working days lost fell dramatically from 933, 000 to 598,000.”

Acas, governed by an independent council funded by the Department for Business Innovation & Skills, saw a rise in demand for its collective conciliation services during the recent recession. However, as the UK economic outlook improves, the trend has been towards a lower number of conciliated disputes, compared to a rise in industrial work stoppages and in days lost due to industrial action.

Around 175,000 days were lost in October 2009 through disputes, the highest monthly figure since the summer of 2008, the report states.

“One notable impact of the recession has been the increase in concessionary bargaining, where unions have negotiated pay freezes, wage reduction or a shorter working week, limited overtime or reduced employer pension contributions to protect jobs,” Podro writes.

As employers and employees continue to face uncertain economic conditions despite signs of economic recovery, pensions could be a trigger point for future disputes as employers try and close schemes. Employees could also face tough negotiations as they try and recoup pay losses.

Employers face new challenges from technology and social media used by unions and workers to mobilise collective action.

“The conflict is still there, it just manifests itself in different ways,” Harwood told Reuters in an interview at Acas headquarters in London’s Euston. “Conflict will always be with us, we need it, in effect, because constructive conflict is what creates innovation and creativity.”

Over the past 30 years, changes in the workforce have resulted in fewer industrial jobs, more freelance positions and smaller workplaces. In turn, this results in less collective action among workers, Harwood said.

“The idea of the collective voice isn’t dead, it’s going to change its form.”

Watch an interview about trends in workplace dissent with Harwood below, or if you can’t see it, click on the headline of this post to view.

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