UK RAIL STRIKES: THE REPUTATIONAL RISK OF THE UNION BOOM
With an increasing amount of industrial action looming, Alberto Lopez Valenzuela, Founder & CEO of stakeholder intelligence firm alva examines the impact it has on reputation.
Today, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) began industrial action that will last three days and see whole swathes of the UK’s daily rail routes scrapped throughout the strike. The union action will see the UK literally grind to a halt for disgruntled train users. Simultaneously, the TSSA will ballot an additional 6,000 rail staff as the industrial dispute worsens. Throw into the mix the Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority having also jointly written to the UK airline industry, setting out specific expectations for the sector ahead of the so called ‘summer of discontent’ in the hope that May’s half term travel chaos won’t be repeated. The question must be asked: how has the UK’s transport sector seemingly imploded? Put simply, 2022 has become the year of the union boom and the reputational damage can not be underestimated.
The cornerstone of the RMT strike action is around employee pay, redundancies, and working conditions, and with the ever-growing cost of living crisis firmly in everyone’s minds, the RMT hopes the strike action will hammer home their points.
But will it be successful or cause further damage (reputationally, at least) for all involved?
There is no denying that a company’s brand is tainted by any issues surrounding workers’ pay structures and working conditions. It harms corporate reputations, employee engagement and the crucial recruitment drive. Additionally (and unlike strike action from the 1970s), social media will ensure messages (factual or otherwise) are spread at lightning speed. But with the threat of more strike action ahead of the summer break, will the public be so forgiving if it continues? Several factors are at play.
First, the pandemic has created a unique movement that UK employers are dealing with - ‘The Great Resignation’. This significant shift in the power dynamics in the workplace has left employers scrambling to retain and attract talent. The jobs market has been overhauled, employee confidence is at an all-time high and they have every reason to be confident.
New job openings have meant that if employees are unhappy where they work, there are plenty of options to move elsewhere and not settle for less than the pay and conditions they expect – so employee engagement has never been more important within a corporate structure.
While the recent shifts have generally been viewed as positive as they have resulted in employers providing better workplace environments for their staff, there has also been a resultant disruption caused by industrial action as workers demand more favourable conditions. Against this backdrop, it is not hard to see why RMT is so disgruntled and taking industrial action.
Second, the pandemic has forced us all to adapt to home-working, so not being able to get into the office for a few days may not have the full impact that RMT hopes it will, especially considering that post-pandemic rail travel is still down by 25%. Corporates have adapted their working practices and employee engagement strategies, and the various lockdowns have given them the time to iron out any issues - so will the three-day strike action really have the severe impact that many think it will? If not, does that mean RMT will take more excessive reputation-busting strike action later in the summer? It is too close to call right now.
Finally, while strikes can be effective, they are often a disaster both for employees and unions, and it remains to be seen if anyone is ‘winning’ right now in this saga.
Network Rail has already stated the planned strike action will cost £150 million and make any pay rises even harder to achieve.
To survive a strike, corporates need to adopt a secure strategy to manage losses, maintain productivity, crucially uphold reputation, and retain the employer-employee dynamic. Reputationally, it’s clear that for the UK’s rail industry things could not be worse. The likes of easyJet and BA, who are dealing with threatened strike action this summer, might do well to watch from a distance and take note on what does and doesn’t work.