By Marcus Leach

In the wake of Vince Cable’s speech today at the GMB union’s conference, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) urges Government to build public sector leadership and management skills and improve communication and consultation to help stave off the worst effects of strike action to come.

In a paper published in August last year, Developing Positive Employee Relations, Mike Emmott, CIPD employee relations adviser, argued that a sustained focus by Government and public service employers on improving the leadership skills of public sector management, providing meaningful consultation opportunities for staff and more effective communication, would help win hearts and minds. The report sets out the need to build a more engaged workforce, despite the turbulence of change.

The report, however, also set out the higher stakes policy options the Government should be considering to protect public services if there is an upsurge in industrial unrest, including requiring a threshold of those eligible to vote supporting strike action before it can go ahead, rather than just a simple majority of those voting.

Other policy options open to the Government set out in the paper include legislation to require parties involved in public service disputes to take part in compulsory arbitration prior to industrial action and changes to balloting requirements to ensure ballots are counted separately for each employer.

“Trade unions have the power to disrupt only if employees trust them more than they trust management. The fundamental need is not to ‘manage the trade unions,’ it is to manage the employment relationship and communicate the case for change," Mike Emmott, CIPD employee relations adviser, said.

“Government must strive to avoid heavy-handed action at all costs as it would mean any attempt at trying to lead through consensus had failed. Both Government and trade unions have heavy duty weapons available to them but neither has much to gain from deploying them, which is why Vince Cable is only warning that pressure to act may increase if damaging strikes proliferate, rather than actually proposing legislation now.

"Unions, Government, frontline workers and public alike have far more to gain from a strategy focused on building trust and avoiding conflict. The real action is far from the booing and heckling in the conference hall — it is in the front-line engagement between managers and employees and in the presumably mature conversations taking place quietly between ministers and unions.”