Expert comment
5 min read

Negotiating industrial disputes

Look at the UK industrial relations landscape at present and – for those that remember – you would be forgiven for being reminded of the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent. 

With rising inflation, a cost of living crisis and a predicted economic recession for the whole of 2023, more and more unions are looking towards industrial action as a means of affecting change and protecting their members’ livelihoods. From railways to airlines, ports, barristers, mail and bin collections, the British public can expect significant disruption over the next few months.  

Yet, what lessons can be drawn from a negotiation perspective and how can unions and employees, and employers and management find common ground and effective agreements. While every dispute comes with its own characteristics, set of complexities and history, here are some general pointers.

1. Keep talking and do not let relationships get toxic

We always argue that strong relationships and trust are the cornerstone of successful negotiated agreements – not only in getting the deal done but also ensuring that it is implementable and sustainable. So, try not to let things get personal and try to separate what are often highly complex and often emotive issues from the individual relationships. 

How can this be achieved? Be open and straightforward. Be honest with your answers and what you can and cannot give away. And try and look at the issue from your counterpart’s perspective – more of this later.

2. Never underestimate the importance of fairness

One key element of relationships is the notion of fairness - especially if you are likely to be negotiating with each other again. People just have a natural aversion to injustice.

Do you think you are being respected? Do you think you are being listened to? Do you think the process is fair? When it comes to negotiation, the ability for all parties to frame issues around fairness can be very powerful. 

3. Make sure all parties are involved – even if some are reluctant! 

Negotiations can only be truly successful if ALL parties are at the table. In the rail negotiations, for example, rail operators have little flexibility as they are part of a complex franchise system where the government holds the purse strings. The result is that no deal can be ultimately successful without the involvement and agreement of the government. 

While the government may have strong political reasons for not actually negotiating directly with the unions, it is important to be clear that they are a negotiating party whether they like it or not. 

4. Look to expand the issues and do not think in terms of winning and losing

Ultimately, a sustainable agreement can only be achieved if it is a mutually satisfactory outcome for both sides. That is why thinking in terms of winners and losers is not helpful.

The negotiations which tend to fail are also the ones where there is one binary issue – say pay. While it is unrealistic to think that pay is not at the heart of these disputes, the more you can expand the negotiation to cover other issues – pensions, holidays, working hours, rosters, future redundancies, overtime etc – the more opportunity for an agreement.

5. Dial down the rhetoric and understand your counterpart’s pressures

One of the key goals of parties in nationwide strikes is to win the public relations battle and the hearts of minds of the public. That is all well and good. Negotiators understand that and there will be times when each side needs to keep their stakeholders on board.

However, do not let the rhetoric become too adversarial – using emotive language such as ‘bullied’, ‘hoodwinked’ or ‘held hostage’, for example – as it makes it that much more difficult to sit down at the negotiating table again. What is particularly important is to understand your counterpart’s pressures and the stakeholders they need to keep on board and if you can help them in this, do. 

For union leaders, for example, it may be the shop stewards who are essential to the implementation of agreements. One useful exercise is to write your counterpart’s ‘victory speech’. That way you can really put yourself in their shoes and understand their constituencies. And remember always try to avoid an obsession with positions or ‘our rights’– what we or they want – and focus on interests – why we or they want it. Through this approach, you can understand what motivates the other party.

6. Consider bringing in third parties

Sometimes when positions get so polarised, the only option is to bring in third parties. By this I don’t mean an arbitrator who has the authority to impose an agreement but an independent mediator whose sole objective is to facilitate a negotiated agreement. A third party perspective can play a crucial role in looking past positions, rights and impasses and prioritising the needs, desires and interests that underlie each side’s position.

Negotiating effective and sustainable agreements to end industrial disputes can be incredibly challenging. Take a cool, calm approach and use some of the tools above, and your chances are likely to increase!  


Paul is Programme Director of the Oxford Programme on Negotiation which he has helped to design and develop since its inception in 2004.