We are now in to November and the strikes scheduled for the end of this month show no sign of being averted.

What is happening in these negotiations?

These strikes were called following the TUC Conference, over changes in public sector pensions. Ministers insist the changes are needed to make schemes sustainable in the face of an ageing population.

TUC Boss Brendan Barber promised mass action at the time, with Unison, Unite, the GMB, the Fire Brigades Union and up to 10 other Unions all potentially involved. Mr. Barber said “we are absolutely committed to justice for the millions of workers we represent” and GMB’s Brian Sutton referred to it as “The Fight of our Lives”.

The rhetoric shows no sign of diminishing, with Barber quoted during the week as saying “we are at a historic turning point” and widening the front line of the debate to include complaints about the Government’s deficit cutting programme generally. He told his audience at Liverpool University that the Government’s programme was directed at the “poorest and most vulnerable” rather than those with the “broadest shoulders” who should be bearing tax rises and declared that the cuts were not borne out of necessity but out of “ideology and the electoral timetable”.

This row has simmered since Lord Hutton’s pensions review was published in March, and advocated the raising of the age at which pensions can be drawn as well as changing pension calculations from a final salary basis to an “average salary” basis.

Missing Process

One issue has been that there has been no “process” of negotiation between the parties. Negotiations normally involve 7 stages;

– Preparation
– Climate setting
– Exploring needs
– Finding concessions or “coinage” to meet those needs
– Bidding
– Bargaining
– Closing

In this case, the Pensions review and its outcome somewhat short-circuited the negotiation by starting with the “close” – the final decision. If stages are skipped and stakeholders are not involved in the outcome, then it is only to be expected that their attitude will be resentful and the climate of hostility that has resulted is therefore no surprise.

Normally, when stages in a negotiation are skipped, the parties have to go back and revisit the stages they have missed. In this case that would suggest that the parties need to go back, re-set the climate and re-examine the emotional needs on each side which underpin the dispute.

However, there may be reasons why that is not happening here…

Absence of Union Unity

Firstly, the Union side may not be unified enough to be able to negotiate collectively. At best the TUC is a federation of Union groupings with widely disparate memberships and different agendas. Informed sources suggests there is some ‘jockeying’ for influence between the Unions involved, and certainly there is a wide range of philosophy between protesting over pension adjustments for members, and a general outburst against the Government’s economic policies.

Negotiating against divided teams is always particularly tricky, and if there is daylight between the views of the negotiating elements on the Union side this may be one explanation as to why little progress is currently being made.

Willingness to Negotiate?

Secondly, sources on the Government side indicate that there may not be much inclination to negotiate in any event. The Government’s attitude to this issue in the first place will have been that the most important thing is to address the public sector deficit. Failure to do this, the Government rightly feels, could very quickly result in the UK treading down the same tortuous road as Italy, Portugal and the other members of the Eurozone, and grappling with a constant state of crisis in the financial markets.

Furthermore, the Government may feel that among the public at large there is a very ambivalent view of the planned Union action. Everybody is feeling the pinch right now, and the mood in the private sector may well be that the public sector employees have had it pretty good over the last decade, as government spending spiraled.

Many private sector employees have no pension protection so they may be somewhat unsympathetic to the Union position. On this basis, the Government may correctly feel that the Unions don’t have a large amount of “authority” bargaining power in this negotiation, as they don’t enjoy national support. A negotiation can only proceed if both parties want to negotiate, so if the Government feels it doesn’t have to engage, then we may yet arrive at November 30th without a resolution being reached.

Stand by then to see if the bargaining power shifts one way or the other once strikes get underway….