Once again strikes are in the news – but are they just an old fashioned pressure tactic in negotiating terms?

It’s not just in the public sector that strikes over reforms to pension plans are taking place. Unilever is facing a rolling wave of strikes as Unions mobilise against reforms of its final salary pension scheme.

Unions such as Unite, the GMB and Usdaw have said the stoppages will hit production of a number of leading brands and products including Marmite, Flora, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, and PG Tips.

The strike action commences in the same week that strikes have been announced at tax offices and the National Gallery. The strikes at tax offices – timed to disrupt the January 31st self-assessment tax deadline – are directed at alleged privatisation of work at call centres and Inquiry offices. The strikes at the National Gallery are all about staff cuts.

From a negotiating point of view, strikes are a pressure tactic. This is a form of “push” behaviour – all about “my” agenda rather than “yours” in the negotiation.

There is nothing wrong with using “push” behaviour as long as it is used at the right time, and in the right way, when it can be most effective. Here’s some pointers on how to best implement ‘Push’ behaviour:

1. Don’t use pressures too early in a negotiation, or the other side won’t feel pressurised. If they are used near the end of a negotiation when the other side feels it has something to lose if the deal isn’t done, then pressures are far more likely to be effective. These strike actions feel like they may be coming too early in the respective disputes.

2. If pressure tactics like strikes are applied too early in the process then not only do they fail to yield a result but they will be perceived as just a power play which can be highly disruptive to the negotiation climate and make a positive outcome harder to achieve. The strikes at Unilever have been stridently condemned by Management as have the strikes at HMRC – a spokeswoman tartly remarking that “the project is not about outsourcing or replacing HMRC jobs. It is ultimately about finding ways to improve the service we provide to our customer”. If the tactic is instead applied nearer the end of a negotiation – e.g. close to a deadline – then the focus of the other side is more likely to be on how to save the deal.

3. Finally, pressure tactics like strikes are much more useful as a threat than they are once implemented. Once the threat is carried out, employers find work-arounds and often the impact of the strikes is less severe than Unions had anticipated or hoped. This then emboldens the employer side and makes it harder for the strikers to get what they wanted.

So, Unions would be better to keep their powder dry and threaten to strike rather than carrying out the strikes. Once the strikes have happened, they rather lose their power to demonise.