So, another strike has taken place by London Transport drivers on Boxing Day. This is the third year in a row that strike action has affected Boxing Day services and the dispute seems no closer to resolution. So who is boxing clever in this dispute and who is boxing themselves in?

The origin of the disagreement seems to be in the demand expressed by Aslef union members for an additional £250 to be paid to drivers who work on Boxing Day. London Transport maintains that salaries already include an element that reflects some bank holiday working.

It is impossible to know exactly what is going on inside this dispute, but some observations can be made which hold true whatever the internal dynamics of the argument

1) Firstly, there does not seem to be much regard being paid to the underlying motivations behind the dispute. London Underground seems very focused on not being seen to roll-over in response to Aslef’s financial demand, but a more important question is why is Aslef making that demand. Asking yourself why people want the things they want in a negotiation is always more constructive than just opposing them, because it opens up the possibility of resolving the dispute in other ways. Aslef drivers have apparently voted 9-1 in favour of strike action over each of the last 3 years, so whatever their motivation is, it seems deeply held.

From a distance a good bet would be that the dispute is about “recognition”. People often need acknowledgment in a negotiation – acknowledgement of their worth, of their feelings, of their aspirations. Once this is understood then other resolutions become possible. Paying extra for Bank Holiday work may be one way of measuring that recognition. But it is not the only way….

2) Secondly, the dispute does seem to reflect the latter-day sterility of strike action as a negotiation tactic. Strike action is much more effective as a threat than once it is carried out. As it is, the drivers have struck on three successive Boxing Days without causing London Underground to blink or causing overwhelming disruption. London Underground and shoppers have learned to work-around this eventuality – services on the Central, Bakerloo and Victoria line together with London’s 700 bus routes all seemed to take the strain. Aslef only represents 60% of drivers, so even if the strike is fully adhered to it is not going to bring London Underground to a halt. On this basis, the prospect of further strike action on January 18th or 25th does not seem likely to achieve a break-through. All it really does is give a public relations gift to London Undergound’s side of the dispute.

It is fine to use pressure selectively in the bargaining phase of negotiations, but not as the first and only weapon of choice.

3) Thirdly, the wrangle, like many industrial disputes before it, is characterised by much megaphone negotiation which is designed to influence public opinion rather than the other party. Howard Collins, London Underground’s Chief Operating Officer said that Aslef had “demonstrated a complete disregard for our customers” and that the action was “scandalous” and “an attempt to hold Londoners to ransom”. An Aslef spokesman countered “There is clearly a major problem, but London Underground refuses to deal with it or even treat it seriously”. Aslef General Secretary, Mick Whelan, said it was “beyond belief that management cannot make an offer that achieves [Aslef’s] reasonable assurances”, and the Aslef website suggests that management has “sat on its hands and offered nothing constructive – the action is their failure.”

The problem with this kind of public negotiating is that it inflames emotions – nobody likes to be referred to in such contemptuous terms in private and the effect is even worse when the accusations are made publicly. This inevitably hardens positions, which in turn makes it more difficult to achieve a compromise without one party or the other losing face.

It also means that whilst their energies are being directed outwards as part of the blame-game, the parties are not looking inwards at their disagreement and focusing on ways to break the deadlock… Who is on the other team? What kind of person are they? Do they like lots of choices or a linear process when they make decisions? Do they work from their head or their heart when they negotiate? Do they make decisions impulsively or over a longer period?

Understanding and working with the behavioural patterns of the other negotiator is a cardinal rule for getting more of what you want. The two parties would do better to impose on themselves a news embargo until the next proposed strike date of January 18th, and use all that energy to try to understand and influence the other negotiator(s) rather than blaming them in public for the dispute.