ANALYSIS: ISSUES MANAGEMENT; Union dinosaurs shun new style PR tactics

Does the recent escalation in industrial action mean that the unions have now turned their backs on modern communications methods to get their point across to management?

Does the recent escalation in industrial action mean that the unions

have now turned their backs on modern communications methods to get

their point across to management?

Another full bus sails past your stop on tube strike day and you realise

you’re now an hour late for that meeting. Then, when you finally arrive,

there are no letters on your desk thanks to a postal workers’ dispute.

On such days one can be forgiven for bemoaning a return to the bad old

days of British industrial strife.

In July the British Airways pilots union BALPA called off its strike at

the 11th hour. But the mail dispute continues and rail workers are now

threatening to join tube drivers in escalating action nationwide.

Such events are far from typical in recent years. On the contrary

there’s been much talk of unions moving away from perceived ‘strong arm

tactics’ to a new era of corporate campaigning. For years US unions have

been employing high-profile media campaigns to achieve their aims and

more recently their UK counterparts have recognised that there’s more

than one way to skin a (corporate fat) cat.

In March 1994, the TUC described public affairs and PR activity as ‘at

the heart of the TUC’s relaunch’. A new department was dedicated solely

to campaigning, political lobbying and PR.

This year has also seen major unions turning to mainstream lobbyists.

The NUT hired Ian Greer Associates to handle its parliamentary affairs

and the GMB brought in Westminster Strategy. The precedent was set last

year by the Communications Workers Union (CWU), whose use of internal

communications, effective press work and parliamentary activity - with

the help of Lowe Bell Political - played a key part in the defeat of the

Government’s plan to privatise the Post Office. But now the CWU is one

of the unions contributing to what journalists are calling the ‘summer

of discontent’.

Are we returning to the disruption of the 1970s? And is the PR-led

approach to be thrown out with the (uncollected) rubbish?

‘I don’t think so,’ says Keith Bill, managing director of Union

Communications and adviser to more than 40 unions over the last ten

years. He believes the current wave of disruption is no more than

coincidence and that the trend to adopt modern communications methods


‘We have always tried to get our clients to play down strike action and

try other things,’ he says. ‘However short, sharp strikes combined with

public affairs can be very effective. It can help keep focus on an


One Sunday national transport correspondent says: ‘We are dealing with a

new generation of individuals in the labour movement. Like New Labour,

the unions are fielding executives with combined political and

communications savvy.’

So what has happened with the current tube strike? There’s little

evidence here that the tube drivers unions - RMT and ASLEF - are getting

their messages across.

Another national transport correspondent says: ‘The rail unions haven’t

done that badly considering they are the ones taking the disruptive

action. However the reaction of the public is unsurprisingly one of

animosity on strike days and there is a risk of the unions losing

support as the action drags on.’

He also suggests that we are seeing the death throes of some union

dinosaurs. It may be significant that many on the RMT’s national

executive are a long way from the media darlings of New Labour. A number

have left the Labour Party for Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party,

including assistant general secretary and chief negotiator in this

dispute Bob Crow.

The RMT and ASLEF have just two communications staff between them and

RMT press officer Laurie Harris admits there has been little in the way

of proactive PR. He says: ‘We have been largely reactive, although

things are shifting. We did use the media to embarrass London

Underground into talks at ACAS.’

Communications experts believe the rail unions would do well to de-

politicise the strike if they are to gain public approval. Keith Bill

suggests a broad coalition of consensus is essential to victory in the

current environment: ‘The CWU’s anti-privatisation campaign shows what

can be achieved through galvanising a broad spectrum of support.’

However in its current industrial dispute, the CWU is fighting a growing

politicisation of the issue. This wasn’t helped last week, when the

agreement that joint general secretary Alan Johnson had reached with

Post Office managers at ACAS was rejected by his national executive.

The Government seized the opportunity for political point scoring with

President of the Board of Trade Ian Lang renewing the threat of

privatisation and further anti-strike legislation. CWU head of

communications Julia Simpson says: ‘We are resisting being drawn into

political sabre rattling. The CWU is used to talking rather than hitting

the streets. There had been no postal strike action for a decade.’

She points out that there is now a good deal on the table and that a

settlement should come soon. But what if it does drag on, the post

continues to be disrupted and the CWU begins to lose the PR battle?

‘Then we would concentrate on explaining our message to the public, says

Simpson. ‘We would use human interest stories in the press to show

examples of a postman’s work.’

Like Bill, Simpson thinks it is crucial to broaden the issue and that

unions must put the worker at the forefront, rather than the union

executive standing outside the metaphorical factory gates.

The CWU should reap the benefits of its more enlightened communications

approach, but it does have another advantage in appealing to the public

conscience. After all it is easier to create sympathy for the

traditional community postie than the solitary work of the underground

train driver.

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