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
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
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