From winter of discontent back to more normal disputes?

Bus and train workers strike at central station in Belfast on Thursday.
The latest industrial action comes as legislation is to be debated which could lead to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive in the coming days.
Bus and train workers strike Bus and train workers on strike at Central Station in Belfast during the most recent industrial dispute. Picture: Colm Lenaghan

The thing about public sector pay disputes is that when they become politicised the less they are trade disputes, and although linked to pay obviously, the more tenuous and policy-based they become the more difficult they are to resolve.

It may sound counter-intuitive but there is more to resolving a pay dispute than throwing money at it. That is because the folly of short-termism has been exposed by an eon of single year budgets that simply displace that well kicked can a few more yards down the road.

The essence of sustainable pay deals and the old adage of “something for something” and strings attached are never far off everyone’s radar and yet the appeal of take the money and make do is never far away as the appeal of immediacy can sometimes overwhelm when the political pressure is on.

So very often pay deals are accompanied by words like – review, efficiencies, value for money, scope for rationalisations and other nomenclature that mean one thing to one side and another to another side. And so the merry-go-round of public sector reform returns to what is the perceived normal service.

The shockwaves of the mass day of public sector strike action continue to reverberate here as the tectonic plates of NI politics begin to move. Public support, political sympathy, media coverage and other commodities can often be in short supply once the mood music changes and election dates become the focus of attention.

To that extent the choreography, timing and strategy of disputes all become subservient to events (dear boy!) and the immediacy of events rests firmly in the realms of the crystal ball with local analysts second guessing, media commentators wringing out sources for all their worth, and employers and trade unions alike trying to play the hand they are dealt whilst asking the dealer for a better hand next time round.

Mark McAllister, director of employment relations services at the LRA.
Mark McAllister, director of employment relations services at the LRA. Mark McAllister, director of employment relations services at the LRA.

So what lessons do we bring with us from this winter of discontent? Well brinkmanship is an artform that is for sure, but stubbornness, regardless of where it resides, always has a limited shelf-life and in truth the former becomes the latter with only a matter of days often being the only distinction between the two.

As winter winds on and political winds change, the underlying desire for change seems palpable and whilst revolution is not on the cards reform might be, but what does that look like? In the world of industrial relations and disputes it may be a case of old wine new bottle and pining back for the good old days of normal disputes.

  • Mark McAllister is director of employment relations services at Labour Relations Agency NI