Food shortages after Brexit? Mediation and football could save the day...

Our Mediation Consultant, Pete Colby, recounts some industrial action he was asked to be involved in within the food industry.

Listening to much of the concern about Brexit with concerns around panic stockpiling of various consumer products made me recall my own involvement in food supply shortages and whether the answer could be the same - a good dose of mediation.

I was asked to mediate within the food industry where demanding customers such as Tesco, Marks & Spencers and Sainsburys were about to have their supply starved (pardon the pun) due to strike action by employees. The reason for the strike? It was all about pay - negotiations had broken down. The management team and the Trade Union were at loggerheads - employees were so incensed they took industrial action. 

The company were fuming - it was typical of the 'ungrateful employees' that they had. They had a history of employee relations issues but they hadn’t seen an actual strike since the 1970’s - and they’d never taken action over pay in their 100 year history. It was a new low as far as management were concerned - the employees needed to understand how lucky they were to have jobs, and if the company lost customers it would mean job losses - but would they listen? No!

It was the most selfish act the company had seen - they wanted people sacked to make place for others who wanted to work and would be grateful. It’s fair to say that the management team were a little unhappy!

The employees were equally fuming - they had no trust for management anyway and now they’d been ‘underhand’ in the pay negotiations - never had the Trade Union seen such despicable behaviour from management. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back - management needed to learn a lesson and the employees were determined to teach them one by striking when it hurt them the most - at peak production times.

It’s always fun going into such an environment and talking to each party - normally it starts with getting a whole lifetime of issues off people's chests, which was the case here. This started to give a subtle hint that relationships weren’t great (as you can tell I’m a very perceptive person!), but what was the real issue here? After a few hours of cathartic emotional reactions about the past, we got down to the real issue.

Pay negotiations took the same route every year - employees submitted a pay claim via the Trade Union with a big ‘shopping list’ (nothing unusual there), management rejected the claim but tabled a 'best and final offer'. The Trade Union then reacted stating how insulted their members felt by such an offer - eventually a 'final-final offer' was made by the company. The Trade Union then balloted their members explaining what a hard battle it'd been, recommended acceptance and employees then voted to accept. It was simple - it worked every year!

OK, sounds fairly traditional if not the leanest of processes - so why it was so different this year? This had to be a question for management. They explained that they needed to change the culture in the organisation - they were aware that employees didn’t trust them - their employee engagement survey confirmed this - so they wanted to do things differently.

They had a new senior manager and what a great opportunity it was to ask him to lead the pay talks and start the cultural change...

The Company formulated (as usual) their absolute maximum mandate - but what they decided to do differently this year was to not ‘play the game’ of pretending their offer was the highest they could go - they wanted to build trust and declare their upper level in an open and transparent way. So, the new manager explained to the Trade Union that he was driving a different approach - he didn’t want protracted discussions and he wanted to show that they could trust him, so he was going straight to the very maximum mandate that he was authorised to offer and this is what he tabled - it was “all cards on the table" - a completely "open book" approach.

The new manager was appalled at the complete contempt that the Trade Union showed by having the cheek to come back with a counter-offer of 0.5% more than the offer he had already told them was the absolute maximum. In his angst he told them to take it or leave it and there was no more discussion to be had. They chose to leave it - he was flabbergasted. The employees balloted and decided to strike.

Being a completely impartial person I was able to ask many simple basic questions, such as:-
•    Why did they (the managers) think the Trade union would believe it really was any different this year?
•    Did employees understand how much money they’re losing each week holding out for a 0.5% increase and what the payback period would be?
•    Were the wives, husbands and partners of employees happy to lose the money each week in the hope of an extra 0.5%?
•    Why was the offer really so bad (it was more than RPI)?
•    Did employees really want to put jobs at risk over this? Where else would they work - how much did other companies pay?
•    What did customers think? How would they react to a lack of supply?
•    How happy was the new manager in his role? How did the Company help him to understand the culture and the people? How had he helped himself?
•    What training did managers have in negotiating and working with Trade Unions?
•    What would 0.5% extra pay do to profit margins? Did employees understand about profit margins?
•    Did the Trade Union think the first offer was more generous than they thought? (the answer to this was “yes - but it’s all about the principle”).

What did I do? Not a lot really - I just helped each party to reflect on what they were telling me and got them to share some of the reasons why they were so angry - at first in separate rooms, but then jointly to each other in a confidential, open and honest way.

When I got the Business leader and the Trade Union leader together I spent the first half an hour or so not even talking about strike action or pay - I wanted them to know each other as people - where had they worked before? Where did they live? What made them buzz outside work? Turns out they were both Nottingham Forest season ticket holders - they started to almost like each other a bit once they knew this. Probably the hardest job I had in the whole meeting was stopping them talking (or should I say gushing) about Brian Clough and the years of European supremacy. Yawn! (I'm a Doncaster Rovers fan so any talk of European football is irrelevant to me).

When they finally moved away from football I helped them to look at the problem objectively and from each other’s perspective. After an hour or so they came up with a proposed solution which they could both agree was a suitable compromise. The manager would have to gain authorisation from the business, and the Trade Union Leader would have to re-ballot members.

The manager went first - he did two things. Firstly, he gained authorisation for a 0.25% increase in pay. He also gave his own personal commitment to changing the trust between employees and managers and proposed a new routine of employee engagement that he would personally drive. He confirmed that if he didn't deliver on his promises things would get worse. We agreed I would help him to achieve this as he (finally) acknowledged that it was the first time he’d led a large team.

The Trade Union leader committed to recommending the revised offer and also offered (without being asked) to give his personal positive views of the new manager - not only was he a Forest fan, but he also thought he was a genuine and decent guy who’s worth giving a chance to, and it was to his credit he was trying to build trust.

The end short term result of course was calling off strike action and customer deliveries were unaffected, saving both the company and the employees a lot of money that neither could afford to lose. I continued to support the manager in his employee engagement programme but didn’t need to for long, as he turned out to be a bit of a natural.
Most importantly, this was a real catalyst for some cultural change as it started the foundations for much better employee relations - there were still plenty of issues, of course there were, but they were dealt with in a more trusting environment so solutions were easier to find and employees became involved.

Mediation is not about the positions taken, it’s about the people and their interests. Too often a formal process (grievance, tribunal or even a strike) becomes the ‘judge’ of who was right or wrong, when most of the time if people can be helped to understand each other and why they’re behaving the way they do the people involved will come up with solutions - they just need a helping hand. One of the best things about these solutions is they have much better chances of sustainment - impose a solution on people and it’s unlikely to be a long-term fix.
Strikes me (pardon another pun) that Brexit taking a similar approach by taking the interests of the real people into account, rather than entrenched stay or leave positions, may be the answer to a more sustained future - either in Europe like Nottingham Forest (many, many years ago may I add) or away from Europe like Doncaster Rovers (although European champions in waiting).

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