Originally posted March 2014
The sudden death of union leader Bob Crow this week has thrust industrial relations back into the business and political spotlight. Both political allies and foes immediately began the process of mythologising him (as an aside, the way in which we continue to elevate the recently dead to saints and gods in the manner of the ancient Greeks and mediaeval Catholic church would make an interesting blog post, but this isn’t it)
The general consensus is that Bob Crow was a successful union leader because he took his personal principles into his professional life and refused to compromise them. I never met Mr Crow – though I have in the past dealt with his union, the RMT – but the most frequently cited evidence for his success is the position of his members working on London Underground. That to me suggests that the key to his achievements was not his personal values (though I’ve no doubt he had them) but his understanding of power relationships in work.
London Underground is a closed rail network (or rather a series of them) which operates separately from the rest of the UK’s railways. It is relied on by millions of Londoners to carry them to and from work. Consequently, a withdrawal of labour can cause massive inconvenience, and brings media and political pressure onto the organisation. The unions representing the workers in that business are therefore in a very strong position to maintain and improve conditions for their members because they have power on their side.
Contrast this with last year’s Grangemouth dispute (about which I blogged here). In that scenario, all the power was with the management who could and did threaten to close the plant if their demands weren’t agreed to. Interestingly, the resolution of the dispute – which involves £130m of investment in the plant – has arguably pushed the power back towards the workforce.
Power relationships don’t always have to involve unions. An individual employee with key technical, managerial or other skills can always extract a better deal from a company because the consequences of losing that individual have a damaging effect on the business overall. And in some areas of professional services, it’s not uncommon for an entire team to move from Company A to company B.
There’s a tendency these days for HR people to assume that all the power is with the employer, and that their task is to “align” employees with the employer’s objectives. But effective HR people need to understand where the power lies within the organisation – and plan and manage accordingly. Bob Crow is a good example of how to do that.