Virgin on the Ridiculous

This tweet – and the responses to it – has been bouncing around my Twitter timeline over the last day or so. 

It’s been used as an example of the incompetence of management of railways in the UK; as a case for the renationalisation of the rail industry where profit isn’t the motive; and as a warning against privatisation in the NHS (where apparently Virgin are keen to become involved). Even a national newspaper weighed in

Sadly however, the real reasons why this problem occurred is more complex and mundane, and comes back to the Cinderella of HR, Employee Relations.

There are three factors at work here: Firstly, being a train driver is not an unskilled task that anyone off the street can do. So Virgin can’t just simply recruit to fill its staffing gaps without planning for the extensive training period required (nor, as a passenger, would I want any old individual sitting in the cab of a 140mph Pendolino as it hurtles along busy train routes). Nor are there vast numbers of qualified drivers sitting around twiddling their thumbs in the hope that someone from Virgin Trains will give them a call.

Secondly, train drivers hours are – again as a passenger, quite rightly – restricted, originally by the wonderfully named Hidden Regulations, with maximum length of shift and minimum rest periods, and now by agreement between management and unions in accordance with the Working Time Regulations.  So even if someone wanted to work overtime they might not be allowed to.

And finally, it’s because management and unions have – for many years, certainly back to the days of nationalised British Rail – have had agreements in place to allow drivers to supplement their income by working overtime on their rest days. Staffing rosters have been designed so that there is always overtime available. (I believe it dates back to the 1970s where people got around the Government-imposed pay restraint policies during a time of high inflation by ensuring that overtime would make up the difference – but if you know differently please let me know).

And most of the time, the system works well. Drivers are generally willing and able to work overtime and the train operators are happy to maintain good employee relations by ensuring it is available. Occasionally, as happened at the weekend, the system fails, but the industrial strife that would be caused by trying to ensure it never happened would be far more disruptive.

The Balance of Power

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.

There are also historical examples – the success of the miner’s strikes in the early 1970s, compared with their failure in the mid 1980s, is simply that power had shifted from worker to employer.

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.