Conflict Resolution and Collective Bargaining. The dispute between South Western Railway (SWR) and National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT)

Term Paper, 2020

13 Pages, Grade: Pass





General overview of employee relations & Trade Union:

Collective Bargaining & Negotiation:

The Dispute:

Implications to the dispute on Psychological Contract and Employee Engagement:

Alternative strategies to conflict resolution:





With the current number of people employed in the UK standing at 32m records of the employment rate are revealed at 76% rate (UK Labour Force survey, 2020). Aligned to this such employer-employee relations within the workforce are crucial within the HRM context but also shaping wider organisational reputation. Whilst CIPD (2018) ‘people profession’ recognises employee relations (ER) as one of key specialist disciplines across HR adding value towards managing and building a culture of trust through organisational related procedures becomes crucial. Yet common instances of collective disputes and workplace conflicts between management and employees can also emerge with ONS (2019) noting UK employees experiencing a total 278,000 lost working days through stoppages from labour disputes. This assignment intends to review the case study dispute between South Western Railway (SWR) and National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) by critically engaging related theories surrounding employee relations aswell as the collective bargain and negotiation aligned to this. The implications and conduct surrounding the dispute on employee engagement and psychological contract will be further explored and followed by a critical discussion on alternative strategies to resolving conflict. A conclusion will be made with recommendations offered to avoid future disputes.

General overview of employee relations & Trade Union:

The concept behind employee relations can be best described as the alignment between people experience with organisational values through “creating and delivering practices which develop and maintain a positive working relationship with an organisation and its people” (CIPD, 2019). As the relationship develops this becomes a practical significance with CIPD (2019) noting other aspects where building an employee-manager relationship through mutual trust becomes key to generating high employee engagement levels with potential to enhance business outcomes and improve workforce well-being. Blyton et al (2017) also echoes this whereby organisations are increasingly striving towards a ‘work-based society’ through incorporating new age values such as work being treated as a source of dignity through pursuing enhanced employee voice and transparency. Yet considerations to recognise the conflicted interests emerging behind the employment relations dynamic is also important with Edward (1995) identifying this as the first level of analysis ‘within the analytical perspective on rules’ when balancing both the conflict and co-operation arising within the workplace. It can be suggested that whilst issues can remain when aligned to how one’s productive labour are being utilised-involving employees to participate in key decision-making processes helps not only avoiding workplace conflict but also fulfill a sense of purpose to foster a respectful environment amongst management.

The contributions of Trade Unions (TU) remain a key feature within ER where their role ‘is dedicated to serving the best interests of its members, protecting workers rights and improving the quality of life by negotiating with employers’ and ‘in particular through collective bargaining’ (Unite, 2012). From the pay bargaining context, it has been generally viewed that TU’s have led employers adopting anti-union strategies in response to being disfavored however with effective consultation and communication with management TU’s presence have nevertheless been useful to effectively resolve conflict.

Collective Bargaining & Negotiation:

The concepts behind collective bargaining (CB) and negotiation are viewed as key concepts within ER with William (2010) noting their role in determining pay & other related benefits of sick pay, holidays flexible working hours etc. Negotiation is “the process in which two parties with differences that they need to resolve, try to reach an agreement through exploring options and exchanging offers” (Fells, 2012). With the TU being a collective body negotiating on behalf of employees regarding employees' terms and conditions of contract with employer representatives such process is known as collective bargaining. According to Beatrix & Webb in Bendix (2001:3) CB is defined as “ method whereby trade unions could maintain and improve their members terms and conditions of employment". It is this where Rosenthal (2012) emphasises such importance as a human right to properly classify workers with the oppurtunity to bargain collectively whereby having unions in place prevents employers from abusing its power and reinforcing the wider ILO (International Labour Organisation) Conventions 97 & 98 in place where ‘workers have the right to belong to a trade union and the right to collective bargaining in any employment relationship (ILO, 2016). Therefore, from an international human rights context promoting CB becomes a duty and enables TU to become the vehicle to raise employee voice and tip the power balance between employee and employers. It is this where CB can hugely contribute improvements to the surrounding nature of ER.

The Dispute:

SWR is a railway company responsible for running services across some of the UK's busiest stations such as London Waterloo, Bristol, Reading Exeter, Surrey, Wiltshire and Portsmouth. Over the past two years SWR have been engaging in an ongoing dispute with RMT regarding the role of train guards whereby in March 2017 plans were announced by SWR to introducing a move towards enabling driver-controlled operated doors on its new trains to certain routes. With SWR plans aiming towards train technology advancement to boosting efficiency this meant guards were not needed to close doors (BBC, 2020). Much of this was designed to encourage a consumer-centric approach to remain competitive in industry whilst also saving time. Yet RMT fears that rolling out driver-only operated trains and removing guard role would compromise passenger safety. With guards being highly trained to perform 35 train-related duties such as emergency procedures to fire evacuations, reducing anti-social behaviour and offering help to medical emergencies such risks are likely to be raised if these areas are unavailable. With SWR suggested changes to driver-controlled doors RMT argues that less qualified people will be replacing qualified guards (BBC, 2017). Yet SWR maintains on each train- a 2nd person will be included with a ‘safety-critical’ role with the no.of guards intended to be increased with plans to widen its service provision to running each route. Implementing/training skill development will also be made for customer-facing staff.

SWR proposed a framework agreement to RMT by guiding constructive talks to avoiding unnecessary industrial action through covering three main agenda including the 2nd person ‘critical safety role’ and the required competencies aligned to this, undertaking a safety risk assessment to be completed with involvement from both SWR and RMT representatives on a station by station basis with regards to utilising its new automated technology in place. Thirdly both parties reaching a disruption policy agreement ensuring passengers are continuously moving during service disruption. Yet RMT are not convinced by SWR’s propositions and insist on the possibility that guards future role will be dissolved if the organisation decides doing so to favour its profit driven agenda (Calder, 2019). With success to similar previous dispute to guard role occurring with Greater Anglia, RMT are nevertheless convinced that such demands can be achieved through combining serious and genuine negotiations with strike actions in place (RMT, 2018). With the dispute still ongoing and no resolution reached between both parties a 27-day strike action took place in December 2019 by RMT against SWR causing passenger travel disruption through delays affecting 600,000 people (BBC, 2020). Whilst there was a two day talk with ACAS taking place in December 2019 during the strike action no agreement was reached with both parties accusing each other ‘of having no interest in resolving the issue’ yet both remain open to further negotiation (Topham, 2019).

Implications to the dispute on Psychological Contract and Employee Engagement:

With the dispute occurring over the past two years and little movement from both parties to reach a mutual agreement such conflict within a collective bargaining situation in the form of strikes and failing negotiations have cost both employees and employers psychological contracts. CIPD (2020) defines psychological contracts (PC) as the “implied terms to individuals' expectations, beliefs, ambitions and obligations as perceived by the employer and the work”. PC’s are crucial to driving employee relations and wider organisational behaviour to influencing employee daily behaviour and a positive outcome being achieved between employee and employers when there is a balanced exchange perceived from the employee’s work output. However, when conflicting interests emerge in ER distrusting management is inevitable if employees are conscious their interests are subordinated/ignored. Thompson (2003) notes the fragility occurring between employers and employees surrounding the tension between the level of stability aligned to the psychological contract and organisational desire to downsize. With no clarity to guaranteeing commitment that train guard role will remain in future this becomes a problem because with SWR being profit-driven and owned by private people such measures of increased ticket prices whilst cutting labour costs(i.e. train guards) in favour of ‘efficiency’ reflects existing liberal market economies where focus to achieving increased shareholder returns are ideal to protecting their own interests. With strike action occurring this perpetuates consequences to being re-nationalised in the future and losing £137m, aswell as the declined performance and failure to align consumer satisfaction through continued delays & poor infrastructure (Topham, 2020; BBC, 2020).

However, such losses highlight the importance industrial action brings when employee expectations to future roles are not guaranteed. With employees feeling their psychological contract being violated and their job security threatened ‘disengagement of employees might lead to unproductive behaviour’ (CIPD, 2019) and participation to counterproductive workplace behaviours likely to occur with the strike being evident with such voluntary behaviour negatively impacting SWR to losing profit and risk being re-nationalised. Such dispute implications can also extend to individual indiscipline such as absenteeism (Dix et al, 2009). Deskilling train guards to full automation and limiting oppurtunities necessary for professional skill development reflects the restrictive environments reinforced by SWR approach to possibly considering guard roles as ‘unskilled’ whilst ignoring other areas of importance of passenger safety aligned to this (Fuller & Unwin, 2004). Train guards may also perceive that changing descriptions to their role may lead to a contract breach and with added uncertainty-feelings of insecurity may develop if they expect/perceive their bonuses attached being removed as a result of their strike involvement. Therefore, such existing challenges faced when intersecting expectations highlights SWR need to accounting employee expectations towards proposed changes.

There are various steps to improving ER to preventing and managing workplace disputes. With both parties seeming reluctant to settle with RMT balloting six times to favouring industrial section ACAS assistance can be explored. ACAS is a service designed to provide dispute resolution through various methods including collective conciliation, arbitration and mediation. With the RMT (2019) requesting ACAS for conciliation-implementing this method would seem a suitable option whereby an independent conciliator can foster flexible and informal discussions aiming an agreed solution for both parties. The other option of mediation through a win-win approach to conflict resolution can also be considered with ACAS confirming its effectiveness of 80% success rate. If both parties continue to fail to reach an agreement, arbitration can be used as a last resort where an arbitrator offers binding recommendations for both parties based on presented evidence. However, this is subject to SWR & RMT agreeing to this.

Alternative strategies to conflict resolution:

Striking a joint-partnership committee between RMT & SWR can also be another way to better manage ER in the future going forward. Involving RMT to consultative strategic decision-making of structured changes may be a better way to prevent future escalation of renationalising risk and industrial action from arising. We this reflected in the success behind Barclays-Unifi partnership agreement in 2000 whereby genuine consultation on strategic decision-making and a joint change implementation with Barclays senior management were key to effectively represent staff interests. Developing new relations meant they were able to share a set of agreed principles to ‘secure and promote the long-term success of Barclays’ whilst promoting ‘the interests of employees’ through enabling oppurtunity to raising staff voice and securing a system in place to enable workplace representation and access to senior decision makers (Wills, 2004). Therefore, translating Barclays successful partnership to SWR & RMT dispute can be used as a benchmark to adding strength and restoring labour-capital balance by striking an early partnership through consultation. With a better deal likely struck for train guards and for RMT to enabling SWR support through widening it’s coverage/role to extend support in a way that protects staff interests (i.e. raising common issues aligned to their agenda) this can be beneficial. It also offers SWR scope to understand the impacts behind changes influencing better decisions to delivering intended positive train services to customers whilst minimising future change obstructions (i.e. strikes & renationalising consequences). An improved culture can be generated on ER at SWR senior management can foster a mutual respect and a valued staff voice amongst train guards. However, considerations need to be made that if a collective agreement came about through this method RMT must be careful to sustain their independence and legitimacy in future whereby the European Directive being implemented may encourage SWR to engage further trade union consultations (Ackers et al, 2004). In other words, if partnership relations with RMT are already strong & positive- developing new union-based consultative mechanisms through implementing dual channels may lead employee voice being diluted with regards to consulting, engaging and scrutinising corporate-related information to possible corporate structure changes. Such legitimacy can be questioned if employees are instructed to agree and sign confidentiality clauses from disclosing information to the public. Therefore, retaining control and developing capacity to independently scrutinise organisational choices becomes crucial to delivering improvements on employee conditions.


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Conflict Resolution and Collective Bargaining. The dispute between South Western Railway (SWR) and National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT)
University of Brighton
Msc Human Resource Management
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
conflict, resolution, collective, bargaining, case, study, report, south, western, railway, national, union, rail, maritime, transport
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Anonymous, 2020, Conflict Resolution and Collective Bargaining. The dispute between South Western Railway (SWR) and National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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