UK: Soften the blow of strikes.

UK: Soften the blow of strikes. - The pros of contingency plans in case of industrial action.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The pros of contingency plans in case of industrial action.

Transport is one of the most vulnerable sectors to industrial action.

It is also a frequent target. Strikes can mean a large percentage of the workforce walking out and the product - a 9.15 flight to Miami - irretrievably lost. Add the damaging impact on a company's public profile through the direct impact on people's lives and there's good argument for management to make detailed contingency plans.

This was not lost on British Airways, which made elaborate plans to prepare for the recent three-day strike. 'Strikes do no one any good except your competitors, but if it's not feasible to avoid them, you also have to think of your customers and do everything possible to protect them,' says Mervyn Walker, director of human resources at BA. With this very much in mind, the airline trained managers and administrative staff at Heathrow in baggage handling and on the vehicles which tow aircraft into position.

In the end, however, it was the more-difficult-to-replace cabin crew who walked out instead at a calculated final cost to BA of some £200 million.

Faced with possible action this summer by members of the RMT transport union, London Underground's executive board has dusted off plans to replace station personnel with managers. Ann Burfutt, director of human resources at LU's parent company, London Transport, admits that LT carried out a review following last year's strike. However, she says that managers are no longer trained to operate trains during disputes as this 'was neither popular with the managers or the trades unions/train operators and was more likely to inflame than prevent the dispute'.

Four years ago Railtrack was hit by six months of strikes by signal workers.

The company prepared for the action by retraining ex-signalworkers who had become managers and providing rudimentary signalling courses for people in different jobs for the least complicated tasks. To pre-empt future problems, Paul Radley, employee relations manager at Railtrack, says: 'We have regular dialogue with trade unions and all matters in the employee relations framework are kept under regular review.' A diplomatic way of saying that the company is aware of its vulnerability to industrial action and is constantly seeking new contingency plans in case of disruption.

There is a limit to the effectiveness of such plans. A member of the board which controls south-east rail company Connex South Central where the timetable was recently cut to shreds by by train drivers' industrial action admitted that it was impossible to replace some key employees.

Comments one anonymous senior manager: 'When train drivers take action you can't drag people in from the street to replace them. We kept the service going as we could, but there is a limit.'

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