OPINION: Hot Issue - Should people who work for charities ever go on strike?

At last week's TUC conference, Stephen Bubb, head of Acevo, said charities represent the values of "consultation and partnership, not confrontation and threats". His comments follow a ballot in which RSPCA staff came within a few votes of a strike. Is it ever appropriate for charity workers to take strike action?

SUSAN OSBORNE, executive director of communications, Cancer Research UK

NO

Ours is a sector that prides itself on even-handedness and transparency, so for staff to even consider taking strike action shows a real breakdown in trust and communication.

That said, charities have to be careful that they don't trade on the goodwill of employees, many of whom might choose to work for an organisation because they believe in its cause.

This is particularly apparent, I believe, with a charity such as ours.

Cancer has probably touched the lives of most of our staff, so the people who are employed by Cancer Research UK are prepared to give maximum effort.

Loyalty like that is rarely seen in other sectors, and it shouldn't be treated lightly, or taken for granted. What happened at the RSPCA is probably unique. I can't recall a similar case of charity staff coming so close to strike action. That is really remarkable when you consider the diversity and size of our sector. I believe it should serve as a salutary lesson to us all.

CHRIS BALL, National Secretary Amicus

YES

Anyone would think they were just itching to do so! This really is a case of someone making a straw man and then attacking it. In my experience over 20 years of dealing with tricky issues in charities, Amicus members have been annoyed about many things, but have drawn up short of striking.

Sometimes they have expressed their displeasure differently, and used avenues that were at least as effective. But surely no-one is suggesting they should not be allowed to take strike action?

International Labour Organisation conventions on the right to organise apply universally. If charities want to interfere with human rights, they are going too far. Of course, no-one whose clients' safety depends on them turning out for work is going to strike frivolously. But there might be issues of safety or fundamental justice that mean a stoppage is the right thing. Chief executives in charities do have special responsibilities of fair treatment. However, these include not taking side-swipes or levelling insubstantial accusations at charity workers and their unions.

JOHN KIRKHAM, employee relations specialist, The Work Foundation

YES

The right to strike is a fundamental, internationally recognised freedom. But the cost of striking is well known, not least putting jobs and incomes in jeopardy.

For third sector workers, the dilemma of striking or not is often compounded by a crisis of conscience. Strikes can set back the organisation's mission, damage its reputation and create extra hardship for vulnerable members of society. This is a big issue for many individuals.

The solution is for employers to avoid actively putting their employees into this situation in the first place. Key to this is a collective voice in the organisation - whether it's a trade union or a formal staff forum.

This should be supported by a sensible, robust dispute resolution process to resolve disputes locally with those closest to the grievance, using conciliation or mediation services if necessary. Then, if relations start to decline, organisations could consider external arbitration.

Coupled with responsible leadership, this should ensure the organisation is discharging its responsibility to its staff, and, ultimately, its service users.

BEN KERNIGHAN, director of membership services, NCVO

YES

The right to strike is recognised as one of our fundamental civil liberties and is one of the first things to be attacked by repressive regimes around the world.

However, employee relations have to be very poor for strike action to occur. So in many ways strike action represents the failure either of staff representatives or management, or both, to do their jobs properly.

Union recognition agreements make it clear that strike action cannot be pursued unless all other reasonable options have been exhausted.

Most voluntary organisations take relationships with their employees seriously. The reason strikes are rare is not the immorality of considering industrial action to resolve a dispute, it is because it rarely comes to this in organisations in which employees and managers understand that when your business is to try and create a fairer society, good employee relations built on the principles of partnership and union representation should be priorities.

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