As the debate and rhetoric about the economy becomes more and more ingrained in our everyday discourse, it’s easy to get drawn into the blame game.

It’s the bankers, it’s the government, or it’s the public sector, and more recently “it’s the trade unions”. This has been particularly evident as the TUC meets this week in Brighton.

The recent press coverage on the latter has been pitched provocatively, evoking a picture of 1970s abandonment and 1980s political angst, widespread strikes and marches.  Headlines such as “the beast awakes”, “a new winter of discontent” and “three day weeks” paint a picture of a trade union leadership bent on destruction. As an employers organisation, it would be easy to jump on the band wagon, to point the finger and blame.  It feels like safe territory, but it would be wrong - so very wrong.  Finding out where people are going and walking in front of them is, in my view, the antithesis of leadership.  Our job  as leaders is to try and change and shape the context, not to simply respond to it by jumping on every band wagon.

Let’s just take a look at that mid-1970s analogy.  At that time we were closer to the end of the second world war then than we were to current day. Nowadays technology, communication, social attitudes, expectations and leadership are completely different and yet the rhetoric signals that we are about to step back in time.  Really? Unlikely.

In 2011, still in the midst of a recessionary period, and following a series of pay freezes and redundancies with rising unemployment, the economy lost 1.4 million working days due to industrial action. In 1974 it was more than 14 million days spread across the economy with a major impact on all key sectors. More than 10 times greater.

Despite the rhetoric that surrounds any TUC conferene, most trade unions no longer see industrial action as a first response.  Their members wouldn’t wear it.  They want dialogue and involvement and transparency from public and private sector employers.

In the NHS for a number of years we (and by “we” I mean the health service and the trade unions) have taken a partnership approach to employment relations.  Partnership is difficult to define, but we know what we mean by it.

Let’s take some examples of what working together means and how it has had a positive impact on progressive people management.  The NHS staff survey has been running for eight years.  It’s the largest survey in the world of staff, meaning we get the views from staff directly and not simply a trade union view.  The trade unions have highlighted issues to improve generally with the support and leadership of management.  These include:

  • violence towards staff
  • appraisal rates
  • equality and diversity training

Also included are broader issues such as skills development for lower paid staff, skill mix issues and apprenticeships.

They have put time, effort and energy into helping improve these aspects of staff experience on the basis that, as demonstrated by evidence, this will help improve patient experience.

The results over the survey’s eight years:

  • Violence from patients and relatives decreased from 11 to 7 per cent (still too high).
  • Appraisal rates increased from 60 to 78 per cent.

This national work builds on local partnership working. In individual organisations, in hospitals from Bolton to Colchester, local management and union representatives have worked together to find solutions to the difficult challenges facing the service. Whether seeking to minimise job losses, improve productivity or manage change, problem solving with unions is a key part of relationships in the NHS.

We are living and working in difficult economic times and this is just the beginning in the public sector. We have at least a few more years of challenge financial settlements to come. The Institute of Fiscal Studies said earlier this year: “We are one year into a five year programme of cuts of which 90 per cent are still to come”. In the NHS the efficiency savings agenda means tough choices including on jobs and terms and conditions.

This is bound to create tension and disharmony and no doubt some industrial unrest, but blaming the unions won’t change the context we are in. At best, yes at best, it would lead to a huge distraction from the fundamental way we need to change the way people work over the next period.

I don’t mean we need to be passive.  I for one have and will boldy and unapologetically draw attention to the impact of strike action in the NHS and the detrimental impact on patient care and the need for realistic expectations given the economic position and financial uncertainty.  We will continue to address some challenging issues in a transparent way such as pay, pensions, skills mix and redeployment and to highlight the massive change agenda.  But I also want to involve trade unions in decision making, look to the long-term and ask for their ideas and to work constructively on some passing issues.

This is a much more effective way of helping to change and shape our context. It will build trust and I hope create the opportunity for mature debate and discussion at what will be a challenging time.

Dean Royles, director of NHS Employers