POLLING from YouGov just before Christmas revealed only a few groups of workers have majority public support for their strike action. They were nurses, ambulance staff, firefighters and teachers.

Among those who didn’t have majority public backing were postal workers, bus workers, rail workers, highway workers, Border Force workers, university staff, baggage handlers and civil servants.

When it came to the issue of who the public thought was to blame for the strikes, the same YouGov polling indicated that only in the case of the nurses, ambulance staff and firefighters was most of the blame put on to the employers. In all these cases, the employers are ultimately governments.

With this as the major mood music and with all the major industrial disputes set to continue and even escalate in 2023, disruption to the wider public will continue and views about the disruption and who is to blame are likely to become more and more inflamed and polarised.

This turns the spotlight on the issue of what ways there are to resolve industrial disputes and reduce disruption. Predictably, the current Conservative Westminster government is set to bring in a minimum service law.

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This would require that in certain sectors and services, such as rail and bus transport – and also schools, the NHS and fire and rescue service – strikes can only take place if a minimum level of staffing and service is provided on strike days.

The Tories made this minimum service pledge in their 2019 General Election manifesto but didn’t until now act upon it by bringing a bill to Parliament.

That the Tories never did this despite having a significant working majority and are only now doing so after a series of national rail strikes indicates they are more interested in making propaganda against unions and Labour as they try to shore up their own dwindling electoral support.

In any case, the bill would not be able to become law, that is, an Act, until well into the second half of 2023 and is likely to be unworkable.

So, the issue then becomes what role could arbitration play in avoiding or curtailing industrial action given that conciliation is already widely used. Arbitration is the process by which an independent and impartial third party makes a decision to resolve the dispute and which the two parties (union and employer) are obliged to accept.

It is different from conciliation and mediation where an independent and impartial third party – tries to resolve the dispute through dialogue.

Arbitration is well practised in many European Union member states although it is only mandatory in a few countries, including the Czech Republic, Denmark, Portugal and Spain.

However, the situation in Britain is different. Arbitration is little used and is entirely voluntary save the cases of police staff.

This is despite, the state-funded bodies, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) and Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) being in existence since 1976 and with their predecessors existing since 1896. Only during the world wars was arbitration compulsory.

In the last 10 years, just 179 requests were made to ACAS for arbitration and of these only 125 took place as both parties need to agree to enter arbitration freely and willingly.

Part of the explanation for this is that industrial relations in Britain have historically been based upon voluntarism. There are also a few examples of the specific institutions of arbitration being steadily abolished by the Tories.

On the railways, the Railway Staff National Tribunal was abolished in 1992 in the run-up to privatisation. Arbitration is still available in the fire and rescue service but is entirely voluntary and seldom used.

There are different types of arbitration. Conventional arbitration allows the arbitrator to determine a settlement after taking submissions from both sides after the issue in dispute has been agreed upon.

Meanwhile, pendulum arbitration requires the arbitrator to choose the union or the employer proposal, meaning the difference cannot be split as under conventional arbitration. The intention here is to make the two sides come closer together in their proposals given the Russian roulette nature of the arbitration.

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But the most vexed issue still remains whether arbitration is any way binding or not. Without it being binding, arbitration is unlikely to lead to a conclusion to a dispute. But by being binding, it is less likely to be used by either side as it potentially ties in both parties to an unknown and risky future outcome. This is a Catch-22 situation.

In Scotland, the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) has no policy which supports arbitration as many of its affiliates are highly suspicious of any nominally independent system that would in any way bind them through arbitration into a particular pay award or resolution of a dispute.

The preferred method for STUC and its affiliates remains resolution by negotiation and conciliation, where a union’s membership has the final say on any proposed settlement through its democratic processes.

Marina Glasgow, ACAS’s chief conciliator, believes there is a role for voluntary arbitration. However, she confirmed its take⁻up is slight, with most cases being found in the private sector and especially in retailing where the option for arbitration is written into collective agreements.

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When arbitration is used, Glasgow explained, there is a long and careful prior process used by ACAS before the arbitrator sits down to make a decision. She said: “A great deal of work is invested before arbitration takes place to ensure the parties are clear on what obligations the outcome could place on them and that they are content to proceed on that basis.”

This includes understanding the differences with conciliation as well as defining the issues.

So, it seems that without having any legal force, arbitration on our shores will not become a major means of dispute resolution.

For the public, this may mean more disruption, whether they support the strikes or not. For union members, this means more loss of pay on strike days for an uncertain account. But, at least, by striking they are likely to feel they have more control over the resolution of their disputes.

Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds.