View from City Road: Strike threats will not worry the banks

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The Independent Online
Sir William Purves, HSBC's chairman, is losing no sleep over threats of strike action at Midland Bank by the banking union Bifu. Sir William scorns pay rises ahead of the rate of inflation, and thinks Midland's 2.25 per cent is perfectly adequate. So should anyone take Bifu's strike threat seriously?

Or course, the threat of a bank strike makes a good story, since it contrasts so wildly with the public perception of bank staff as docile, non- militant people.

Unfortunately for Bifu, bank staff are overwhelmingly docile and non- militant. Leaders of the revolution do not beat their way to the door of the nearest NatWest.

But there is a more fundamental reason why union threats of strike action in the banks should be treated with a fistful of salt. Just because banks are now making decent profits does not mean to say they will be willing to let go of costs.

In the increasingly cut-throat high street, banks are facing an unprecedented margin squeeze, and to let go now would be commercial suicide. So Sir William and his ilk have every incentive to defy Bifu.

The unions are also on shifting and dangerous sands. The traditional unwritten contract between bank and staff of a job for life was torn up at the end of the 1980s, a victim of new technology and increased competition. Staff numbers in UK banks have been declining since then, and are now at 1985 levels, with the direction firmly downwards.

The strength of Bifu itself varies widely within the banks. It claims very high membership in TSB, the Co-operative Bank and Yorkshire Bank, over three-quarters of Royal Bank of Scotland staff and two-thirds of Midland.

The other three big clearers, however, operate a highly effective 'divide and rule' system whereby staff are encouraged to join staff associations, which have a predictably tamer approach to industrial relations.

Unions are also suffering from a sea change in management techniques, away from across-the-board pay rises to individual appraisal. Much of this is due to the fall in inflation and the banks' cost-cutting drives, and this revolution again looks unlikely to be reversed.

Unions may face one opportunity to regain a strong bargaining position: when banks have finally de-manned to such an extent that they can go no further, and start to recruit again. But as Barclays prepares to shed another 2,500 people next year, that looks some way off.