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Navigating Turbulent Tracks: The Impact of the 2022/23 Strikes on the Transport Industry and the Power of Communications

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Navigating Turbulent Tracks: The Impact of the 2022/23 Strikes on the Transport Industry and the Power of Communications

​The 2022/23 strikes impacted the daily lives of all, accompanied the infamous Cost of Living Crisis, and they are far from over. More hours of work were lost in England last year due to strike action than during any year since 1989 and reluctant settlement offers have left many strikers feeling underappreciated and dissatisfied. The biggest escalation of industrial action was made on 1st February 2023 when 500,000 people walked out including teachers, university staff, civil servants, border officials and transport operators. This single day of union action undoubtedly caused severe disruption but the reaction didn’t quell grievances and so strikes continue with train operating companies threatening to strike until November 2023. Ultimately, the 2022/23 strikes have been comprehensively impactful across many industries, however this blog will specifically focus on the transport industry and will highlight the centrality of communications to a business in times of crisis.

Despite there being immense levels of media coverage on the rail strikes in particular, journalists have typically focused on the impact on passengers and the wider public but what about the transport industry itself? As a specialist communications recruitment consultant, I have observed that a large proportion of candidates across all levels are apprehensive to work in a polarized industry such as transport. I spoke to some leading industry experts and the overwhelming consensus is that working in the transport industry isn’t for everyone, however for those that like to be challenged, are determined and are excited by the mystery of an everchanging environment, it is an immersive and extremely interesting industry to be part of. The strength of good communications departments in safeguarding company reputation and the retention of talent has yet again been emphasized during a period of crisis. However, it must be acknowledged that the trend of apprehensiveness is unique people in roles where they would be directly dealing with Trade Unions because in general the transport industry has been on a positive trajectory with recruitment since bouncing back from Covid.

Relationships between Trade Unions and the companies by which the members are employed are notoriously difficult to navigate, especially during periods of negotiation. This coupled with the interest by the media, and therefore the public, creates an exaggerated and usually one sided depiction of the irrefutably challenging discussions around settlements. Leaders of Trade Unions are typically more than happy to express themselves to the media as this catalyses the negotiation process and draws extra attention to their cause. The majority of transport companies implement a strategy of no engagement with the media with regards to strike action, however some disagree with the current default and believe that companies should do more to own their narrative during periods of Union provocation. Public transport, after all, is taken for granted by many in our modern, technology crazed society and exclusively makes the headlines for negative reasoning such as the unavoidable inconvenience that strikes cause to the public. Therefore perhaps it would be in the interest of the industry to redefine this negative narrative and also be consistent in their acknowledgement of the challenges facing front line employees and the economy if a miracle resolution is not tangible. It certainly is an exciting and transformative time to be working in the transport industry!

During my conversations with industry experts it was also obvious that whilst the composition of the communications function hasn’t structurally changed due to the strikes, there has been added pressure on the internal communications teams to maintain a high levels of employee engagement and staff satisfaction. Internal communicators have the power to shape, curate and define positive, inclusive and supportive cultures whereby all staff members feel valued and excited to come to work. Since the pandemic, the value that internal communications can bring to organisations has been realised and has resulted in more buy-in from senior stakeholders.

Overall, it is clear that the transport industry has faced immense challenge due to strike action in the 2022/23 period, however it has found light at the end of the tunnel and things are on the up for many companies. I would encourage communications professionals to be open minded to the unique experience that can be gained by working in this sector.

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VMA GROUP is a leading international interim, contract, temporary and permanent recruitment and executive search specialist. We are specifically focused on providing support t