Acas Research Partnership: Call for proposals to undertake research to develop a taxonomy of collective workplace conflict
Deadline: please send your proposal and costs to Acas by 30 Jan 2023
Acas is seeking expressions of interest to undertake a partnership research project, to develop a taxonomy of contemporary collective workplace conflict in Britain. In addition to building an up-to-date picture of today’s differing forms of collectivism, collective issues, channels and impacts, we also seek to use this taxonomy as a reference, against which to review the suitability and fit of Acas’ own collective dispute resolution services.
Notwithstanding the current high-profile surge of stoppages across many parts of the public sector, it remains the case that for many decades the UK has experienced a reduced incidence of strike action and a dramatic contraction of collective bargaining. In 2018, only 26% of employees were covered by collective agreements (ONS, 2019). In 2011, more than three-quarters of workplaces in Britain had no union members at all (van Wanrooy et al., 2013) and by 2018 only 15% of employees in the private sector were covered by collective agreements (BEIS, 2019). The volume and type of requests for Acas intervention in relation to collective conflict reflect these patterns, with requests for collective conciliation roughly one-third of the level two decades ago (although volumes vary considerably year-on-year, with 2022/23 having seen an uptick in the collective conciliation caseload).
Conflict arising from collective relationships is not easy to measure in the round. Public accounts in the UK tend to focus most on counting incidents of industrial action, most notably via the ONS days lost and stoppages series (See for instance analysis by Dix, Sisson, Forth in The Evolution of the Modern Workplace, 2009). Yet we know that conflict involving trade unions and employers manifests in other ways: from general unease inside workplaces through to action short of a strike. Similarly, Acas collective conciliation takes place in a mix of dispute contexts, not only in relation to strike action, the threat of which as a strategy employed prior to Acas involvement was reported by only two-fifths of participants when the service was last evaluated, in 2016.
We also know that other forms of collective action having emerged. These have included ‘hashtag activism’; go-fund-me campaigns; direct action; multiple cases brought in the Employment Tribunal system and increasing use of legal challenge. We believe that in some instances the issues that escalate through these channels are sometimes similar to those tackled through traditional strike action, but in some instances, new issues are also being raised through newer channels. We wish to understand more about both the channels, and issues currently emerging as collective issues. The extent to which Acas’s existing dispute resolution services have been able to respond to these new articulations of collective conflict is variable and lies at the heart of our desire to take forward the current study.
We are therefore seeking to develop a taxonomy of contemporary collective workplace conflict in Britain: the forms of actions, the channels used, and the range of issues addressed – and how these align with union-instigated industrial action.
Initial scoping work for Acas to develop this taxonomy has already resulted in a short (unpublished) paper that serves as a useful start point for this enquiry by identifying several distinct channels of collective conflict:
- ‘traditional’ collective conflict involving issues of workplace operation channelled through collective bargaining (viz. strike action and action short of a strike)
- use of legal process to address e.g. utilising multiple claims as part of the Employment Tribunal (ET) process
- hashtag activism by employees who tackle collective workplace issues using social media channels
- Alternative channels including direct action and challenge to legal precedent
- New types of unions, engaging with workers who have, traditionally, not been covered by conventional approaches to collective organization; and high-profile legal challenges accompanied by direct action that aims to affect company reputation
- Other forms of action.
We seek to build on this initial work with a comprehensive review of current academic and relevant grey literatures, in order to arrive at a robust taxonomy. We would be interested to hear if particular sectoral or industrial patterns are associated with different types of action, and case-study examples that illustrate the different aspect of the taxonomy (issues, channels and impacts) will be of interest. We are additionally keen to enumerate the different types of action to the extent that this is possible: to build an understanding of historic patterns and to understand what potential future incidence might look like.
An important related area of enquiry for Acas is to understand how its existing collective dispute resolution offer sits within the framework of conflict that is established. For instance, for each category of conflict, what are the relevant markers that will allow Acas to identify cases, and ultimately how suitable is our current service for resolving them – where and how might we need to engage parties differently, or intervene more effectively?
To answers such questions, we wish to undertake a small round of primary research with Acas senior advisers who deliver collective conciliation work and associated advisory projects (i.e. interventions linked to disputes and often agreed as part of the settlement to a prior collective conciliation case, delivered inside workplaces involving management and employee representatives with the aim of improving employment relations). Through interviews or focus groups with these staff, the taxonomy of conflict that is developed can be refined and the suitability of Acas’s existing collective dispute resolution offer can be explored.
That said, we welcome proposals from respondents to this call, on both the scope of the enquiry and methodologies used (e.g. we would be interested to develop the primary research to also include interviews with other actors outside Acas staff).
This research will be used in two main ways by Acas:
- To widen Acas’ understanding of the topic, in order to support future policy activity in this area, as we seek to ‘forge consensus on the future of work’ (one of Acas’ strategic ambitions)
- To inform design of our collective dispute resolution services
We therefore expect to use the outputs arising from this work to make an impact on raising Acas’ profile in this subject area, as well as to add to our evidence base.
We anticipate that the main taxonomy element of the research will be reported as a document suitable for publication in our Research Papers series (https://www.acas.org.uk/research-and-commentary), although we would also be supportive of parallel publication within academic literature.
We would also like a short internal briefing paper to be produced that presents the taxonomy with a focus on how existing Acas collective dispute resolution sits within the framework of conflict that is established. This would be for internal use only, by senior operational stakeholders in Acas.
The timing for this work is tight: we need the literature review to be substantively completed and the research with staff to be undertaken by end-March 2023. There is however some flexibility around the finalisation of the written outputs arising from the research (our expectation being that reports would follow later in Spring 2023).
This partnership project will be managed by social researchers in the Research, Analysis and Insight team in Acas. Acas’ approach to developing research partnerships is not limited to work with academics and we regularly work with other organisations to sponsor and conduct research.
We anticipate close working on the design of projects and outputs. Our funding contribution will capped at a maximum of £12,000 (exc. VAT).
Applications (in the form of short, written proposals) will be considered and scored on the basis of the merits and credentials of proposals received. Additionally, all bids should signal their agreement to Acas’ standard terms and conditions. We welcome more than one proposal if you have more than one suggestion for research.
If you are interested in working with Acas and carrying out research in this area, please email email@example.com stating your interests. We will then provide details of how to apply (including scoring criteria for bids and a copy of Acas’ standard short form terms and conditions of contract).
The deadline for receipt of proposals is 10.00am on Monday 30 January 2023.