Strikes in the UK: withering away?

Official statistics on the incidence of labour disputes in 1998, published by the Office for National Statistics in June 1999, show that strike activity in the UK is at its lowest level since records began over a century ago. This feature highlights strike trends in the UK since the 1960s and assesses the explanations for the declining use of industrial action by trade unions.

An analysis of labour disputes in 1998, published by the Office for National Statistics in the June 1999 issue of Labour Market Trends, showed that strike activity remains at its lowest level since records began in 1891. The number of recorded disputes was the smallest ever and the number of workers involved the fewest for 70 years, while the number of days not worked because of industrial action was lower than in every previous year except 1997. Stoppages in summer 1998 on the railways and the London Underground (UK9806132N) accounted for much of the latter figure.

Not all disputes are captured in the official statistics. Those lasting less than a day or involving fewer than 10 workers are excluded, unless the total of days not worked exceeds 100; and, because there is no legal obligation to report stoppages, some which meet these criteria still fail to be recorded. Nevertheless, this cannot be of significance in evaluating the trend over the last three decades, which is certainly dramatic. The number of recorded strikes and lockouts in 1998 was less than 2% of the record total, almost 4,000, registered in 1970. The number of workers involved was a similar proportion of the figure in 1979, popularly remembered as "the winter of discontent". Days not worked were little more than 1% of the 27 million recorded in 1984, the year of the miners' strike. The table below gives further details of the figures.

Industrial disputes in the UK, 1965-98
Year No. of strikes Workers involved (000) Days lost (000)
1965-9 (ave) 2,397 1,215 3,929
1970-4 (ave) 2,917 1,573 14,077
1975-9 (ave) 2,345 1,658 11,663
1980-4 (ave) 1,363 1,298 10,486
1985-9 (ave) 895 783 3,939
1990-9 (ave) 274 223 824
1995 235 174 415
1996 244 364 1,303
1997 216 130 235
1998 166 93 282

Source: Labour Market Trends, Office for National Statistics, June 1999.

While the incidence of industrial disputes has declined across much of Europe in the last 20 years, what has happened in the UK is evidently exceptional. An analysis of international experience, also in Labour Market Trends (April 1999), shows that in the years 1990-6 (the latest for which comparative data are available) the rate of days not worked per employee in Britain was less than half the EU average. The latest figures consolidate the position of the UK as a low-strike country: whereas the 1998 Annual Review detected "an increasing proliferation of industrial action" in Europe last year, there was no sign of this in the UK.

Trade union reaction

Publication of these figures has provoked little reaction, doubtless because they confirm what is by now a well-established trend. However, in a comment on the new statistics, Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary John Monks hailed them as evidence that "the partnership approach to industrial relations is now the dominant mode". He also referred to the TUC's own annual survey of affiliated unions, also published in June (Focus on balloting and industrial action: trade union trends survey 99/3). This showed that in the period June 1998-May 1999, only 464 ballots on strikes and other forms of action had been held, compared with 702 in the previous year; and that only a minority of those ballots yielding a "yes" vote were followed by strike action. This, he argued, showed that unions were establishing increasingly effective bargaining relationships and rarely needed to apply the strike weapon. The survey (to which affiliates representing three-quarters of the TUC membership responded) showed that the Transport and General Workers' Union was responsible for roughly half of all ballots. While pay was the most frequent strike issue, its importance had declined since the previous year, while redundancy had become an issue in a third of all disputes.

Commentary

Why has the strike, once regarded as a central feature of British industrial relations, now become so peripheral? There are several possible explanations, not mutually exclusive.

What made the UK distinctive a few decades ago was the frequency of small, short, usually unofficial strikes. These reflected a highly decentralised system of collective bargaining and often chaotic payment systems in some manufacturing industries. Institutional reforms brought some reduction in strike numbers in the 1970s, though those that did occur were often larger and more protracted than before.

The much sharper decline in strike numbers in the 1980s and 1990s can be attributed, first, to the altered structure of UK employment. When strike activity was at its height, it tended to be concentrated in particular sectors (such as coal-mining, engineering, docks and public transport) and often in particular companies or workplaces. To a large degree, these are the areas of employment which have declined most sharply in recent decades; whereas employment has grown in sectors without a tradition of collective militancy.

Second, there has been a shift in the balance of power. Unemployment has risen and trade union membership has fallen sharply, trends which in most countries are reflected in fewer strikes. Changes in the law in the 1980s are also important. In the UK there has never existed a "right to strike" as this is understood in most of Europe; strikers are in breach of their contracts of employment and are liable to dismissal (though in the past, few employers would have contemplated such action). Traditionally, however, trade unions were protected against liability for calling a strike; this immunity has now been removed, and the circumstances in which they can legitimately organise a strike are now tightly circumscribed. In addition, some employers have shown a new willingness to dismiss strikers, or to threaten to do so.

Third, the withering of the strike might be seen as evidence of the end of adversarial industrial relations and the growth of a partnership approach: the TUC interpretation. Certainly there are many employers whose handling of labour relations has become more sophisticated, and whose preference is to achieve change through agreement; reciprocally, more trade union representatives than in the past see strikes as a last resort. The priority of survival in an ever more competitive world reinforces the pursuit of peaceful solutions. Whether this has stimulated a fundamental shift in orientations in UK industrial relations remains to be seen.

A final point to note is the significance of the change of government in 1997. Some Conservatives argued at the time that a Labour victory would encourage union militancy (UK9707144F); but the reverse has occurred. This is particularly noteworthy because since the 1970s, as in many other countries, the focus of the most serious disputes has moved from private manufacturing to public services. Although the Labour government has maintained the tight spending limits of its predecessor, unions in the public sector have remained largely quiescent. Unless the restraints are relaxed, the honeymoon may not endure. A one-day strike of university academics in May 1999 could prefigure more conflictual relations. (Richard Hyman, IRRU)

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