UK now one of the least strike-prone countries in the OECD

The UK, which was once regarded as among one of the most strike-prone countries in Europe, now has one of the lowest levels of strike activity of the OECD countries, according to a recent report.

An international comparison of labour disputes from 1986 to 1995 by Labour Market Trends (April 1997) highlights that the UK had the fourth-lowest strike rate of the 22 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1995. Only Austria, Switzerland and Germany had a lower level of strikes than the UK. The UK strike rate has been below the OECD average since 1986 and below the EU average since 1990. Between 1991 and 1995 the average rate in the UK was 24 working days lost per 1,000 workers - an 82% fall over the previous five-year period. But the UK's rise in the international "league table" of two places since 1994 took place despite an increase in the strike rate itself.

In most countries, there is a considerable variation year by year but the general trend is one of decline over the period, the average rate for the period 1991 to 1995 for the whole of the OECD being 53% lower than that for the previous five-year period. Comparison by industry is difficult, but some industries such as manufacturing and transport have a consistently high rate. If the broad sectors of production and construction are compared with services (see table below), we find that:

  • over 1986-95, the average strike rate for production and construction was higher than that for services by 50% across the EU, over 100% across the OECD and 70% in the UK; and
  • for the UK, during the period 1990 to 1995, rates in both sectors were similar but the trend of production and construction being more strike prone continued throughout the 10-year period for the rest of the OECD.
Percentage fall in strike rate from 1986-90 to 1991-95
Production and construction Services
UK 87 79
EU 50 75
OECD 40 69

The figures, which are calculated as days lost per 1,000 workers, are useful for comparing relative trends but exact comparison is made difficult by the fact that their are important differences in the ways in which the statistics are compiled in each of the countries. In the UK, disputes are excluded when they involve fewer than 10 workers or if they last for less than one day, unless the aggregate number of days exceeds 100. Also the figures say little about other labour disputes, such as go-slow s, work to rule s and overtime ban s. In the case of the UK, the figures may also mask changes in the way that disputes are resolved. For example, legislation enforcing secret ballots prior to industrial action may give employees more bargaining power with employers if the result of the ballot is in favour of industrial action, thus making industrial action less necessary.

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