New Government, new industrial unrest: is this really the case?

In July 1997, it seems that the headlines in the UK have been dominated by the news of strikes or impending industrial disputes. This has led some to question whether the election of another Labour Government has ushered in a new era of strikes. This feature examines the question in the light of the latest statistical data.

On 4 July 1997, the UK's two largest general workers' unions, GMB and TGWU, were urging members working in the construction industry to back an all-out strike on 50 high-prestige building sites. The call was over a pay freeze imposed after the breakdown of national talks with the newly-formed Construction Confederation. The result of a ballot will be announced on 25 July, but the threat of strike action has already led to the start of fresh negotiations. July also saw the balloting of 40,000 staff at Barclays Bank- members of the banking unions, BIFU and UNIFI, which are attempting to bring the management back to the negotiating table over new pay arrangements. Most attention has been focused on the dispute at British Airways (UK9706137N), where the company's tough stance has caused much controversy among staff and shareholders alike. According to a report in The Times (10 July 1997), while some traditional areas of pay difficulty have already been resolved - such as in local government and at motor manufacturer Rover- there are still possible areas of trouble ahead:

  • at the Post Office, there were strikes last year and working parties on teamwork have been proceeding slowly;
  • there have been sporadic strikes in the privatised companies running rail and underground services;
  • in the health services, unions want new pay arrangements;
  • there have been local fire service strikes over past year; and
  • in the utilities, "fat cat" pay rises for senior management are causing employee dissatisfaction.

Does this mean a return to the "bad old days" or is that a gross overreaction? The latest official strike figures, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in Labour Market Trends ("Labour disputes in 1996", Kate Sweeney, Labour Market Trends, June 1997), throw light on this question.

Labour disputes in 1996

Three core components which the ONS data on labour disputes examine are;

  • the number of stoppages;
  • the number of workers involved; and
  • the number of working days lost - defined as the number of days not worked by people involved in a dispute at their place of work.

Stoppages involving fewer than 10 workers and those lasting less than one day are excluded from the statistics unless the total number of working days lost from the dispute exceeds 100 (for a detailed definition see the Labour Market Trends article).

The number of working days lost through labour disputes more than tripled between 1995 and 1996 to 1.3 million. This is the highest annual figure since 1990 but it is still historically very low; the average annual number of days lost during the 1980s was seven million, while during the 1970s it was over 12 million. The number of stoppages increased slightly in 1996 to 244, the highest figure since 1992. The increase was far less than that in the number of working days lost, and seems to indicate a general levelling out in the number of stoppages rather than a growth. This is confirmed by the fact that disputes in 1996 generally involved more employees and lasted longer than they were in 1995, rather than there being more disputes. There were 364,000 workers involved in labour disputes in 1996, which is approximately double the figure for 1995.

Industrial analysis

Until the 1980s, the rate of industrial disputes for the manufacturing industries had been significantly higher than that for the service sector. However, over the 1990s the rates had been fairly similar until 1996, when the service sector had almost three times the rate of the manufacturing sector. More than two-thirds of the working days lost in 1996 were as a result of 72 stoppages in the transport, storage and communications group (which includes postal services). Some 12% of the days lost were from 22 disputes in the public administration group and a further 10% were from 35 stoppages in the education sector.

Causes of dispute

In 1996, 82% of working days lost were because of disputes over pay but this cause only accounted for 36% of stoppages. While 16% of stoppages related to redundancy issues and the same proportion to staffing and work allocation, these two causes together accounted for only 6% of all working days lost. Some 91% of working days lost in the transport, storage and communications group resulted form eight stoppages over pay, while 50% of the days lost in public administration were from three stoppages over working conditions. Almost half of all stoppages lasted just one day and only five of the stoppages involved more than 50 days of dispute.

Disputes by size

The majority of days lost result from large stoppages, but very few stoppages are large - 92% of working days lost in 1996 resulted from stoppages where more than 5,000 days were lost in total, but only 9% of stoppages were that large. Around 54% of stoppages involved the loss of fewer than 250 days, but only 1% of all days lost arose from stoppages of this size.

Unofficial disputes

The ONS statistics make no distinction between "official" and "unofficial" disputes (mainly because of difficulties of categorisation). However, according to a study by G Gall of Stirling University and S McKay of the Labour Research Department, reported in the Financial Times on 4 July 1997, unofficial disputes are still common but are more likely to occur in the service sector than in manufacturing. During the 1990s, they were more common in postal services, local government and transport, but have fallen dramatically in some of the traditional manufacturing areas. The authors argue that past employment laws: "have increased the potential for unofficial strike action to be taken as the only method of an immediate and effective response to managerial action, given that a strike which is lawful and retains immunity requires a postal ballot and can take up to 35 days to organise".


The figures highlight the fact that although the number of working days through labour disputes lost increased in 1996, the number of stoppages is generally thought to be levelling out, and most of the working days lost were due to a few large, longer lasting disputes. An important factor is that while disputes continue to decline in manufacturing they are growing rapidly in the service sector, where pay and conditions are generally poor and where the worst effects of flexible labour market policies are most likely to have occurred. While some would like to think that the new Government's relationship with the trade unions is to blame for the current wave of disputes (ie, it is giving them back power), these trends were already established, and it is more likely that they reflect rumbling discontent rather than a response to immediate government policies. (MW Gilman, IRRU)

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