TUC reports fewer unions balloting on industrial action

According to a survey published by the UK's Trades Union Congress in December 1998, balloting on industrial action is at a very low level, increasingly concerns action short of a full strike and normally leads to a negotiated settlement rather than stoppages of work.

A survey commissioned by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and published on 11 December 1998 highlights recent trends in the incidence and outcome of industrial action ballot s by unions. The survey, which was carried out for the TUC by the Labour Research Department, covers the period from July 1997 to May 1998 and includes data from the two main balloting services providers, the Electoral Reform Society and Unity Balloting Services, as well as from questionnaire responses from 46 TUC-affiliated unions.

Key points from the survey include the following.

  • During the period under review, the two balloting organisations supervised 1,759 industrial action ballots. Overall, the proportion of ballots yielding majorities in favour of industrial action was over 75%, but with a higher proportion of ballots for action short of a strike resulting in "yes" majorities than ballots for full strike action.
  • Some 57% of responding unions held ballots during the survey period, compared with up to 75% in earlier TUC surveys dating back to 1995. A total of 700 ballots were reported.
  • Unions held fewer ballots for full strike action than in the 1997 survey (46% compared with 54%). Ballots on the possibility of both a full strike and action short of a strike accounted for 35% of the ballots reported (compared with 30% in 1997). The proportion of ballots on action short of a strike rose from 16% to 18%. Union responses to the survey also showed that ballots on action short of a strike were more likely to result in "yes" votes.
  • The survey confirms previous findings that ballots are often used as a negotiating tool. Ballots are more likely to lead to a negotiated settlement than actual industrial action. Of the 700 ballots reported, industrial action took place in only 27% of cases.
  • Pay issues were reported by unions as the main reason for balloting on industrial action (47%), followed by changes to working practices (25%).
  • Where industrial action took place, the most prevalent form reported by unions was "selective strike action" (involving one- or two-day stoppages) at 57%, followed by overtime bans (27%), all-out indefinite strikes (10%) and action by key workers (6%).

The survey also highlights the impact of the cumbersome and complex legal rules on industrial action balloting. Just over half the responding unions said that it took up to five weeks for the whole balloting procedure, but one in four unions said it took six weeks or more. The Government's Fairness at work white paper proposed simplifying the law and the related code of practice on industrial action balloting (UK9806129F). One change expected in the forthcoming legislation is the removal of the requirement on unions to give employers the names of members to be balloted.

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