Developments in industrial action - annual update 1999

In this annual update, we review developments in industrial action across the European Union (plus Norway) in 1997, 1998 and (partially) 1999. We find considerable differences between the countries in terms of the level of industrial action, though levels are generally low, and that metalworking, transport and the public sector are the sectors most prone to conflict.

Industrial action - strikes, lock-outs etc - is perhaps the most high-profile aspect of industrial relations, at least in terms of media coverage and public impact and attention. It is also an area where international comparisons are notoriously difficult. This is largely because the way in which statistics are produced differs greatly between countries, with the definition of the industrial action recorded varying considerably, and the data being collected by a variety of official and other bodies. For example, criteria for inclusion in the statistics may vary in terms of: the length of the industrial action required before the action is recorded; the number of workers who must be involved for the action to be recorded; the nature of the industrial action involved; or whether or not the action is official or unofficial. Some countries measure hours lost due to industrial action, while others measure days. Some countries do not appear to produce any statistics for some of the indicators of industrial action. Acknowledging these problems, in 1993, the ILO's International Conference of Labour Statisticians adopted a resolution setting out a uniform set of definitions for the recording of statistics related to labour disputes, but it does not appear that this has been adopted in all EU Member States.

To provide two examples, the national figures used by the OECD to provide figures for time lost through labour disputes per 1,000 workers in its Main economic indicators are derived as follows for Finland and Italy:

  • Finland. Definition - data refer to the number of days lost due to labour disputes involving any one or more of the following: temporary work stoppage, refusal to work, go-slows. Coverage - all establishments in the public and private sectors in the whole country are covered; disputes lasting less than one hour are not measured. Collection - Statistics Finland collects data from the Finnish Employers' Confederation for establishments of organised employers and for establishments of unorganised employers. The public sector reports directly to Statistics Finland.
  • Italy. Definition - data refer to the number of hours lost in cases of disputes whether they are directly due to working conditions or to problems external to work such as political or other national events etc. Coverage - all strikes of whatever duration in the public and private sectors are included, though not all stoppages will come to the attention of the local police, who collect the data. Collection - data are provided to the Istat statistical institute by local administrations.

These issues should be borne in mind in reading this annual update - based on contributions from the national centres of EIRO- and the notes accompanying each table should be read carefully. As with all EIRO updates, our objective is to provide some broad general data on current developments, while pointing out the pitfalls involved in comparisons. For reasons of space, and because out aim is not to provide a statistical guide, we do not provide full definitions of how the figures are arrived at for each country, but merely call attention to the problems.

Basic industrial action indicators

Tables 1 to 3 below provide information for the EU Member States and Norway on three basic indicators of industrial action: the number of working days lost through industrial action; the number of workers involved in industrial action; and the number of disputes. In most countries, figures for 1999 are not yet available in early 2000, or only partial figures, so we have provided statistics for 1997, to enable comparison with the 1998 figures. The data from some countries is very patchy, and is often not published for some considerable time after the year in question.

Table 1. Working days lost through industrial action, 1997-9
Country 1997 1998 1999 (partial figures, see notes)
Austria 1,913 0 0
Belgium 210,889 nd nd
Denmark 101,700 3,173,000 nd
Finland 103,712 133,203 13,411
France 393,380 122,533 nd
Germany 52,000 16,102 nd
Greece 190,300 189,400 nd
Ireland 74,508 37,374 28,191
Italy 1,164,285 543,857 662,571
Luxembourg 0 22,000 0
Netherlands 14,600 33,200 nd
Norway 6,972 286,407 nd
Portugal 80,077 94,755 56,918
Spain 1,790,100 1,263,500 1,048,200
Sweden 23,577 1,677 nd
UK 234,700 282,400 nd

Source: EIRO.

The figures in table 1 should be read in conjunction with the following notes.

  • Belgium: the figure is from the National Office of Social Security, based on days not worked by workers subject to social security contributions due to strikes and lock-outs.
  • Finland: the figures are from Statistics Finland labour disputes statistics; the 1999 figure refers to January-June only.
  • France: the figures refer to individual days not worked.
  • Germany: the figures are from the Federal Employment Service.
  • Greece: the Ministry of Labour gives figures in hours, rather than days, lost - 1,522,577 in 1997 and 1,515,347 in 1998; the figures in the table are a rough estimate based on the assumption of an eight-hour day.
  • Ireland: the figures are from the Central Statistical Office; the 1999 figure refers to the first half of the year only.
  • Italy: the figures are from the Istat statistical office; the 1999 figure refers to January-September only; the figures do not include "labour disputes originating from outside the employment relationship" (eg political strikes).
  • Luxembourg: the 1998 figure is an estimate.
  • Norway: figures from Statistics Norway.
  • Portugal: the statistics are from DETEFP, Ministry of Labour and Solidarity; the figure for 1999 relates to the first half of the year only.
  • Spain: the figures are from Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MTAS) strike statistics; the figure for 1999 relates to January-September only.
Table 2. Number of workers involved in industrial action, 1997-9
Country 1997 1998 1999 (partial figures, see notes)
Austria 25,800 0 0
Belgium nd nd nd
Denmark 75,349 505,258 nd
Finland 28 402 35,380 8,234
France 155,251 122,533 nd
Germany 13,000 4,286 nd
Greece 216,799 214,545 nd
Ireland 5,364 8,060 3,982
Italy 718,000 386,000 692,606
Luxembourg 0 19,400 0
Netherlands 7,200 30,800 nd
Norway 1,305 26,950 nd
Portugal 45,882 44,246 28,495
Spain 631,000 671,900 840,000
Sweden 11,856 570 nd
UK 130,000 92,700 nd

Source: EIRO.

The figures in table 2 should be read in conjunction with the following notes.

  • Finland: the figures are from Statistics Finland labour disputes statistics; the 1999 figure refers to January-June only.
  • France: the figures refer to the number workers who stop work.
  • Germany: the figures are from the Federal Employment Service.
  • Greece: Ministry of Labour figures.
  • Ireland: the figures are from the Central Statistical Office; the 1999 figure refers to the first half of the year only.
  • Italy: the figures are from the Istat statistical office; the 1999 figure refers to January-September only; the figures do not include "labour disputes originating from outside the employment relationship" (eg political strikes).
  • Luxembourg: the 1998 figure is an estimate.
  • Norway: figures from Statistics Norway.
  • Portugal: the statistics are from DETEFP, Ministry of Labour and Solidarity; the figure for 1999 relates to the first half of the year only.
  • Spain: the figures are from MTAS strike statistics; the figure for 1999 relates to January-September only.
Table 3. Number of industrial disputes, 1997-9
Country 1997 1998 1999 (partial figures, see notes)
Austria nd 0 0
Belgium nd nd nd
Denmark 1,023 1,257 nd
Finland 91 98 36
France 1,607 1,475 nd
Germany nd nd nd
Greece 36 38 nd
Ireland 28 33 16
Italy 920 1,097 443
Luxembourg nd 2 0
Netherlands 17 22 nd
Norway 6 36 nd
Portugal 313 296 343
Spain 709 618 562
Sweden 14 13 nd
UK 216 166 nd

Source: EIRO.

The figures in table 3 should be read in conjunction with the following notes.

  • Finland: the figures are from Statistics Finland labour disputes statistics; the 1999 figure refers to January-June only.
  • Germany: the figures are from the Federal Employment Service.
  • Greece: Ministry of Labour figures.
  • Ireland: the figures are from the Central Statistical Office; the 1999 figure refers to the first half of the year only.
  • Italy: the figures are from the Istat statistical office; the 1999 figure refers to January-September only; the figures do not include "labour disputes originating from outside the employment relationship" (eg political strikes).
  • Norway: figures from Statistics Norway.
  • Portugal: statistics from IDICT; figures include overtime bans and go-slows, and action by civil servants.
  • Spain: the figures are from MTAS strike statistics; the figure for 1999 relates to January-September only.

Notable points highlighted by the tables include the following:

  • the almost complete absence of industrial action in Austria and Luxembourg (where the 1998 figure relates to two stoppages in the public sector - LU9808173F)
  • the fact that increases in dispute activity often follow the course of the bargaining cycle. For example, the huge increase in action in Denmark in 1998 was due almost entirely to the major dispute in the private sector over new two-year collective agreements (DK9805168F), while the rise in action in Norway in the same year reflected the conclusion of new two-year deals in a main bargaining round (NO9805164F);
  • a notably decline in strike activity from 1997 to 1998 in France, Germany and Spain. However, changes between one year and the next are not necessarily indicative of a trend, as they may be influenced by particular "one-off" disputes;
  • a rise in strike activity from 1997 to 1998 in Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and the UK (though see previous point). Partial figures for 1999 indicate a rise from 1998 levels in Italy;
  • the very different pictures in the broadly comparable (in size terms) "big five" EU Member States - France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. Italy and especially Spain show considerably higher levels of industrial action than France and the UK, with Germany recording far lower levels than the other four countries.

The figures in Tables 1 to 3 provide some indications of trends in individual countries, but they are of little use for purposes of international comparisons. The very different sizes of the countries mean that the absolute figures give little indication of the extent to which countries are "strike-prone" or otherwise in comparison with others. The only measure which enables this to be compared is the number of working days lost per 1,000 employees. Figure 1 provides data on this indicator (based on estimates in many cases).

Source: EIRO.

Figure 1 should be read in conjunction with the following notes.

  • Belgium: estimates based on the figures for working days lost given in table 1 and Eurostat data on total employment.
  • Denmark: estimates based on the figures for working days lost given in table 1 and Eurostat data on total employment.
  • Finland: the figures are from Statistics Finland labour disputes statistics; the 1999 figure refers to January-June only.
  • France: the figures are estimates.
  • Germany: estimates based on the figures for working days lost given in table 1 and Eurostat data on total employment.
  • Greece: estimates based on the figures for working days lost given in table 1 and Eurostat data on total employment.
  • Ireland: the figures are from the Central Statistical Office; the 1999 figure refers to the first half of the year only.
  • Italy: approximate figures, using constant figures on the number of employees in 1997, because of a change in the statistical series; the figures do not include "labour disputes originating from outside the employment relationship" (eg political strikes).
  • Luxembourg: estimates based on the figures for working days lost given in table 1 and Eurostat data on total employment.
  • Norway: figures from Statistics Norway.
  • Portugal: statistics from DETEFP, Ministry of Labour and Solidarity.
  • Spain: estimates based on the figures for working days lost given in table 1 and Eurostat data on total employment.
  • Sweden: estimates based on the figures for working days lost given in table 1 and Eurostat data on total employment.

On average over 1997 and 1998, the highest levels of industrial action were found in Denmark (589 days lost per 1,000 workers) and Spain (118 days lost) and the lowest in Austria (no days lost) and Germany (one day lost). For 1997 and 1998, the countries can be divided into three groups:

  • countries where industrial action was at very low levels, with an average of no more than 11 working days lost per year for every 1,000 workers - Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK;
  • countries where industrial action was at moderate levels, with an average of 12-60 working days lost per year for every 1,000 workers - Belgium, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg and Portugal; and
  • countries where industrial action was at relatively high levels, with an average of over 60 working days lost per year for every 1,000 workers - Denmark, Norway and Spain.

However, the figures for two years cannot give a proper picture of national situations and of trends. For example, it is very unlikely that Denmark would be in the group of countries with a relatively high level of strikes were it not for essentially "one-off" events in 1998. There are also major disparities between the 1997 and 1998 figures for Norway and Luxembourg.

Although there are considerable differences between the levels of industrial action in the various countries, it should be noted that levels of industrial action throughout the EU are generally at a low level, when compared with previous years. In the first half of the 1980s (according to Eurostat figures), countries such as Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain and the UK averaged over 400 days lost per 1,000 workers annually, while Denmark, France, Luxembourg and Portugal averaged over 100. While levels of activity generally dropped off in the second half of the 1980s, Greece and Spain still averaged over 600 days lost annually, while Ireland, Italy and the UK averaged over 100. The late 1990s were thus clearly a period of relative industrial peace.

Sectors most affected

Industrial action is rarely spread evenly through the economy, often being concentrated on particular sectors, either generally or in particular years. Table 4 below indicates the three sectors most affected by industrial action in 1998 in each of the 16 countries covered, along with the percentage of all days lost through industrial action accounted for by each sector (where available).

Table 4. Working days lost through industrial action per 1,000 employees, 1997-9
Country 1 2 3
Austria - - -
Belgium (1997) Motor manufacturing (46%) Machinery and tools manufacturing (11%) Chemicals (4%)
Denmark Industry (48%) Building and construction (18%) Transport (13%)
Finland Machinery and manufacturing Electrical equipment manufacturing Construction
France Civil service (66%) Transport (c. 10%) Metalworking (c. 10%)
Germany Metalworking (30%) Transport (21%) Retail (9%)
Greece* Public enterprises and banks (56%) Private sector (44%) -
Ireland Construction Transport Services
Italy Metalworking (67%) Transport and communications (8%) Banking and insurance (7%)
Luxembourg Public sector - -
Netherlands Education (67%) Commercial services, social security, public administration (24%) Industry (7%)
Norway Transport (56%) Health and social services (16%) Education (12%)
Portugal Textiles (38%) Transport and communications (33%) Gas (6%)
Spain Building (14%) Agriculture (14%) Metalworking (6%)
Sweden nd nd nd
UK Transport, storage and communications Transport equipment manufacturing Other community, social and personal services

Source: EIRO.

* In Greece, Ministry of Labour Statistics distinguish only between two categories - public enterprises and banks, and private sector.

Across the countries covered (and allowing for differing definitions of sectors), the industry most affected by industrial action in 1998 was, by some considerable margin, the broad metalworking sector, followed by transport and communications. The public sector (including education, health and social services) was close behind, and building and construction was the next most industrial action-prone sector. Private sector services experienced relatively little industrial action. In some countries, particular sectors which were not prominent elsewhere featured highly, such as textiles in Portugal and agriculture in Spain. Overall, the picture in 1998 was relatively similar to that in 1997.

The table indicates the extent to which a particular sector may dominate the industrial action figures in a particular year. In at least seven countries, a single sector accounted for around half or more of all working days lost - with the civil service in France, metalworking in Italy and education in Netherlands all accounting for around two-thirds of the days lost in 1998.

Dispute resolution

Most EU countries have some mechanisms for the resolution of industrial disputes, provided either voluntarily or compulsorily by the state or the social partners themselves. Although definitions vary, the main forms of dispute resolution are:

  • arbitration - whereby a third party makes a binding decision on an issue on which the parties cannot agree;
  • mediation - whereby a third party takes an active role (more so than in conciliation), usually making recommendations for the resolution of the dispute; and
  • conciliation - whereby a third party merely attempts to bring the parties to a dispute together and helps them reach a mutually acceptable solution.

While most of the 16 countries practice one or more of these forms of dispute resolution, statistics on their use are rarely available. Tables 5 to 7 below give the relevant figures on referrals to arbitration, mediation and conciliation for the small number of countries where data are available

For the countries which use more than one form of dispute resolution it appears that: mediation is more commonly used than arbitration in Greece and Norway; conciliation is more commonly used than arbitration in Luxembourg; conciliation is much more frequent than arbitration, which in turn is more common than mediation, in the UK; and conciliation is used more often than mediation in Spain. Overall, it appears that conciliation is the most commonly used form of dispute resolution across the countries concerned, followed by mediation.

Table 5. Number of disputes referred to arbitration, 1997-9
Country 1997 1998 1999 (partial figures, see notes)
Greece 72 (62 resolved) 67 (56 resolved) -
Luxembourg - 0 1
Norway 1 6 -
UK 60 43 -

Source: EIRO.

The figures in table 5 should be read in conjunction with the following note.

  • Greece: figures from the Arbitration and Mediation Service (OMED).
  • Norway: figures include both voluntary and compulsory arbitration.
Table 6. Number of disputes referred to mediation, 1997-9
Country 1997 1998 1999 (partial figures, see notes)
Greece 116 (14 resolved) 91 (27 resolved) -
Ireland 511 411 -
Norway 45 134 -
Spain 126 91 81
UK 11 8 -

Source: EIRO.

The figures in table 6 should be read in conjunction with the following notes.

  • Greece: figures from the Arbitration and Mediation Service (OMED).
  • Ireland: the figures refer to hearings and issuing of recommendations by the Labour Court.
  • Norway: mediation is obligatory is prior negotiations fail; figures refer to all national mediations by the State Mediators Office.
  • Spain: the 1999 figure refers to January-September only.
Table 7. Number of disputes referred to conciliation, 1997-9
Country 1997 1998 1999 (partial figures, see notes)
Finland - 4 1
Ireland 1,588 1,563 -
Luxembourg 5 3 14
Spain 1,799 1,596 1,047
UK 1,166 1,214 -

Source: EIRO.

The figures in table 6 should be read in conjunction with the following notes.

  • Finland: the 1998 figure includes three cases of conciliation by a state conciliator and one case of conciliation by social partner organisations; the 1999 figure includes one case of conciliation by a state conciliator.
  • Ireland: the figures refer to conciliation by Labour Relations Commission.
  • Spain: the 1999 figure refers to January-September only.
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