Working days lost through strikes in 2007 highest for five years

The latest official UK strike figures, published in June 2008, show that more than one million working days were lost through strike action in 2007. This figure is almost 250,000 days more than in 2006, and the highest amount of working days lost due to strike activity since 2002. More than 95% of the days lost involved industrial action by public sector workers. Most of the disputes were pay related and of short duration.

In June 2008, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published an analysis (1.44Mb PDF) of the final statistics on the incidence of work stoppages arising from labour disputes during 2007. The review provides data on the three main measures of strike activity – the number of work stoppages, the number of working days lost and the number of workers involved – analysing them by sector, cause and duration, and comparing them with figures from previous years. The key points to emerge are highlighted below.

Annual changes in strike patterns

A decline in the number of work stoppages was recorded during 2007 compared with 2006 (UK0707079I), but both the number of days lost through stoppages and the number of workers involved increased. However, contemporary levels of strike activity remain relatively low in historical terms.

  • Overall, 142 work stoppages took place in 2007 – a lower figure than the 2006 total of 158 stoppages. Over the longer term, the number of stoppages has fallen sharply since the 1980s when the average annual number amounted to 1,129. The average number in the 1990s was 273 a year.
  • The 2007 total of 1,041,100 working days lost through stoppages was significantly higher than the 2006 total of 754,500 days. The 2007 total is also higher than the average number of working days lost a year in the 1990s (660,000 days), but it is still considerably lower than the average for both the 1980s (7.2 million days) and the 1970s (12.9 million days).
  • In total, 744,800 workers were involved in labour disputes during 2007, more than the 2006 total of up to 713,300. This is a higher level than the annual average during the 1990s (201,600 workers) but lower than that for the 1980s (1,040,300 workers).

Sectoral analysis

In 2007, 96% of the working days lost through stoppages were lost in the public sector, compared with 87% in 2006. The public sector has accounted for the majority of the days lost through stoppages for the past eight years. The number of strikes was also higher in the public sector than in the private sector – 63% compared with 37%.

The great majority of stoppages (118) took place in the services sector. Services also had a strike rate of 46 working days lost per 1,000 employees, compared with five days in manufacturing. Within the services sector, the highest levels of strike activity were recorded in transport and public administration. Some 63% of the working days lost in 2007 resulted from 55 stoppages in transport and 31% of days lost were the result of 20 stoppages in public administration.

Causes of disputes

As in previous years, the principal cause of labour disputes in 2007 was pay and pay-related issues. Pay disputes accounted for 50% of all stoppages during 2007 and 66% of working days lost. Disputes concerning working hours were the next most significant cause (25% of all stoppages and 30% of days lost), followed by redundancy questions (11% of all stoppages and 2% of days lost).

Duration

Most labour disputes were of short duration. Some 46% of stoppages in 2007 lasted just one day, and accounted for 25% of the total working days lost. Two-day and three-day strikes were the next most frequent categories (18% and 11% of stoppages respectively). In contrast, 8.5% of stoppages in 2007 lasted between six and 10 days, accounting for 30% of all working days lost, and two stoppages lasted over 50 days.

Strike ballots

The ONS analysis also includes data on the number of strike ballots held by trade unions. The number of ballots on strike action or on industrial action short of a strike has increased over the period between 2003 and 2006, peaking at 1,341 ballots. The total number of ballots held in 2007 was lower at 767. Of these, 713 ballots related to strike action (compared with 1,290 in 2006) and 583 ballots to action short of a strike (compared with 579 in 2006). Most ballots related to both types of action. In terms of outcome, 98% of strike ballots in 2007 resulted in a ‘yes’ vote – a notable increase on the 2006 figure of 85%. In the great majority of cases, the dispute is then settled without recourse to industrial action.

Mark Hall, IRRU, University of Warwick

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