Industrial relations & strike action 2010/2011: Now is the winter of our breathless tranquillity?

Has the UK workforce lost its appetite for strike action? This question is raised by Michael Blastland in a fascinating article on the BBC website, in which he investigates the popular media’s frequent use of headlines warning of a possible “winter of discontent” (a phrase originating from Shakespeare’s Richard III) when reporting on the current state of UK industrial relations and the risk of strike action.According to Blastland:

[T]here’s been an obsession with an imminent ‘winter of discontent,’ and indeed spring, summer and autumn of discontent, more or less continuously for the last three years. The data, however, suggest that this is a period – comparatively speaking – of breathless tranquillity.

Strike action in 2010: A fraction of levels seen in 1979 ‘winter of discontent’

Blastland writes that “strike days lost [were] about 50 times higher in 1979 than now and [there have been] fewer strike days in the past 20 years put together than in 1979, despite 4.5 million more people in the workforce today.”

Official figures from the ONS would appear to back up this interpretation. Latest data on labour disputes (subscription required) show that strike action is currently running at only a fraction of the levels seen in peak years (PDF format, 29.3K), such as 1912, 1921, 1926, 1972, 1979 and 1984.

Limited appetite for industrial action?

Indeed, some of the strongest calls for action to constrain the potential threat posed by the unions made in recent months have been accompanied by an acknowledgement that levels of strike action are comparatively low. Back in August 2010, the CIPD advised the Government to consider “banning strike action by workers involved in the essential services” (it defines “essential services” as straddling the public and private sectors) in order to implement public spending cuts. However, the CIPD report also acknowledges that, at present, “there is limited appetite by employees for taking industrial action, particularly since it means losing pay.”

Crunch time for UK trade unions

As the October 2010 economic commentary from XpertHR Salary Surveys noted, the UK trade union movement is approaching a decisive moment as it attempts to reassert its relevance by opposing public spending cuts arising from the Coalition Government’s programme of austerity measures:

Winning over public support is crucial for the unions. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber believes that the UK trade union movement stands at a crossroads. Speaking to the Guardian ahead of the conference, Barber said that the Coalition Government’s planned programme of public spending cuts could either reinvigorate trade unions, or see them decline in relevance.

Ignoring the spirit of cooperation?

Blastland argues that the popular media’s ongoing series of “winter of discontent” warnings could represent a knowing distortion of events in order to generate newsworthy content. He speculates that this could mean that the actual – and potentially more interesting – story of increased cooperation between employers and employees has been missed. He says:

[M]aybe the most interesting and typical thing about workplace relations throughout this recession has been mostly ignored. That is that they seem to have been marked by weary resignation in the workforce or, dare we say it, co-operation during hard times on both sides. Meanwhile effort goes instead to finding proof of that elusive strike-mayhem. [...] The interesting question is whether this is a dog that hasn’t yet bitten because people have changed in the UK. That’s a question not much asked.

Putting the spirit of cooperation to the test

It remains to be seen if the theory floated here by Blastland proves correct.

The recession ushered in a new cooperative spirit between employers and employees, with both sides assuming a collaborative and flexible approach to stave off job losses for as long as possible. This was manifested in a willingness to explore alternatives to redundancy, such as pay freezes and short-time working. This flexible approach in turn helped to mitigate the worst effects of recession on the UK labour market, resulting in lower-than-expected rises in unemployment.

However, it is possible that this cooperative spirit could fracture and levels of strike action could rise as the full impact of public spending cuts is felt.

While unrelated to the trade unions, the recent wave of student protests might foreshadow a wider appetite for unrest. The Guardian reports that Metropolitan Police chief Sir Paul Stephenson fears “a new era of civil unrest as the national campaign against university fee increases and education cuts gather[s] momentum.”

The key test of whether the UK public has permanently lost its appetite for strike action could come at the start of spring 2011. The TUC has announced that it will stage the “biggest and boldest event in our history”: a national “mobilisation” which “will culminate in a national demonstration in central London” on Saturday 26 March 2011.

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