Strikes: monsters that are almost extinct

After he wisely cautioned the government against further trade union legislation a few years ago, Norman Tebbit changed his tune in the Telegraph earlier this week. In a piece which summoned up the ghost of militancy past, he backed proposed new laws on strike ballots and warned of “irresponsible minorities of trades unionists in the public services engaged in blackmailing their employers into pay rises or other concessions”.

I’ve discussed the legal aspects of strike ballots at length on here. Whether or not they are irresponsible, a minority of union militants can’t force a majority to take industrial action. Lord Tebbit knows this because he was a member of the governments that put a stop to the closed shop, mass picketing and the disciplining of union members for refusing to strike.

A lot has changed since the 1980s. As luck would have it, the ONS released the latest data on labour disputes yesterday. Its records go back to 1931. (See Table LABD01 here.)

Labour Disputes 1931 -2014

To say that the number of days lost to industrial disputes is at an all time low is something of an understatement. Compared to most of the last century, strikes have almost become extinct. They are no longer a feature of our industrial relations landscape.

The decline in industrial militancy is not recent. Strikes have been historically low for the past 25 years. There were fewer days lost to strikes last year than there were during the backs-to-the-wall days of 1940. Whatever else is going on in the UK economy, there is no labour disputes crisis. To suggest that urgent action needs to be taken against trade unions is either delusional or mischievous.

Perhaps the clue is in this sentence:

If my friends really want to win the election in May they need to move the debate back onto Conservative strong ground.

It’s a battle the Conservatives won once before so they are hoping they can stage a re-enactment. I’m not convinced this is strong ground any more though. While we still hear about industrial disputes, few of us are directly affected by them and even fewer participate. If you’d asked a random sample of people in 1980 if they knew anyone who’d been on strike, you’d have found plenty who did. Ask the same now and you might struggle to find anyone at all. Strikes just aren’t part of our world any more.

There is no practical reason to change the law on strike ballots. You only have to look at the figures to see how much has changed. This is solution without a problem. The Conservatives are picking a fight with an extinct monster.

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10 Responses to Strikes: monsters that are almost extinct

  1. organic cheeseboard says:

    I dunno, people do get affected by strikes, especially those by London transport workers or teachers. The ‘union boss paymaster’ thing doesn’t seem particularly cutting, but people on strike are certainly fairly unpopular in London.

  2. Dave Timoney says:

    Re “people on strike are certainly fairly unpopular in London”. You might get this impression if you rely on the Evening Standard or LBC for your vox-pop, but the reality is that public support for strikes is usually high. This is because the numbers affected are (as a percentage) low, the personal impact is often slight, and many Londoners actually sympathise with the strikers.

    Transport stoppages are usually one-day only. They have limited effect because there are alternatives and management often fill in. During last year’s stoppages, TfL proudly boasted that 86% of regular commuters still managed to use their Oysters. Teacher strikes are no more inconvenient than Inset days, and less frequent.

    The chief trope of media reporting on strikes is the “victim”, such as hard-working mums inconvenienced by selfish teachers or City commuters put out by the bolshie RMT. The media rarely hunt down those who switched from Tube to bus or who decided to work from home for a day. A secondary trope is the “loss” of economic activity, which is utter cobblers in the case of short strikes – work just time-shifts.

  3. thenextwavefutures says:

    Quite a lot of recent strikes have been about issues related to low pay, certainly in London: Picture House, London buses. Given that this is a problem affecting something over half the workforce, I suspect there’s more sympathy than @Organic Cheeseboard seems to think.

  4. Bill Wells says:

    In Germany and Ireland for example Government, business and workers engage in what is called social partnership – a consensual arrangement. In the UK the collective description of business and workers is both sides of industry – an adversarial or competitive situation. And an adversarial situation where one side only has one objective – increasing pay – rather than as in Germany a discussion about pay, jobs and productivity. For example, if in the UK a member wanted to vote against an offer of a pay increase then the presumption is that you want more money not that you might want a lower wage in return for more employment/the firm doen’t go bust etc.

    Between around 1966 and 1979 the UK Government tried to engage in a German social partnership model – there was even a period called the ‘Social Contract’. However, in giving more power to the collective bodies – businesses and unions – to deliver this social contract (and particularly giving more power to the leaders of the collective organisations) there was a hope of a more consensual approach that considered all the aspects of the business model. However, because I believe, that the industrial relations system remained essentially adversarial both businesses and labour took advantage of their increased monopoly power and this led to more not less frictions – epitomised in historically high levels of strikes and the ‘Winter of Discontent’.

    The trade union reforms of the 1980s removed the institutional underpinning of the monopoly power of unions. However, as important I believe, is that it ‘gave the unions back to their members’ and made the reaction of the union leaders dependent on the views of the individual members. And at an individual level the members have consistently exerted their views that the benefits of striking are not worth the cost of striking. So strikes have fallen to virtually nothing and even when they are called there is nowhere near the same ‘solidarity’ in all members coming out on strike.

    You can argue about whether the balance of power between capital and labour is appropriate and also between the members and leaders of unions. However, one thing that confuses the situation is that the administrative regulations on membership are a mess. And this only shows up at the very point where you need them to be at their most precise. With roughly 1 in 5 workers moving jobs each year it is not surprising that there are arguments about ‘ghost’ voters and low turn-out. Consequently, I always thought that the rules to ensure that the union membership is regularly updated and endorsed as accurate were essentially beneficial for the unions rather than anyone else. I think it will lead to (much?) higher estimates of turn-out and so give greater legitimacy to the decision of the union.

    And in general, I think that there should be the same sort of better regulation review of union legislation that there has been for other areas of legislation. When the regulations were being brought in people were making it up as they were going along. A standardised, modernised technocratic exercise – having decided whether the balance of power is appropriate or not – would, I believe – help to cement the place of unions in a pluralistic society.

    And on the question of the balance of power I would just point out that in terms of unions a move towards more regulations and constraints in one area would seem at odds with a philosophy of deregulation and the ‘right’ level of regulation. Whereas, conversely, a move towards giving more power and freedom to unions would seem at odds with an approach that – in the business area – wants to attack vested interests and predatory monopoly power.

    Bill Wells

  5. JohnM says:

    Perhaps we/you should wait for the legislation to be published, and see what is riding on the back of ballot percentage?
    Something like making each member give approval for each union donation to “any” political party will inevitably sneak in….
    The devil will be in the detail, the conservative party have hated unions, and all worker organisation, with a passion, since they/it started.
    Organised labout?
    Get outa here….put the plebs back in the workhouse!

  6. Pingback: Strikes: monsters that are almost extinct – Flip Chart Fairy Tales | Vox Political

  7. Thomas says:

    The bad thing with strikes is…innocent people not directly involved in the dispute get affected.

  8. beastrabban says:

    Reblogged this on Beastrabban’s Weblog and commented:
    Flipchart Rick shows here that the Tories are trying to whip up a panic about a non-existent threat. Of course, by urging further action against the unions, Tebbit is deliberately trying to whip up the same scares that partly propelled Thatcher to power: industrial militancy, the ‘Winter of Discontent’, Arthur Scargill and the Miner’s Strike, and all the other bogeymen of the trade unions the Tories trot out. Tebbit weirdly sees himself as standing up for the underdog against the big boys and bullies. You could make out the case that he needs the spectre of militant trade unionism as much for his own self-image as for those of his party. Without the threat of the power of the unions, the Tories look very much like bullies themselves, picking on the poor, the weak, the helpless.
    Which is exactly what they, and what they’ve always been. And it’s why the unions were formed in the first place.

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