2022 and beyond
Strikes declined in the UK from a high point in the late 1970s to very low levels from 1990. To a large extent, individual legal rights replaced trade unions in the UK as the primary mechanism of protecting workers during this time. However, over the last twelve months, the cost of living crisis and high rates of inflation have seen a resurgence of industrial action.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) stopped gathering data in the UK on days lost due to industrial action from January 2020 after thirty years of historically low numbers. From June 2022 this data is now being published again and, in September, ONS data showed that 205,000 working days were lost to industrial action. While much higher than the trend over the last three decades, these numbers are dwarfed by the working days lost in earlier decades. In July 1989, over 2.4 million working days were lost and a decade earlier in September 1979, 11.7 million working days were lost due to industrial action.
Over the last year in the UK strikes have taken place (or been threatened) across the rail industry, at airports, within the Post Office, and by criminal law barristers, various NHS and other public sector workers and teaching unions. CIPD research from early 2022, undertaken before the wave of unrest the UK experienced over the summer, noted this rise in industrial conflict with 53% of employers believing that the UK was entering a more unstable period of employment relations, contrasted with 16% who disagreed.
With inflation predicted to remain high, ongoing conflict seems inevitable, particularly in the public sector, as workers seek inflationary pay rises to avoid reductions in real pay and the government seeks to limit pay rises in the public sector to combat rising inflation and restrict public expenditure. Pay rises running materially below inflation will drive discontent from workers, many of whom will be struggling to make ends meet, and result in industrial conflict.
The rise in industrial action is apparent throughout Europe and the US. In the US, union membership has been expanding, with companies such as Starbucks facing unionisation campaigns.
In response to growing industrial action, the government in the UK introduced a change to employment law to remove the ban on the use of agency staff to cover for striking workers. The government has announced plans to further curtail scope for industrial action, including to maintain minimum levels of services in the transport sector. These changes are likely to result in further conflict with the trade unions.
In contrast, Labour party policy– unsurprisingly on account of its strong links to trade unions – aims not only to reduce restrictions on trade union activity but also to radically “update” trade union legislation, including a move to reintroduce the concept of sectoral collective bargaining.