From the TUC

Now is the season of our discontent – or just a long weekend?

24 Aug 2009, by in Labour market

Today both the Morning Star and the Daily Express, from their very different perspectives, predict that we are in for an “autumn of discontent” as there are a number of possible strikes in the pipeline. I rather expect that there will be more of sightings of discontent in the next few days, given that even the Press Association’s admirable Alan Jones – about the only full time industrial correspondent left – used the phrase today too. But none of them should.

This is not to say that there won’t be some increase in strike activity in coming months. There may well be, though threatening a strike is often a way to get negotiations going again. But even if there is an upsurge of industrial action, today’s industrial relations climate is very different to that of late 1978 and early 1979 before Gloucester’s opening words in Richard III had become such a tired cliché.

Yet we are nowhere near the levels of 30 years ago, as the table below shows. In 1979 nearly 30 million days were lost, closely followed by 27 million days in the miners’ strike year of 1984. But in the last ten years, only two years have had more than a million days lost and there is no particular discernible trend. Those years with the high figures tend to have had at least one significant national strike. Even a single day’s strike in local government will boost such low baseline figures significantly.

But what we can say is that if 1979 represented a winter of discontent – that is, three months – then in 2005 there was a solitary afternoon of discontent, and the last time we even managed a week of discontent was in 1989. 2007’s figures were higher than for a few years, but still only added up to a long weekend of discontent – and despite the predictions fell back agin last year.

It is worth remembering too that the workforce today is much larger than in 1979. We have had enough statistics for one post, but a table of days lost per 1,000 workers would show an even sharper decline.

Whether the difference between today and 1978/9  is a good or bad thing is besides the point of this post, but what is indisputable is that there is a difference – and that adding “of discontent” to the current season should be consigned – to use another cliché – to the dustbin of history.

Year

Working Days lost through industrial action (millions)

1979

29.474

1980

11.964

1981

4.266

1982

5.313

1983

3.754

1984

27.135

1985

6.402

1986

1.920

1987

3.546

1988

3.702

1989

4.128

1990

1.903

1991

0.761

1992

0.528

1993

0.649

1994

0.278

1995

0.415

1996

1.303

1997

0.235

1998

0.282

1999

0.242

2000

0.499

2001

0.525

2002

1.323

2003

0.499

2004

0.905

2005

0.157

2006

0.755

2007

1.041

2008

0.756

TUC