Are strikes really all that common?
No. In fact, the latest figures suggest they’ve never been so uncommon.
Being able to withdraw your labour is an essential human right, which is why Conservative ministers are usually careful to deny that the Trade Union Bill is an attack on the right to strike. But some of the Bill’s supporters are not very concerned about this human right and instead worry that there are “too many” strikes. That is why Ministers repeat the dog-whistle line that their changes are about stopping it being ‘too easy’ to strike, which allows them to avoid admitting that the Bill is actually, in David Cameron’s words, an “anti-strike law”.
Anyone who’s been involved in a dispute knows that workers only consider strikes as a last resort. People are reluctant even to agree to milder forms of action – after all, strikes, overtime bans and other tactics usually involve lost pay and inconvenience. Most workers are proud of the jobs they do and stopping work can be a psychological, as well as a financial sacrifice.
And the perception that strikes are too easy are largely based on memories of the way the disputes of the 1970s were reported. The latest monthly figures show that, in August of this year (the most recent month for which we have data) a grand total of 22,000 working days were lost to strike action. For comparison, in the same month, today’s figures reveal that about 675 million days were worked, roughly 30,000 times as many. For readers not happy with the numbers, here they are, shown as a chart:
The right-hand column is there, honest, but my computer refuses to print anything that small. And I haven’t cheated by choosing an unrepresentative month – the average for the past twelve months is 24,750 days. If we take a longer historical perspective, strikes are at a very low ebb. The table below looks at the average number of days lost to strikes per month for each decade over the past 85 years:
The average number of days lost to strikes is lower than it was during the Second World War. In fact, today’s most recent figures are for 70 years after the month in which the war ended. Which set me thinking … the next table shows the number of days lost because of strikes over the past six years, alongside the same month exactly 70 years before.
The months I’ve highlighted in red are the only one where the recent figure is higher than its WWII equivalent. And note the total: nearly three times as high for the 1939-45 numbers.
The point is, that there will always be strikes in a free society, but we are so far from having large numbers of strikes that there were more even during a period of unequalled national unity, when the TUC, the leadership of the individual unions and every significant political organisation (including, from June 1941, the Communist Party) was arguing against industrial action, however justified.
There is no problem that needs to be solved by the Trade Union Bill’s rules on strikes: the government is doing this because they can.