From the TUC

Is the Daily Mail right about increasing strike action? (Spoiler: No)

09 Sep 2016, by in Public services

The Daily Mail took the TUC to task over claims made by our General Secretary, Frances O’Grady that industrial action was not on the increase and that the number of strikes were “very, very low”.

Referring to industrial disputes on Southern, ScotRail and Virgin East Coast, the Mail claimed that “passengers have endured the worst wave of rail strikes for 30 years”, using ONS figures to show that 60,700 working days had been lost to labour disputes involving transport and storage workers in the year to October 2015, up from 23,600 the previous year.

Leaving aside for one moment the Mail’s characteristic laying of the blame for industrial disputes solely on the heads of the union members involved, it’s worth taking a closer look at the figures.

Let’s start with industrial disputes across all sectors of the UK economy. The chart below indicates that, in historical context, strikes are indeed at “very, very low levels”. In the very last sentence of the article the Mail itself acknowledges that the number of days lost to strike action last year was “the second lowest total on record”.

Days lost to labour disputes 1891 to present day in UK

But what of the rail industry – the particular focus of the Daily Mail’s wrath in this particular piece.

The first thing to say is that the figures are complicated by the way that the ONS collects and presents the data. In order to avoid the problem of identifying individual companies, ONS uses very broad industrial classifications, in this case workers in “Transport, Storage and Communication”. This category can include everything from passenger rail transport to the Royal Mail to film and TV. Disaggregating between them is not possible. So, as one example, the chart below will include days lost in postal workers’ strike action in 1996, 2007 and 2009.

With that caveat in mind, it is worth still looking at these figures in historical context.

The chart below shows the number of days lost to labour disputes in Transport, Storage and Communication from 1994 to 2015:

Labour Disputes - ONS - transport and storage

So while there has been an increase from 2014 to 2015, in an historical context, the level of strike action in the rail industry is low.

Of course, the more important point is made by Frances when she says “as always, what would be more helpful is people addressing the substance of the concerns that people have”.

And if we were to do so, we would get a better understanding of the increase in rail disputes over the last 12 months. Back in 2012, we raised concerns about the potential job losses that may arise as a result of the implementation of the recommendations of the McNulty Review.

In his Rail Value for Money study, Sir Roy McNulty made the following prescriptions for cuts to staffing costs:

  • Driver Only Operation as the default position for all services on the GB rail network
  • Closure of all Category E station ticket offices and reduced opening hours for Category D station ticket offices
  • Train operating companies to review station staffing as a matter of priority
  • Reduction of Network Rail maintenance, signalling and operations staff
  • Reduction of Network Rail’s management, support and administration
  • An end to above inflation pay increases
  • An industry-wide review of terms and conditions
  • The use of revised terms and conditions for new entrants to the industry

Many of these recommendations were supported by the government’s Rail Command Paper, published in response to McNulty.

Significantly, the paper stated that bidders for future franchises will be asked “to set out the key actions they will take to improve efficiency” and “to look closely at areas highlighted by the Rail Value for Money Study”

And this is precisely what is happening now – cost cutting exercises, implementing Driver Only Operation, closing ticket offices and downgrading staffing across a number of franchises is what ultimately lies behind the current disputes.