Striking power

Man with megaphone30 November 2011

Does the widespread strike in the public sector on 30 November herald a new era of industrial action and empowered trade unions? Workers are provoked by proposed cuts in public sector pensions, and the strike enjoys widespread support – a BBC poll suggests that 61 per cent of people believe strike is justifiable.

"It is in economic downturns, when unionised labour proves better able than non-unionised labour to hold onto the gains it has made during good times, that one expects union effects to come to the fore." This prophetic statement by Professor David Blanchflower and Visiting Research Fellow Alex Bryson was made in the 2008 Discussion Paper Union Decline in Britain from the Centre for Economic Performance.

The long economic upturn the UK economy enjoyed from the late nineties to the late noughties was accompanied by declining union membership, not only in the private sector but also in the public sector.

"We would expect smaller union effects when economic conditions are good because employers are often in a better position to concede union demands when they are profitable," Professor Blanchflower and Bryson note. It is when times get tougher that the effect of unions – and strikes – may become noticeable.

Although the recession and budget cuts of recent times have brought more discontent and increased the risk of strike, figures from the ESRC-supported Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) show a dramatic reduction in industrial action since 1980. The number of working days lost per 1,000 union members decreased from an annual average of 1,163 in the 1970s to 76 in the 1990s. They are still below the levels in many other developed countries.

In the CEP Discussion Paper Individualisation and Growing Diversity of Employment Relationships Professors William Brown and David Marsden explore recent changes in employment relationships.

They note that the decline of traditional trade unions and the old system of collective regulation of the workplace is increasingly replaced by a more 'market-oriented' but less egalitarian system, prioritising the needs of individual organisations and their employees.

"The decline of organised union voice in Britain and of collective regulated employment practices may well have enabled pay and work practices to absorb some of the shock of the first wave of the recession, and so to protect employment levels, at least initially," Brown and Marsden comment. But they warn that this gain is set against the price of increasing inequality and decreasing trust towards employers.