Business & economics

Is conflict declining in employment relations?

Dr Ian Roper examines the decline in strike action over recent years in the UK and asks whether it indicates a more harmonious employment environment.

The number of strike actions taken in the UK has been in decline for a number of years. Dr Ian Roper, Associate Professor in HRM, sheds some light on the reasons for this reduction in strikes, and examines whether it means we’re happier at work or are simply expressing our dissatisfaction in other ways.

On 30 May 2018 it was widely reported that the level of strike activity in the UK in 2017 was the lowest ‘since records began in 1891’.  This makes for quite a dramatic headline. On the eve of Middlesex University hosting the annual British Universities Industrial Relations (BUIRA) conference, it warrants an examination of whether this is an indicator that a seemingly ever-present feature of the British workplace – conflict – is now a thing of the past.

The official statistics reported that the total number of stoppages – one measure of strike activity – was just 79. That is, indeed, the lowest on record. In terms of working days lost, that figure was 276,000 (the sixth lowest figure) involving 33,000 workers (again, the lowest figure on record). That these figures suggest a strong decline in strike activity is not in contention. Nor is it in contention that this is the latest figure amongst a general trend. Figures show how the latest figures compare to, for example, some peak years. In 1984, the year of the miners strike, 27.1 million working days were lost. In 1926, the year of the general strike, 162.2 million days were lost.

What the figures do not show, however, is whether the fall in strikes is a good indicator of workplace conflict itself declining or, its corollary, that workplaces are now more harmonious. There are good reasons to suggest that this is not the case.

Restrictive regulation

The reasons for falling strike levels have to take into account the circumstances in which a strike may take place in the first place which is, in fact, complex. First there needs to be a perceived collective grievance among the workers. Second, there needs to be the capability to mobilise – and this further requires a union with sufficient membership density; a capacity to organise its members and confidence that the action taken will be sufficiently disruptive to bring the employer back to the bargaining table.

In addition to the convergence of these factors, unions have to comply with some of the most restrictive regulatory mechanisms in the developed world brought in progressively since the Thatcher governments of the 1980’s, the most recent being the Trade Union Act 2016. This latest set of restrictions on strike action requires a union to not only win a majority of its membership to vote in favour of a strike; but that turnout in the ballot must be at least 50%; and that for those workplaces deemed to be “important public services” in addition to a majority, and a 50% turnout, at least 40% of the whole membership (rather than just those voting) must vote in favour of a strike. This series of conditions, it has frequently been pointed out, could not be applied to the votes obtained to elect the majority of Members of Parliament.

In contrast to much of the public discourse on strikes which emphasises the inconvenience to which it sometimes puts members of the public (particularly in the case of public transport or schools), there has been a less visible campaign to restore union rights to make union negotiating power something closer  to the veto power wielded by employers. Much of the regulatory framework on industrial action is concerned with employer rights to legally challenge union ballots. In 2007 the, then backbench MP, John McDonnell attempted to challenge much of this in the (unsuccessful) Trade Union Rights and Freedom Bill 2007

Displacement of dissatisfaction

Turning now to the second factor. If strikes could be said to be low because they have been suppressed by regulatory constraints, then where does the conflict go? Here the ‘displacement’ argument goes that conflict is now directed into informal and individualised forms. The most visible form of individualised conflict can be observed in Employment Tribunal (ET) statistics. Introduced as an add-on to training legislation in 1964, the ET system has increased in significance as a semi-legal means for workers (often via unions) to seek an external means to challenge employer decisions on issues such as unfair dismissal and discrimination issues. ET claims have increased in inverse proportion to that of the declining strike rates. As such, ETs have also come under some scrutiny by Government.

Sadly, as with strikes, the solution to indicators of increased dissatisfaction has not been to seek out the causes of conflict, but to suppress the manifestation of it. So in 2013 the Conservatives ‘reformed’ the ET system by introducing up-front fees for claimants with the express intent of reducing the number of claims. This resulted in a dramatic fall in claims, particularly severe in cases of equal pay and discrimination. However, in 2017 upfront fees were deemed unlawful by the supreme court. The result was a similarly dramatic 90% rise in claims in 2018.

Other less formal indicators also support this ‘displacement’ theory. It is now regularly reported that the number of days lost to sickness absence far exceed days lost to strike action. Compare, for example, the days lost to strike action, above, to the 137.3 million days lost to sickness absence in 2016. Of course the breakdown of these sickness absence figures may be more revealing if it were possible. How much of it is genuine, but work-related? And how much may be ‘pulling a sickie’ by (disgruntled?) workers? Some of the overall figures are undoubtedly an indicator of conflict: industrial injury and work-related stress leading to an increase in mental health problems more broadly.

All in all, the reasons strikes are low, are at least partly due to the difficulty in meeting all the conditions needed to call a strike. Given that indicators of more individualist forms of conflict suggest a displacement of conflict, the lower levels of strike activity cannot be attributed to an increase in worker satisfaction.

A final thought

If there is a prevailing discourse suggesting that workplace conflict is a thing of the past, because strikes are a thing of the past – both assertions which we can now assert are inaccurate – how is this distorting how we see the activities of human resource management in practice? I have argued elsewhere that workplace conflict is an issue somewhat absent in national discourses of HRM, yet features much more prominently at organisation level. Aspiring HR professionals would do well to keep informed on what is going on in the field of employment relations, both professionally, through employment law updates provided by the likes of the CIPD, and academically, not least in such events hosted by BUIRA.

Plenary sessions at BUIRA 2018 will include a debate on strikes by John Kelly, Phil Taylor, Jo Grady, Rachel Cohen and Sean Wallis.

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