Level of strike incidence in Britain Essay

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Account for the much lower level of strike incidence in Britain in recent years. Are strikes withering away as a feature of British industrial relations? Strikes are often seen as workers most powerful weapon in a dispute because of the financial loss imposed upon the employer. They can generally be defined as a collective withdrawal from work by employees intended to modify employer behaviour. The official definition of a strike in Britain are those lasting at least a day and involving at least ten workers, unless a total of 100 or more striker days is involved.

Strikes are counted by the Employment Department, which uses reports from Unemployment Benefit offices, returns from some public sector organisations and newspapers and other sources, to identify stoppages. There are three main measures of strikes: the number of separate stoppages; the number of workers involved; and the number of days lost. The number of recorded strikes was larger decade by decade in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The upward trend peaked in 1970 at 3906 strikes and by 1979 the number had fallen to 2080.

But both the other two measures of strike activity the number of workers involved and working days lost were historically high in the 1970s. In the 1980s the decline in the number of strikes speeded up and there were major reductions in the other two measures of strike activity. For example the number of working days lost per year due to strikes had peaked at 14 million in 1970-1974 before falling below 1 million between 1990 and 1994. During the 1970s, strike numbers fell, but the presence of large disputes kept the levels of worker involvement and days lost very high.

The 1980s saw the majority of strikes shift to the public sector. During the 1980s all the main indicators fell, so that by the end of the decade the number of strikes was similar to that in the 1940s though worker involvement and days lost were still higher. Strikes became smaller, shorter and less pay related. The large reduction in strike activity in Britain seems remarkable until it is set beside the decline in other countries. So the causes are likely to have included ones, which were at work generally rather than ones, which were peculiarly British.

The worldwide recession of the early 1980s and the 1990s were the common cause, tipping the balance of bargaining power towards the employers and away from the unions, Edwards argues there are five possible explanations for falling strike Firstly, it is argued that economic conditions affect the number of strikes. In particular that higher unemployment associated with the world recession in the 1980s led to lower levels of strikes. That is that low levels of unemployment strengthen workers and unions and thus encourage strikes.

But any empirical linkage is not universal, with high unemployment being associated with low strike rates in countries like Britain and the US but high rates in other European countries. Davies found that that unemployment reduced the number of strikes but it was because of increases in the level of unemployment that this was occurring. It was also found that high levels of inflation encouraged strikes, the explanation being that inflation leads to concerns about maintaining real income.

So it would seem that reductions in inflation have contributed to reduced strikes. But evidence that economic conditions have had a clear and uniform effect on strike levels is very limited. Economic conditions seem to operate differently in different countries and their effects are not automatic Secondly, the changing structure of employment is likely to have had an effect. Since the strike prone sectors have lost jobs, there are fewer workers subject to these forces.

For example the coal industry was one of the most strike prone sectors and this experienced one of the sharpest reductions in size. Technical and organisation change have been important in reducing strike levels. Such changes have removed some of the conditions, which allowed strikes to flourish in the past. Much of the decline in strikes reflects trends in the strike prone sectors. In the traditionally strike free sectors, there has been relatively little change in the determinants of industrial action.

The contraction of major basic industries with high densities of trade union members, like coal, steel and ship building, has obviously reduced the area where strikes could occur, and the increase in the proportion of employees in service trades where unions are weak or not recognised has made the part of the economy in which strikes might happen much smaller. The ending of many national agreements and the decentralisation of bargaining to companies and plants where managers and unions representatives often have a cooperative relationship, have reduced the relevance of strike action.

The changes in the public sector are also related. Privatisation and outsourcing and the emphasis on competition and efficiency, meant that employers were forced to manage better. An important factor working against strike action has been widespread feelings of job insecurity. High levels of unemployment and redundancies connected with delayering and down-sizing in a wide range of service trades like banking, as well as in manufacturing industries, have created a general uneasiness about continuity of employment. Many employees have felt that strikes, or threats of strikes, could only increase that insecurity.

When looking at the impact of legislation upon strikes, it is important to look at its historical context. The Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act in 1875 meant inability to sue if in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute. This was confirmed by the Trades Dispute Act 1906 which concreted the unions immunities. It sought to protect workers and counteract the inequality of bargaining power inherent in the employment relationship. It enhanced voluntarism by providing trade unions with immunity from liability for civil wrongs.

In 1965 the Labour government appointed the Donovan Royal Commission to investigate industrial relations. When the commission reported in 1968, it focused on the voluntary reform of collective bargaining. In 1971, however, the new Conservative government introduced the Industrial Relations Act, which proposed a comprehensive legal framework. Closely modelled, on American legislation, the Act replaced the unions traditional legal immunities with restrictions on industrial action and endeavoured to make collective agreements legally enforceable.

The Act lost credibility, and the incoming Labour government returned the law on trade disputes and the status of unions broadly to what it had been before 1971. Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher had come to power in 1979, after the debacle of public sector strikes during the winter of discontent helped to turn the tide against the Labour government. Thatcher announced that the country could no longer afford to feather-bed the trade union leaders and officials.

Not only would the collaborative culture of beer and sandwiches at 10 Downing Street end a frontal attack to smash the militants section of the trade unions would be launched. The Thatcher government saw its polices in the origins in the New Right, with its emphasis on the free working of markets and the need to minimise state interferences. As union bargaining strength was considered to stem from immunities in relation to industrial action and the coercive poor of the closed shop these became central targets to the governments legislative programme.

A policy of enterprise confinement was pursued in restricting the scope of lawful industrial action. Immunities were seen by the government as unique privileges putting trade unions above the law, and were narrowed significantly by successive pieces of legislation. As part of the governments step-by-step approach, the stream of Acts of Parliament since 1980 in dealing with trade unions altered the legal position of strikers and their unions.

Over powerful unions were, in the eyes of the Conservative Party, too ready to use strikes to get their way: strikes are too often a weapon of first rather than last resort (Conservative Party Manifesto, 1979). Strikes had become for the Conservative Party, the symbol of the abuse of their power by trade union. The 1982 Act on strikes made key alteration in the law, which severely reduced trade union immunity from legal action. If the unions were to avoid losing immunity, they would have to give up certain types of strike action.

The legal definition of a trade dispute was narrowed in 1982 in an attempt to prevent political strikes and inter union disputes. A trade dispute must wholly or mainly relate to employment matters and must be between workers and their employer. The Trade Union Act 1984 meant that secret ballots had to be held before lawful industrial action could take place. If strike is called by a union without the support of the majority of the participants, voting in a secret ballot, the employer concerned can sue the union.

Even where there was widespread union disagreement to the implementation of such policies it is events such as the fining of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) the sum of i?? 200,000 in 1984 for failing to carry out a pre-strike ballot that instilled a sense of obedience. The Employment Act 1988 gave trade union members, as well as employers, the right to ask the courts to stop a strike where there had not been a ballot carried out accruing to law with a majority in favour.

Moreover, even where there was a majority in favour of strike action, a union could not punish a member who went to work or who encouraged others to do so. In the 1990 Employment Act all forms of secondary action where workers called a strike for a cause other than at their own place of work, was finally made illegal. There could be selective dismissal of strikes. As for picketing, it was made illegal in 1988 for unionists who crossed official picket lines to be disciplined for doing so.

It is measures such as these that could have contributed to the fall in the working days lost to strike action The Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993 meant all strike ballots had to be postal, ending workplace ballots which had been secret since 1984; seven days notice of the action had to be given to employers, thus allowing them to make preparation to render the strike ineffective; and the employers had to be given a list of all employees being called on by the union to vote and subsequently to take action, thereby revealing to the employer the unions members.

The Trade Union reform and Employment Rights Act 1993 was the sixth piece of legislation since 1980 to make provisions on strike action, and its passage coincided with the smallest annual number of strikes ever recorded. The Labour Government elected in May 1997 was not committed to any change in the legislation about strikes apart from some protection against the dismissal of strikers.

The anti strike laws were retained by labour except there was a 1999 Employment Relations Act which made it unfair to discriminate against strikers, strike ballots had to be anonymous and there fewer simpler striker procedures put in place. The total effect of legislation on strikes was considerable it made them more difficult, more costly, with fewer legal opportunities. But the legal change is only a contributory factor to strike decline increased competition and changed attitudes are more important.

Most negotiators believe that the legislation has had little effect on the conduct of industrial relations. Brown and Wadhwani argue that the legislation cannot be considered in isolation. They conclude that the economic effects of the legislation have been limited and, to some extent, perverse. The governments legislation affecting strikes therefore, seems not to have been a main reason for the decline in strike action. But it has changed the legal framework affecting strikes. Strike ballots are a good illustration.

That the ballots amount to a major change in practices is unquestionable. Secret ballots are now held as a matter of course before strike action is taken, expect for local strikes, which suddenly flare up. In the vast majority of cases, of course, a majority in favour of strike action does not lead to one occurring. There is a general acceptance that secret ballots before strikes are a permanent feature of the practice of industrial relations. But the majority of strikes namely, the small and short ones do not involve ballots.

Edwards estimates at least 60% of strikes will have been unaffected. The reduced number of strikes may be further due to better industrial relations. This could mean some general increase in trust, commitment and cooperation within the workplace; a reassertion of managerial prerogative so that workers do not strike because of the fear of the costs; and a pragmatic reordering of the workplace such that some of the past encouragements to strike have been removed.

Better procedures may be in place where peaceful decisions can be made without the use of strikes relating to third party intervention. This can cover conciliation where there is an intermediary role but no award, or arbitration where there is a formal hearing with a binding reward. This has involved the use of the Advisory, conciliation and Arbitration Service(ACAS) which was established in 1976. It provides collective conciliation over potential strikes and offers binding arbitration if collective conciliation fails.

There has been use of strike free deals, including pendulum arbitration. A strike free deal is a package of measures designed to minimise conflict and maximise cooperation between management, employees and unions. It is an integrated package designed not only to eliminate strikes but also to structure or restructure employment relations in order to mobilise the commitment of employees and unions to the goals of the business.

Pendulum arbitration (forced choice) is often seen as a solution but it is of limited value in practice. It is not good for multi issue disputes and is unhelpful for long-term relationships. The main reasons for the decline in strike activity then since 1979 appear to have been economic rather than the result of legislation. Rising unemployment between 1979 and 1986, and again between 1989 and 1993, reduced the willingness of employees to take strike action.

This was accompanied by a significant restructuring of the economy, with a decline in strongly unionised and more strike prone traditional industries and a growth in poorly unionised and less strike prone service industries. Although strikes are much less frequent by any measure say than in the 1970s, they dont appear to be withering away. They still remain an important weapon for employees to put pressures on their employers. Recently, in Britain strikes have become more popular in the public services, eg in rail services.

Furthermore, with Tony Blair following to a large extent the free market ideology of Thatcher, less regulation for workers may mean workers feel a greater need for strikes over pay and conditions. In conclusion therefore, various causes of the reduction of strike levels have acted in combination. Economic pressures, the changing distribution of employment and organisation change within the firm exerted the most clear cut effects. Changes in the law may have had a less direct influence, though it is hard to disentangle their effects from wider political forces.

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