Wednesday, June 13, 2007

British strikes

Working days lost to strikes soar
By Andrew Taylor, Employment Correspondent

Financial Times
June 12 2007

The number of working days lost through strikes soared last year to the highest level since 2004 as the government faced increasing strife from public sector unions over job cuts, pay and pensions.

Total days lost rose from 157,400 in 2005 to 754,500 last year, according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics. More than 80 per cent of the days lost through strikes last year involved public sector workers.

Gordon Brown is facing a fresh round of public sector stoppages when he takes over as prime minister at the end of this month.

More than 2m civil servants, postal workers, council staff, teachers and health workers have threatened to take industrial action in a series of disputes over below-inflation pay rises, job cuts and privatisation of services. Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, the largest public sector union, and Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, representing 280,000 civil servants, have called on unions to co-ordinate industrial action to cause maximum embarrassment for Mr Brown.

The biggest single stoppage last year involved more than 1m local government workers who forced the closure of schools, libraries, local bus services, leisure centres and multi-storey car parks when they walked out for 24 hours in March over proposed changes to rules allowing staff to retire early on full pensions.

Civil servants, driving test examiners, revenue and customs staff, passport staff and national gallery employees staged a series of separate one-day strikes over job cuts and pay.
The outcome, in spite of the upsurge in public sector strikes, was still well below the number of days lost through strikes in the 1970s when an average of 12.9m days were lost annually and in the 1980s when 7.2m days a year were lost through stoppages, says the ONS. It compared with 29.47m days lost in 1979 during the "winter of discontent" and a record 162m days lost in 1926, the year of the General Strike.

Union membership, which peaked at 13.2m in 1979, when over half of all workers were members of a trade union, has fallen to fewer than 7.5m as employment in traditional manufacturing industries has declined. According to the Department of Trade and Industry only 16.6 per cent of private sector employees are members of a union compared with 58.8 per cent of public-sector employees.

Legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher, imposing lengthy and complex balloting procedures, is blamed by unions for impairing their ability to organise industrial actions. But rising affluence and increased home ownership may also have reduced members' willingness to halt work for more than a short period. Stoppages lasting for no more than 24 hours accounted for 67 per cent of all days lost through strikes last year.

Unions also appear to be using strike ballots as a negotiating tool rather than a prelude to action. Last year there were 1,341 ballots calling for strike action, of which 1,290 voted in favour of a stoppage but only 158 stoppages took place.

The result is that Britain, from having one of the worst industrial relations records among European Union and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, has one of the lowest number of days lost through strikes. Figures published last year by the ONS reported that the UK strike rate - the number of days lost per 1,000 workers - was the 19th lowest out of 26 nations studied in 2004.

The UK lost only 25 days a year per 1,000 workers on average between 1995 to 2004. This compared with 40 days lost in the US; 200 in Spain; 172 in Denmark; 100 in Italy, 193 in Canada and 68 in Australia. The average for the 12 EU countries for which statistics were available was 59 days and 48 days for OECD countries.

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