Is the strike no longer necessary?

'A strike has been defined as a temporary stoppage of work by a group of employees in order to express a grievance or enforce a demand. ' (Hyman, 1984) Being the most overt and demonstrative form of industrial action, the strike is arguably the most misunderstood feature of industrial relations because of the critical way in which it is depicted in the media. Strikes, discouraged by UK legislation, arise for many reasons, some of which include disputes about pay, conditions of work, union recognition, demarcation disputes, health and safety, discipline and job security.

In recent years there has been a general tendency for strikes to be defensive; they seek to defend existing wages, which is evident in the ongoing fire-fighters strike, and also existing working conditions, which is evident in the recent train strikes. The biggest single cause of strikes has traditionally been disputes over wages; the famous Pilkington strike of 1970 provides an excellent example of this. However, many strikes are also held because of fears about job certainties. This was reflected in the long and bitter Miners Strike in 1984, where workers were to lose jobs in the coal industry.

Strikes tend to be viewed by union members as a last resort; disputes need not lead to a strike if there are alternative methods of resolving differences. They have a symbolic significance because they are the ultimate form of power in which damage can be inflicted in order to extract concessions or to defend existing positions. However, strikes have declined greatly since the 1980s. In the 1970s an annual average number of 2. 6 million workers were involved in strike action. In the 1980s this reduced to 1. 1 million and in the first half of the 1990s the figure fell to 0.

24 million. (Keenoy, 1985) It is estimated that strikes have fallen from a national rate of 195 days lost per thousand employees in 1981 to 13 per thousand employees by 1994. (Floyd, 1998) The decline in strikes has been dramatic and they have been transformed from a major to a minor feature of the employment relations scene. Does this suggest that the strike is no longer necessary? It can be argued that the decline in strike activity is a direct result of the contraction of basic major manufacturing industries, such as coal-mining, the docks and motor vehicles.

(Kessler and Bayliss, 1998) The acceleration of deindustrialisation during the recession of the early 1980s meant that many manufacturing jobs were lost. The manufacturing industries were heavily unionised so as the numbers employed fell, so did union membership and the power of unions. This has reduced the area where strikes could occur because workers need some degree of collectivism to sustain a strike, which is often difficult without strong trade union support.

The increase in the proportion of employees in tertiary industries, such as service trades, where unions are weak or not recognised has made the part of the economy in which strikes might happen much smaller. The changing structure of employment and the shift of employment away from strike-prone sectors hence suggest that strikes are no longer necessary. For many years issues were dealt with centrally in the organisation, and collective bargaining therefore took place at a national level.

More recently there has been an increasing trend to delegate these activities down to a plant, branch, or site level. The growth of decentralisation has made many national bargaining agreements increasingly remote and therefore irrelevant. The ending of many national agreements and the decentralisation of bargaining to companies where managers and union representatives often have a cooperative relationship have reduced the relevance of strike action. The insecurity of the current labour market implies that strikes are no longer necessary.

High levels of unemployment and redundancies connected with 'delayering' and 'downsizing' in a wide range of services, such as banking, as well as in manufacturing services, have created a general uneasiness about continuity of employment. (Kessler and Bayliss, 1998) Job security has declined significantly and many young people are finding it harder than ever to find a job at all. These worrying trends for the future have led to many employees feeling that strikes, or threats of strikes, could only increase that insecurity, hence suggesting that strikes are no longer necessary.

The uncertainties of the current economic climate also provide good reasons as to why strikes are no longer necessary. The increase in unemployment in recent years has led to a sharp fall in trade union membership and so there has been a shift in the balance of power from trade unions to employers. These trends are reflected in fewer strikes. Changes in the law in the 1980s are also important. In the UK there has never existed a "right to strike" as this is understood in most of Europe. Strikers are in breach of their contracts of employment and are liable to dismissal.

Traditionally however trade unions were protected against liability for calling a strike; this immunity has now been removed and the circumstances in which they can legitimately organise a strike are now restricted. For example, since 1984 the law requires the deployment of ballots before strikes take place. (Edwards, 1995) Additionally some employers have shown a new willingness to dismiss strikers or threaten to do so, through the use of injunctions for example, which has discouraged many individuals from taking strike action, thereby indicating that strikes are no longer necessary.

(Rose, 2001) The 'flexible' labour market also suggests that strikes are no longer necessary. In recent years, the employment of women, part-timers and temporary workers has severely increased. The growth of this sector of the economy coupled with the extra time that women with families are making for themselves has been the driving force behind the huge increase in part-time work. Temporary and part-time workers are attractive alternative methods of recruitment in comparison to full-time employees because they are cheaper in terms of holiday pay, sick pay and pension.

They also offer a means of avoiding unionization. Workers need some degree of collective organisation to sustain a strike, which is less likely with low unionization. Trade union density rates for part-time and temporary workers are quite low. There are several reasons for this. For example, structural factors prevent part-timers from joining trade unions as the industries and occupations where the majority of part-time workers are employed are less likely to be organised.

Conversely, those industries and occupations which have high rates of trade union density only employ a tiny proportion of part-time workers. Furthermore, part-time workers are generally not at work for the whole of the working day and often work outside the core working hours of the firm, hence they have less time to participate in trade union activity. (http://www. clms. le. ac. uk/sally_w. html) Therefore the increasing employment of flexible workers, who tend not to participate in union activity and thus forgo strikes, suggests that strikes are no longer necessary.

It can be argued that improved dispute resolutions and 'better industrial relations' now exist and so going on strike is no longer necessary. (Rose, 2001) There is a general increase in trust, commitment and co-operation within the workplace, which is evident in the implementation of new working methods, such as quality circles and empowerment, by managers in contemporary organisations. Many employers handling of labour relations have become more sophisticated and they now prefer to achieve change through agreement.

With the added pressure during the economic downturn of the early 1990s, where it was difficult for individuals to push for higher wages, and then the low inflation environment of the UK since then (low levels of inflation reduce employee expectations of higher pay increases whilst high levels of inflation tend to encourage strikes as concern with maintaining real income grow), unions have found it more productive to try and work with employers rather than fight them. This suggests that strikes are no longer necessary because there is an increased understanding between employers, subordinates and unions today.

Although recent developments suggest that strikes are no longer necessary, we only have to look at current employment relation issues in the British economy to see that conflicts of interests still exist and that strikes are still occurring. Modern examples include strike action being taken by public sector workers including fire-fighters, teachers, university academics, and tube and rail workers. It is apparent that these individuals feel that they need to strike in order to demonstrate their determination on an issue or because negotiations have developed in such a way that a strike is seen as unavoidable.

Current economic pressures in Britain propose suitable reasons as to why strike activity is still necessary. The 'London Weighting' dispute argues that the cost of living in London is too expensive, in relation to elsewhere in the UK, thus public sector workers want to be compensated for the higher cost of living. One aspect of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) case is that since 1992, the cost of living in London has risen substantially. There have been sharp rises in house prices since 1997 and significant growth in the price differentials between London and the rest of the country.

At the same time, the value of academic and related staff salaries have fallen. Therefore 'London Weighting' allowance should be raised to reflect the true cost of living in the capital. (http://www. ucl. ac. uk/unions/AUT/weighting/case. html) Current economic pressures thus provide crucial explanations as to why strikes are still necessary in modern society. If employees want to convey grievances, going through formal procedures can be time consuming. For example, if employees behave 'responsibly' and follow procedure, they may find it takes a long time for the issue to be resolved and in some cases the problem may remain.

Procedure is sometimes used by management as a delaying tactic. (Keenoy, 1985) Strikes however force management to take immediate steps to resolve the problem, particularly when the external corporate image is at risk or when the firm stands to lose much profit. If procedures exist whereby grievances can be speedily formulated and efficiently channelled, strikes are less likely to occur. However, many modern organisations have long, bureaucratic consultation and negotiation procedures, which often deter many individuals from making complaints in this way and so they often resort to strikes.

Instant strikes are also more favourable than going through procedure because while the issue is being processed, employees have to continue working at the rate specified which is problematic if the dispute is about pay, or they have to continue working in the same conditions, which is difficult if working conditions are poor or unsafe. This may lead to disastrous effects, such as sabotage by the workforce in an attempt to demonstrate their anger, which can be particularly detrimental if a public service is being provided.

Similarly, if employees are forced to work in the same conditions without taking any strike action, the organisation's service will eventually suffer, as highlighted in a statement below by Geoff Martin of UNISON, because of poor staff morale and productivity. "The public know that services across London have been ravaged by staff shortages because we can't recruit at current wage levels. I am sure that the people of London will understand that it's better to have the short term inconvenience of a strike than the long term meltdown in our public services that will be inevitable if the pay issue isn't tackled.

" (http://www. unisonlondon. org. uk/london_weighting_strike) Therefore following procedure is unlikely to be beneficial to both employers and employees and a short sharp strike rapidly focuses the minds of the shop steward and the employer. Such methods may be more effective than not allowing the strike to take place or insisting that all grievances go through procedure because once employees have ventured their feelings and relieved the tension, everyone can go back to work with greater enthusiasm.

These factors suggest that strikes are necessary for boosting employee morale and for preventing organisations from incurring unnecessary costs through sabotage. Strike action is merely one method through which employees express their dissatisfaction and outrage at what is happening to them in their employment relationship. Alternatives to strike include overtime bans, work-to-rule, non-cooperation policy, absenteeism or leaving the workplace. The organisational and economic costs of these alternatives can be detrimental to firms. For example, high rates of absenteeism can be disruptive to production schedules.

Even if management have some sort of contingency plan and employ a sufficient number of 'spare' workers to cover for absentees, this increases selection and training expenditure. Similarly, if employees decide to leave the workplace the organisation has to go through the time and expense of recruiting and selecting new employees. This reinforces the suggestion that despite the various kinds of costs associated with strikes, these may be far less damaging than those resulting from other demonstrations of industrial conflict, and hence strikes are necessary to prevent organisations from incurring high costs.

The collective worker organisation necessary for strike action is often the source of increased worker solidarity and better morale. By undertaking strike activity, employees feel they have some control over their working lives. In this respect strikes may lead to greater integration of the workforce. For example, this occurred in the Pilkington strike of 1970 when individuals on strike expressed feelings of great relief and even a sense of freedom at having taken some action.

It reflected a range of long-suppressed frustrations about the employer but once the grievances had been aired, work life was once again settled to its peaceful, hard-working routines. Virtually nothing has occurred at Pilkington's since that time. (Keenoy, 1985) Therefore it can be argued that strikes are necessary for improving worker morale and productivity. There is statistical evidence to suggest that strikes pay. Analysis of the CBI Databank show that one bargaining group in 40 in manufacturing went on strike during the 1980s. Negotiations involving strikes had higher pay settlements than those without strikes.

(Edwards, 1995) Recent examples such as the tube strikes and the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) strikes also show that strikes pay. Although the FBU members have not achieved the target they wish, they have been entitled to a 16% increase in pay, suggesting that strikes are necessary to resolve disputes, particularly those regarding pay. The uniformly negative public image of strikes has led society to believe that there is never any good reason for a strike; they should always be avoidable and the trade unions that organise and support official strikes are viewed as being economically destructive.

Whilst it is important that all those involved in the employment relationship should continually seek to improve the quality of working relations and where possible resolve conflicts of interests without resort to strike action, it would be misleading to conclude that the ideal situation is one where there are no strikes at all. Although strikes have intangible economic costs, they are occasionally necessary as we have discovered in the arguments presented above. In my judgement, strikes are only justified to an extent.

Individuals should only resort to strike action if alternative methods of action have proved to be useless or if their complaints are not being taken seriously. However, I believe that many strikes today are unnecessary, particularly those that are economically motivated, because strikers cannot expect their full demands to be achieved, without some other sacrifice having to be made. For example, increases in salaries may mean a certain amount of job shedding is required and this can have potentially dire consequences for the rest of the economy.

The fire-fighters case is a good illustration; whilst the fire-fighters argument is well presented, a 40% increase is too much to expect in a short time span. (This does not however mean that they are not entitled to an increase in pay) Nevertheless, if they are given the increase they want, other professions will soon be demanding the same, which could potentially cripple the economy. Therefore in the majority of cases it is not financially feasible to meet strikers' demands, as is evident in the fire-fighters case, thus suggesting that strikes are unnecessary.

All things considered, conflicts of interests will always exist. It is unlikely that employers and employees will ever agree on all matters because both sets of individuals possess different interests. For example, employers' interests may include profit maximisation whilst employees' interests may include increased pay. Until organisations are able to balance these contrasting objectives, conflicting interests will continue to exist and individuals will continue to take severe forms of industrial action, through strikes if necessary, in order to convey their true feelings of contempt.

References

  • Edwards, Paul (1995) Industrial Relations: Theory and Practice in Britain, Cambridge, MA : Blackwell Business
  • Floyd, David (1998) Business Studies, Letts Educational Ltd
  • Keenoy, Tom (1985) Invitation to Industrial Relations, Oxford : Blackwell
  • Kessler, S and Bayliss, F (1998) Contemporary British Industrial Relations, Third Edition, Basingstoke : Macmillan
  • Rose, Ed (2001) Employment Relations, Harlow : Financial Times Prentice Hall
  • MG2065 Employment Relations Lecture Notes and Seminar Notes
  • http://www.unisonlondon.org.uk/london_weighting_strike
  • http://www.ucl.ac.uk/unions/AUT/weighting/case.html
  • http://www.clms.le.ac.uk/sally_w.html