According to figures produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of stoppages last year in the UK were the lowest since records began in 1891.The number of workers involved in labour disputes was also the lowest ever recorded.

In total, there were 79 stoppages in 2017, compared to 101 in 2016; while the number of workers involved in disputes dropped from 154,000 in 2016 to 33,000 in 2017. In terms of the number of working days lost through stoppages, the figures dropped in 2017 to 276,000 compared to 322,000 the previous year. 

Certain industries were more prone to strike action last year than others and the figures compiled by ONS show that disputes in 2017 were dominated by the transport and storage sector. It showed 123 working days lost per 1,000 employees in 2017, the highest strike rate for this sector since 2009, compared to 2 days lost in human health and social work.

Taking a broader historical sweep, the figures show dramatic changes since the 1910s and 1920s when the highest levels of working days lost were recorded. For instance, the highest annual total for working days lost on record was 162.2 million in 1926, the year of the general strike. Since then there have been only three years when the annual total of working days exceeded 20 million – in 1972 mainly due to a strike by miners; in 1979 mainly down to the so-called “winter of discontent”; and in 1984, again due to a strike by miners.

However, although the number of stoppages has fallen over time, large-scale stoppages have become more common. Since 2000, for instance, the highest annual total of working days lost was 1.4 million in 2011, mainly as a result of two large public-sector strikes.

Pay has been the main cause of disputes over the last ten years, with the exception of 2016 when the main cause was duration and pattern of hours worked (due mainly to a dispute involving junior NHS doctors). In 2017, for the first time since 1999, there were more working days lost in the private sector (232,000) than in the public sector (44,000).

Finally, in terms of regional strike rates, the North East has shown the highest strike rate (26 working days lost per 1,000 employees), with the East of England showing the lowest strike rate (seven working days lost per 1,000 employees).

Iain Birrell of Thompsons Solicitors commented: “If you look at the figures you can see that 83% of all of the days lost were related to pay, redundancy and working conditions. These are entirely to be expected in circumstances where austerity is biting hard and few feel it is getting better as Britain’s economic growth significantly lags behind that of other European economies.

Is it also a surprise that there are significantly fewer stoppages? Probably not. Whilst the Trade Union Act 2016 has made it harder to organize industrial action, the trend has been downwards for many years and unions are developing other ways to press for change. The underlying picture is therefore perhaps more subtle than the headline figures might otherwise suggest.”

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