With the publication of strikes figures for most of 2017 now out, the Tories will be disappointed their Trade Union Act 2016 has not had more of – in their view – a positive effect. The Act, effective from 1 March 2017, requires that a lawful mandate for strike or industrial action must now have a 50% turnout in a ballot to authorise the action and in certain essential services, like education and transport, the additional requirement that the proportion of those voting for action must also equate to 40% or more of all those entitled to vote (meaning that non-voters are counted as no voters).
The number of days not worked due to strikes between 1 March 2017 and 31 October 2017 was 219,000. This was only a little down for the comparable period for 2016 (249,000) but massively up on the same period for 2015 (101,000). This will take any pleasure the Tories may feel given that the number of strikes taking place in these March to October periods was 97 for 2017, 113 for 2016 and 127 for 2015.
The reason why the number of days not due to strikes has not fallen much from 2016 is not just because of a growing number of strikes in the private sector (accounting for 87% of all days not worked). It also because the Trade Union Act requires that a union gives 14 days’ notice of the action to the employer (up from seven before) and that the lawful mandate for the action now expires after six months (whereas there was no time limit before). This gives more time to employers to make contingency preparations and an incentive to them to try to string out talks passed the ballot’s mandate.
In response, unions - but Unite in particular - have ‘frontloaded’ their action. So instead, as before calling a series of one day strikes over many months, unions are now calling much more concerted action and over a much shorter period of time in order to try to have a bigger impact. It is not unheard of now to have action that last for many weeks on end.
By and large, unions are not having problems surpassing the two new balloting thresholds and are taking the action they feel is needed to gain their bargaining objectives. The RMT union, for example, has held 42 ballots so far in 2017 compared to 41 (2016), 55 (2015), 42 (2014) and 31 (2013). It continues to win the vast majority.
Where the Tories might find some solace is that, compared to 2016 when 75% of all days not worked due to strikes were found in the public sector, in 2017 only 13% were. But this could easily change in early 2018 with university lecturers balloting now for strikes over their pensions and civil servants getting ready to ballot.
The irony to all this, of course, is that the Trade Union Act is an attempt to solve a problem that does not actually exist. No matter how much strike action there is in Britain today, it pales in to comparison with what went before. So while the number of days not worked due to strikes in 2016 was nearly twice the number not worked in 2015, the figure for 2016 was still the eighth lowest since records began in 1891. And since 1990, only five years have seen more than a million days not worked due to strikes. Before that – from 1953 to 1989 – the minimum number of days not worked was never lower than two million per annum.