Official figures show a sharp drop in the number of working days “lost” to strikes in 2015 compared to 2014.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recorded 170,000 days lost last year, the second lowest figure since records began in 1891. The figure in 2014 was 788,000.
The relatively low level of strikes in Britain is a real problem. Serious attacks are taking place too often with little fightback.
But the figures don’t necessarily show a recent shift in class struggle. As the ONS pointed out “the number of working days lost has remained broadly the same” since 1996.
The figures have been relatively low since the 1990s, punctuated by small spikes. There was a 78 percent jump in days lost to strikes between 2012 and 2013.
Just as this didn’t signify an upturn, falls don’t mean struggle is dead.
2005 saw the fewest days lost to strikes, 157,000. Yet disputes in the following years drew millions into action. In April 2008 hundreds of thousands of workers in the NUT, UCU and PCS unions struck together.
Up to two million workers struck over pensions in November 2011. The official figures only show 997,000 days lost to strikes that month—but it’s still more than the previous two years put together.
Some 1.4 million workers across public sector unions struck on 10 July 2014—contributing to an official loss of 386,000 days that month.
The report said last year’s drop in days lost is “mainly attributable to a number of large scale public sector strikes in 2014”. Days lost in the public sector fell from 716,000 in 2014 to 90,000 last year.
This is because union leaders, instead of building on the 2014 strikes, refused to call further walkouts. It doesn’t indicate a sudden drop in workers’ willingness to strike.
In fact the ONS found that 90 percent of ballots calling for strikes delivered a yes vote last year. The percentage of disputes lasting over one day was “noticeably higher”—
70 percent compared to 54 percent in 2014.
And some 170,000 days were lost to strikes between January and May this year—the same figure for the whole of 2015.
The ONS recorded 155 stoppages in 2014 and 106 in 2015. 2015 also saw the lowest number of workers involved in disputes since 1893—81,000.
But the ONS has changed the way stoppages are counted—and confirmed that this would affect figures for the number of workers involved.
“Prior to 2015 a dispute was counted as a new stoppage if there was a gap of more than one month between instances of industrial action,” the report said.
“From 2015 disputes with a gap of more than one month between instances of industrial action are counted as a single stoppage.”
So, if 100 workers struck in January 2014 and again in March, this would be recorded as 200 workers being involved in two separate stoppages.
If the same strikes took place in 2015, they would be recorded as 100 workers involved in one stoppage.
This also means that workers who strike more than once in a month are classed as one group of workers taking part in one stoppage.
So there are some problems with the figures, and they don’t tell the whole story.
Sometimes workers have won concessions simply by threatening to strike. For instance, between January 2000 and December 2008 the RMT union balloted for action
50 times, but only 18 of those led to strikes.
And it would be wrong to make comparisons with high points of struggle, such as 1926, and draw depressing conclusions. They are exactly that—high points, not the norm.
But workers remain the group with the numbers and economic muscle to get rid of class society and create a socialist world. Dismissing them as powerless means giving up on that goal.