How many workers went on strike in 2020? One good answer might be “not enough”.
But the official answer is “we will never know”.
At the start of the pandemic the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced it was shutting down the collection of most of its labour market statistics so that it could do more about Covid-19.
Disgracefully it added that these statistics would be released later for every area of work except one—strikes.
We shouldn’t have too much confidence in the ONS figures anyway.
Its method? “Disputes are picked up from reports in the mainstream media and websites such as The Morning Star and the Socialist Worker, as well as news feed websites. Union websites are also a primary source of information.”
But of course the ONS doesn’t accept Socialist Worker’s account. Instead it asks bosses how many they thought struck. And it offers them confidentiality—figures for individual disputes are not named, only the sector as a whole.
Very small strikes and, importantly, unofficial strikes are excluded.
We know it’s not precise. Dave Lyddon from Keele university, who has studied this area, told Socialist Worker, “In 2018 the ONS figures showed 81 strikes in progress during the year. But the figures submitted by unions to the Certification Officer recorded 180 strikes. There certainly does seem to be a serious underestimate.”
Let’s look at 2020 and 2021 through the eyes of Socialist Worker. In its pages there are reports of some 48 official strikes or series of strikes during 2020. The year began with battles continuing at South Western Railways and Westex carpets. Then in February tens of thousands of university workers held 14 days of strikes.
The emergence of the pandemic had a chilling effect. But there were very important unofficial walkouts in libraries, refuse depots, distribution centres, food plants, Royal Mail sites and other workplaces.
By the summer official strikes were back. Tower Hamlets council, Bootle HMRC and Tate galleries all saw long strikes. In the autumn there were bitter battles at Optare and We Are With You.
Then came major strikes at Rolls-Royce, Heartlands hospital, BA Cargo and Alstom.
Using union figures for 2020, an estimate of strike days—the number of strikers multiplied by the number of days on strike—comes to close to a million.
That would be a transformation. In recent years the ONS has recorded around 275,000-325,000 strike days for the whole year.
A lot of assessing 2020’s strike days depends on how you count the university strikes. The UCU union said 50,000 workers struck. If that happened for 14 days it would be 700,000 strike days. The ONS would have come up with a much lower figure.
It would accept managers’ description of how many struck, and it would not count part-time workers or workers who teach only a few hours a week as counting for a whole strike day.
Whatever the statistical arguments, this analysis does show that there were still significant battles, despite the pandemic and despite national union leaders’ failure to lead real resistance.
And 2021 is seeing a rise in struggle.
It began with very significant unofficial action by school workers that stopped an unsafe return.
The major battles at British Gas, by Scottish further education workers, and on the buses in Manchester in London are signs of the potential for workers to fight.
The task is turning the potential into reality—and making sure strikes win.
Our rulers won’t even produce their own version of strike numbers. Socialist Worker will be more important than ever.