Few events will be a greater source of dread to employers than full-blown strike action. Lost productivity and negative headlines are bad enough, but by the time a dispute has escalated to a strike workplace tensions will be running high.
In recent months there have been reports of industrial unrest in several sectors. Strike action by RMT members has significantly affected rail services in Scotland, England and the Channel Tunnel. There has been unrest among teaching staff in England, oil and gas workers in Scotland, and the situation with junior doctors' contracts is far from resolved.
But although it appears to have been a 'summer of discontent' it's perhaps surprising to hear that strikes are at their lowest level for 120 years. Official statistics released on 2 August by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that 81,000 British workers turned out for strike action in 2015, compared to 733,300 in 2014.
In response, the TUC’s general secretary Frances O’Grady remarked that strike action was a “last resort”.
What has caused the decline?
The decline in strike action appears to correlate with the general decline in trade union membership across the country. There is a perception that unions have become less relevant in recent years and that they are synonymous with outdated working practices. The statistics show that trade union members tend to be older than the average worker, prompting some unions to take steps to modernise and appeal to younger members.
UNISON, for example, has developed an app containing the latest news and information, including a 'rights at work' section covering redundancy, workplace bullying and parental issues. Further to this, unions are emphasising their added value services such as free legal advice. All steps in the right direction perhaps, but shaking off the image that unions are all about militancy and strike action could take some time.
Collective representation, which is at the heart of any trade union movement, has become redundant in some situations. Changes to minimum wage and discrimination laws have reduced the need for unions. Workers may now feel able to exercise their individual legal rights without union support. This could be through an employer's internal grievance procedures, employment tribunals, or the Acas early conciliation process.
Will action continue to decline or increase again?
It seems that unions are now more inclined to co-operate with employers, making strike action a last resort. For strike action to continue to decline co-operation and negotiation will be required from both sides. It may sound obvious but dialogue is key.
Brexit and the climate of political and economic upheaval provide an interesting context for examining the trend of decline, particularly as times of uncertainty tend to drive support for unions and strike action.
As part of his campaign, Labour leadership contender Owen Smith has announced a workers’ manifesto aiming to strengthen collective bargaining in the workplace. The document included 25 pledges to improve workers’ rights, with the promise of improving union recognition in workplaces. Whether such a move would encourage or discourage strike action isn’t clear, but what does seem certain is that the prevailing political mood has a bearing.
New laws governing trade union activities received Royal Assent in May 2016, under which industrial action will require a ballot turnout of at least 50%. That came with an additional threshold of 40% support among all eligible members in certain important public services (such as health, education and border security). The new law has been controversial and there has been debate on the extent to which the rules should apply in Scotland. A commencement date has yet to be fixed but these new laws have the potential to further curtail union activity.
This time next year it will be interesting to find out if the trend of decline has continued – or if a changing world drives workers back towards hardline positions and, consequently, more combative workplace relations.
Ann Frances Cooney is senior associate in the employment law team at HBJ Gateley