Strike action absenteeism hits levels last seen in Thatcher years, finds Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

Two national days of co-ordinated public sector strike action in the UK last year have contributed to the highest level of working days lost to industrial action since 1990, according to full-year data published today by the Office of National Statistics and analysed by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

Working days lost to industrial action roseto 1.4 million in 2011, 280% up on the levels of industrial action in 2010 and 33% up on industrial action during the global financial crisis of 2007. Industrial action is at its highest level since 1990, when working days lost surged to more than 1.9 million.

The number of staff involved is the highest since records began in 1986. More than 1.5 million workers took part in industrial action last year. Industrial action in the private sector has also more than doubled on levels in 2010 and is at its highest since 2004.

Nick Squire, Freshfields' employment partner said: "With a further wave of public sector strikes planned for March, the UK Government may face fresh calls to change the law by making it more difficult for employees and trade unions to organise and participate in industrial action. These include suggestions that it should increase the threshold for a strike ballot before a strike is considered lawful.

"A simple question lies at the heart of industrial action legislation - where to draw the balance between an employee's right to withdraw his labour and the freedom of a company to run its business?

"Even a very subtle shift in the scales can have a significant impact, making it either much easier or harder to go on strike.

"As part of the focus on the market economy while Thatcher was in power, the balance between protecting the rights of individuals to strike and minimising disruption to enterprise tipped firmly in favour of enterprise. Despite the peak this year, the UK has seen a steady decline in strikes since the legislative change.

"There have been suggestions that toughening UK strike laws could be counter-productive and potentially antagonistic. Tightening ballot requirements may result in an increase in wildcat unofficial action, for example.

"While legislation which favours employers has reduced industrial action, during a time of widespread cuts, it is in the Government's interests to carefully manage the delicate relationship between enterprise, employees and trade unions to minimise the potential of increased strike action."