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Strike action now ‘a fact of life’ for employers as ONS figures show 1.4 million days lost to unrest in 2011

Staff strikes are an “increasingly common fact of life in the public and private sector”, and are something that employers need to plan for in the current economy, employment law experts have warned.

Figures released this week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that almost 1.4 million days were lost to labour disputes during 2011, four times the number lost in 2010 and the highest since 1990.

While that is likely to be a "high water mark" in terms of industrial unrest, employment lawyers from law firm Pinsent Masons have warned strikes are increasingly routine and that employers need to ensure they have robust contingency plans in place to deal with them.

Christopher Mordue, a partner at the firm, said: "These statistics confirm the sheer scale of the public sector pension strikes in 2011, which led to a massive spike in the number of working days lost to industrial action.

"This is also reflected in the number of workers taking part in industrial action in 2011 - more than 1.5 million workers and 12 times the number who took part in strike action in 2010.

"The mass day of action in November 2011 was by far the biggest factor in these increases. The impact of the public sector strikes was felt hardest in the education sector (53% of working days lost), down to the fact that more strikes were called in this sector over pension reform than in other parts of the public sector.

"The impact of massive one day strikes in the public sector is eye catching but distorts the overall picture - they resulted in 90% of the days lost to strike action but only 2% of stoppages. The November 2011 action has not been replicated since by anything on the same scale, and appears to represent an acute high water mark in the impact of industrial disputes."

The figures - the ONS's annual report on labour disputes - also reveal that industrial strife was in no way confined to the public sector last year.

After a period immediately following the credit crunch in 2008 during which there appeared to be a more constructive and cooperative relationship between unions and employers, ballots for strike action were now increasingly being held over pay and pensions and showed no signs of abating.

Mordue added: "Strike action in the private sector also increased in 2011 with the construction sector being particularly affected through a wave of strikes over redundancies.

"This trend has continued into 2012, with data for the first 6 months of 2012 suggesting that this year will see a higher number of private sector strikes than in 2009 and 2010, and with the number of strikes in public and private sectors being broadly equivalent.

"The better news for private sector employers is that the impact of strike action in terms of days lost tends to be proportionately far less than in the public sector - perhaps reflecting a greater reluctance by private sector workers to lose pay through industrial action as well as the fact that public sector action is focused on larger, more heavily unionised workforces.

"The longer term analysis is of a deterioration in industrial relations in both public and private sectors. The credit crunch following 2008 seemed to create a more constructive relationship between unions and private sector employers, typified by co-operation rather than dispute.

"In particular, many employers were able to strike agreements with unions for temporary shut downs and shorter working weeks, in a mutual desire to avoid large scale lay offs.