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Strikes rise 80% in a year

But technology could be facilitating even more informal industrial action that is not being recorded

There has been a sharp rise in the number of working days lost to strike action in the private sector, but even more may have been lost to informal action organised via social media platforms, according to law firm EMW.

The number of working days lost to strike action in the private sector was found to have risen by 80% in a year, to 149,000 days in 2016/17 from 83,000 in 2015/16. This is more than double the number of working days lost to strikes in the public sector, which decreased by 69% over the same period (to 72,000 from 231,000).

However, the research warned the true figure could be much higher because relatively new communications apps (for example WhatsApp) mean staff do not necessarily need union organisation to go on ‘strike’, work to rule or to co-ordinate sickness absence.

Jon Taylor, principal at EMW, warned that employers need to watch out for the rising hidden threat of unofficial collective action. “It is so easy for the ‘WhatsApp generation’ to organise a strike without the help of a union or even declaring it publicly,” he said. “Group messaging portals like WhatsApp and Viber can be a hotbed for complaints and dissent to escalate, which can damage and worsen staff morale.”

Alex Wood, researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, told HR magazine that unions should be rethinking their social media strategies to remain relevant. “Unions tend to be hierarchical and bureaucratic, and so they tend to use social media to push out their message in the way they are used to, rather than engaging in the kind of grassroots discussions workers are using social media for,” he said.

He suggested that if unions were able to help employees in ways that work for them then the number of strikes may be reduced. “Workers will go on strike when they feel that is the only way for them to have their voices heard,” he said. “But if [unions] allow employees to have their own space [to discuss grievances], then tap into that space and offer support, they could help institutionalise that conflict and help create better working environments.”