1. Main points

The number of working days lost due to labour disputes in 2015 was 170,000 compared with 788,000 in 2014. The 2015 figure was the second lowest annual total since records began in 1891.

The decrease of working days lost in 2015 was mainly attributable to a number of large scale public sector strikes in 2014.

In a change to recent years, Transport and Storage saw the largest number of working days lost, while the majority of individual strikes occurred in Education.

The region with the highest working days lost per 1000 employees in 2015 was Northern Ireland.

Pay was once again the principal cause of labour disputes in 2015. This has been the main cause of labour disputes for the last ten years, with the exception of 2009 and 2010, when the main cause was redundancy.

The public and private sector saw the same amount of disputes in 2015 in a change to recent history. However, the public sector had more working days lost than the private sector.

There were 81,000 workers involved in labour disputes in 2015, the lowest figure since records began in 1893.

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2. Introduction

This article presents analysis of the three main measures of labour disputes (working days lost, stoppages and workers involved) by industry, region, cause, size and duration. The statistics are put into context by considering estimates of working days lost per 1,000 employees. Data are taken directly from the employer or trade union involved after ONS has identified disputes from press reports.

This article gives information on labour disputes in 2015 as well as giving comparisons with earlier years. It presents year total figures on labour disputes in 2015 and provides a more in-depth analysis of figures than that published as part of the monthly Labour Market Statistical Bulletin.

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3. Annual changes

A comparison of labour disputes in 2014 and 2015 is shown in Table 1. There are 3 core components to the figures: the number of working days lost through stoppages, the number of workers involved in those stoppages and the number of stoppages themselves. (See technical note for more details on these definitions). Information on earlier years is available in the table Labour Disputes Annual Estimates 1891 to 2015, which can be found in the datasets associated with this article.

The 2015 working days lost total (170,000) is not only lower than the total last year, but is the second lowest annual total since records began in 1891 (the lowest was 157,000 in 2005).

There were 81,000 workers involved in labour disputes during 2015, the lowest since records began in 1893.

As shown at Table 1, the mean number of working days lost per stoppage was lower in 2015 than in 2014. However the median number was higher in 2015 than in 2014. The mean value is generally much higher than the median, since working days lost can be greatly affected by large one off strikes. For this reason, the median tends to give a more typical measure of the average number of working days lost per stoppage.

This can be seen at Figures 1 and 2, where the median number of working days lost per stoppage in a year is more consistent over time than the mean.

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4. Review of 1996 to 2015

Figure 3 shows a time series of working days lost between 1891 and 2015. It shows that the amount of industrial action has significantly reduced in the last 30 years. This is a stark contrast to the level of action seen when the miners went on strike in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1910s and 1920s saw even greater levels of industrial action culminating in the general strike of 1926.

Table 2 presents labour disputes figures for the period 1996 to 2015, while Figures 4 and 5 illustrate working days lost and the number of stoppages respectively. Figures 4 and 5 show that there are a number of spikes in the time series in years when a particularly large strike took place, showing the impact individual strikes can have on the statistics. The high number of days lost in 2011, for example, was due to two large public sector strikes, while the 2002 figure was due to one very large stoppage in the transport and storage industry. A longer time series can be found within the dataset in this article.

Figure 5 shows that there has been a significant decline in the number of strikes since 1996. Though volatile, the number of working days lost has remained broadly the same over this period. This shows that although the number of stoppages has fallen, large scale stoppages have become more common.

The second column of Table 2 shows working days lost per 1,000 employees for each year from 1996 to 2015. This converts working days lost into a strike rate, taking into account the size of the labour force. This also enables comparisons to be made across industries and regions that differ in size, as well as adjusting for employment changes in industries and regions over time. The level of employee jobs has generally risen over time. The strike rate in the last 10 years is generally lower than in previous decades. This rise in employment explains strike rates that differ between years when there are no discernible changes in working days lost. The 170,000 working days lost in 2015 is equivalent to 6 working days lost per 1,000 employees, which is lower than the average over the last 20 years (23).

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5. Industrial analyses

Historically, certain industries have been more prone to strike action than others, and breaking the labour disputes statistics down into separate industries can reveal some interesting patterns and shifts over time. However, it should be noted that comparisons between industries can also be affected by the methodology that is used for compiling the figures. For example, because very small stoppages are excluded from the figures (see technical note for more details), it is more likely that industry groups with large firms will have disputes included in the statistics. In addition to this, caution must be exercised while carrying out time series analysis due to changes in industrial classifications over time.

Table 3 shows labour disputes statistics for 2015 broken down into 14 industry groups (classified according to the Standard Industrial Classification 2007). Public Administration is the second largest sector in terms of number of working days lost, while the Transport and storage sector has risen to the largest, accounting for just over one third of the working days lost in 2015. However, this industrial group only accounted for 18% of all strikes (19), indicating that the number of workers taking part in these strikes is, on average, greater than other industrial groups. The Education sector showed 21,500 working days lost in 2015, accounting for a further 13% of the working days lost. The industry group with the largest number of stoppages is Education (29).

Figure 6 shows working days lost per 1,000 employees for four industrial groupings over a 10-year period. The industry group with the largest strike rate is public administration and defence. This is mainly because disputes in this group tend to be large. Education has also seen a large strike rate. This industry group has a large number of labour disputes, but disputes are usually small.

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6. Regional analyses

Table 4 shows regional strike rates between 2007 and 2015, with a further breakdown of the figures for 2015 by industrial grouping. When interpreting these figures, it is important to bear in mind that the industrial composition of employment in a region is a major influencing factor on the scale of labour disputes it experiences. The regions with the highest strike rate in 2015 were Northern Ireland (21) and London (15). All of the regions except Northern Ireland and Scotland showed a decrease compared with 2014. Since 2007, the North East, North West, Yorkshire and The Humber, London and Wales have shown the highest levels of industrial action. The East of England, South East and Northern Ireland have previously shown some of the lowest.

Table 4: working days lost, workers involved and stoppages in progress by region and industry group, United Kingdom, 2015.

Figure 7 compares working days lost per 1,000 employees between 2014 and 2015. Most regions showed a decrease in strike action over this period. Northern Ireland and London had the largest strike rate in 2015.

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7. Cause of disputes

Table 5 shows stoppages in 2015 by principal cause and industry grouping. In 2015, 71% of working days lost were due to disputes over pay, accounting for 85% of all stoppages. The biggest contributors to this were public administration and defence and education.

Disputes over pay also include stoppages over feared or alleged reductions in earnings as well as disputes over the size of pay increases. Disputes over pension provisions are also classified as disputes over pay.

Table 5: Working days lost, workers involved and stoppages in progress by main cause and industry group, United Kingdom, 2015.

Figure 8 and Table 6 give information on working days lost by cause of dispute in each year. The figures are often dominated by 1 or 2 very large strikes, which can make comparisons over time difficult. Looking back over a 10 year period it is clear to see that pay usually dominates the days lost within the UK, with only 2 years not having pay as the major cause of working days lost. For 2009 and 2010, redundancy resulted in the highest number of working days lost.

Table 6: Working days lost (WDL) by principal cause in all industries and services, United Kingdom, 1996 to 2015

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8. Disputes by duration

Labour disputes statistics cover the number of days that strike action took place, not the number of days the parties involved in the dispute were actually in disagreement.

Table 7 and Figure 9 show the duration of the stoppages in progress in 2015. These show that just under a third of the number of stoppages (30%) lasted for only one day. These accounted for 25% of workers involved and 17,500 working days lost (10%). In a change to recent years, the percentage of disputes lasting longer than one day is noticeably higher (70%). In 2013 and 2014, disputes lasting longer than one day accounted for 37% and 54% respectively.

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9. Disputes by size

Table 8 shows disputes in 2015 by size and Figure 10 illustrates that a large proportion of days lost result from larger stoppages, with very few stoppages actually being large. The data also shows that 90% of working days lost in 2015 resulted from stoppages where more than 1,000 days were lost in total but only 26% of stoppages were that large. The highest proportion of stoppages was within the ‘under 250 days’ category, accounting for 53% of all stoppages, although this category accounted for just over 3% of working days lost. Table 8 shows the impact that large strikes can have on the figures.

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10. Disputes by public and private Sector

Figures 11a and 11b illustrate the breakdown of working days lost and the number of stoppages between the public and private sectors. The figures are also shown in Table 9. The number of working days lost in the public sector decreased from 716,000 in 2014 to 90,000 in 2015. This decrease in strike activity is also shown by the fall in the strike rate in the public sector from 132 working days lost per 1000 employees in 2014 to 17 in 2015.

In the private sector 79,000 days were lost over 53 stoppages, which accounts for 47% of all days lost in 2015. Figure 11a shows that, for 2015 the private sector accounted for 47% of working days lost, the highest proportion since 1999. As shown at Figure 11b, there was an equal split of stoppages between the public and private sectors in 2015.

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11. Trade union ballots

Annual trade union ballot data from 2002 to 2015 are presented in Tables 10 and 11. The number of ballots1 has fallen to 568 this year, this compares with 650 in 2014.

The number of ballots resulting in a vote for strike action in 2015 shows a decrease on the previous year from 550 to 503. The time series for trade union ballots is illustrated in Figure 12. This chart shows that a high percentage of ballots calling for strike action result in ‘yes’ votes, with 90% in 2015 and an average of 87% over the past ten years.

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12. Quality and methodology

The Labour Disputes Quality and Methodology Information document contains important information on:

  • the strengths and limitations of the data
  • the quality of the output: including the accuracy of the data, how it compares with related data
  • uses and users
  • how the output was created
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13 .Background notes

  1. National Statistics are produced to high professional standards set out in the Code of Practice for Official Statistics. They undergo regular quality assurance reviews to ensure that they meet your needs. They are produced free from any political interference.

  2. Note that data produced in this article may differ to articles from previous years due to revised figures.

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14 .Technical note

Coverage

Information regarding labour disputes within the UK is collected by ONS from a variety of sources. The information is collected directly from the employer or trade union involved after ONS have identified disputes from press reports. ONS publishes figures on labour disputes each month. They appear in the Labour Market Statistical Bulletin.

Definition of stoppages

The statistics cover stoppages of work in progress in the UK during a year caused by labour disputes between employers and workers, or between workers and other workers, connected with terms and conditions of employment. A distinction can be drawn between stoppages that started in the current year and those that started in earlier years.

A stoppage in progress is defined as a dispute that has continued from a previously recorded dispute by the same organisation and for the same cause. Prior to 2015 a dispute was counted as a new stoppage if there was a gap of more than one month between instances of industrial action. From 2015 disputes with a gap of more than one month between instances of industrial action are counted as a single stoppage.

The statistics exclude disputes that do not result in a stoppage of work, for example work-to-rules and go-slows; this is because their effects are not quantifiable to any degree of certainty. Stoppages involving fewer than 10 workers or lasting less than one day are also excluded unless the total number of working days lost in the dispute is 100 or more.

Stoppages over issues not directly linked to terms and conditions between workers and employers are omitted, although in most years this is not significant. For example, in 1986 one stoppage was considered to be political (a protest in the coal industry against the visit of an MP) and it was excluded from the figures. The total working days lost amounted to less than 1,000. The next known dispute to be excluded was in 1991. This involved a boycott by self-employed market traders who, after increased rent and changes to the market rules, kept their stalls closed for about 20 weeks.

The statistics include ‘lock-outs’, i.e. where an employer prevents their employees from working by refusing entry to the place of work, and ‘unlawful’, i.e. unlawfully organised strikes. However, no distinction is made between a ‘strike’ and a ‘lock-out’ or between ‘lawful’ and ‘unlawful’ stoppages. This is principally because of the practical difficulty in deciding in which category a particular stoppage falls. It was for similar reasons that a distinction between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ disputes was no longer made after 1981.

Working days lost

Working days lost are defined as the number of days not worked by people as a result of their involvement in a dispute at their place of work. In measuring the number of working days lost, account is taken only of the time lost in the basic working week. Overtime work is excluded, as is weekend working where it is not a regular practice. Where an establishment is open every day, and runs two or more shifts, the statistics will record the number of working days lost for each shift. In recording the number of days lost, allowance is made for public and known annual holidays, such as factory fortnights, occurring within the strike's duration. No allowance is made for absence from work for such reasons as sickness and unauthorised leave.

Where strikes last less than the basic working day, the hours lost are converted to full-day equivalents. Similarly, days lost by part-time workers are converted to full-day equivalents. The number of working days lost in a stoppage reflects the actual number of workers involved at each point in the stoppage. This is generally less than the total derived by multiplying the duration of the stoppage by the total number of workers involved at any time during the stoppage, because some workers would not have been involved throughout.

In disputes where employers dismiss their employees and subsequently reinstate them, the working days lost figure includes those days lost by workers during the period of dismissal.

For disputes where employers dismiss their employees and replace them with another workforce the statistics cannot assume that working days lost by the sacked workers continue indefinitely. In such cases the statistics measure the number of days lost in terms of the size of the replacement workforce. For example, where an employer initially recruits 100 workers and wishes to build up to 300, the number of working days lost on day one will be 200 and will then progressively reduce on subsequent days, eventually to zero when the new workforce reaches the target of 300.

Figures given for working days lost per 1,000 employees use employee jobs for each year taken from ONS’s most recent estimate of Workforce Jobs.

Number of stoppages

There are difficulties in ensuring complete recording of stoppages, in particular for short disputes lasting only a day or so, or involving only a few workers. Because of this recording difficulty and the cut-off applied, the number of working days lost is considered to be a better indicator of the impact of labour disputes than the number of recorded stoppages.

Workers involved

We aim to record the number of workers that are involved at any time in the stoppage. For example, consider a 3 day strike where there were 200 workers involved on the first day; 300 on the second day, of whom 100 were involved for the first time; and 200 on the third day, of whom 50 were involved for the first time. The total number of workers involved in the dispute is 350 - the sum of all those involved on the first day, and those joining for the first time on subsequent days. However, the number of workers taking strike action for the first time during a dispute cannot always be easily ascertained. In such cases the statistics record the highest number involved at any one time (300 in the above example). Take another example, where there are 200 workers involved in a stoppage on each of days one, two and three. It may be necessary to assume that there were a total of 200 workers involved, although it is possible, but unlikely, that as many as 600 workers could have been involved. For this reason, the statistics may under-estimate the number of workers involved in a dispute. However, the estimate of the number of working days lost is unaffected by this consideration.

Ballot data

Although the Electoral Reform Service (ERS) conduct the majority of industrial action ballots for Trade Unions in the UK, other organisations also conduct ballots. In addition to this, ballots with less than 50 union members do not have to appoint a scrutineer.

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Contact details for this Article

Richard Clegg
richard.clegg@ons.gsi.gov.uk
Telephone: +44 (0)1633 455400