1. Main points

  • The number of working days lost due to labour disputes in 2014 was 788,000 compared with 444,000 in 2013. The 2014 figure is more than the average in both the 2000s and the 1990s, but less than the 1980s when strike action was more common.
  • The increase in working days lost in 2014 was mainly attributable to a number of large scale public sector strikes.
  • The public administration and defence and education industries once again saw the largest number of working days lost, while the majority of individual strikes occurred in the education industry.
  • The region having the most working days lost was the North East.
  • Pay was once again the principal cause of labour disputes. This has been the main cause of labour disputes for the last 10 years, with the exception of 2009 and 2010, when the main cause was redundancy.
  • The private sector has had more strikes than the public sector in the last 3 years, a change to recent history. However, the public sector has had significantly more working days lost than the private sector in each of these years, a reflection of the large scale strikes that occured in this sector.
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2. Introduction

This article presents analysis of the 3 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 and working time lost as a proportion of time actually worked. Data are taken from a number of sources including regular centralised returns from some industries and public bodies, as well as directly from the employer or trade union involved after we have identified disputes from press reports.

This article gives information on labour disputes in 2014 as well as giving comparisons with earlier years. It presents year total figures on labour disputes in 2014 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 2013 and 2014 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 2014, which can be found in the reference tables associated with this article.

The 2014 working days lost total is not only higher than the total last year, but is higher than the average number lost per year in the 1990s and 2000s. The figure is, however, lower than the 1980s and earlier decades, when industrial action was more common.

The reason that the 2012 and 2013 totals of 249,000 and 444,000 working days lost respectively is significantly lower than the 2014 total (788,000) is largely attributable to a number of large scale public sector strikes in 2014. Despite this, the number of stoppages in 2014 (155) is also higher than in 2013 (114), and slightly higher than the average from the 2000s (144). However it is considerably down on the 1990s when the average annual number of stoppages was 266.

There were 733,000 workers involved in labour disputes during 2014, which is higher than the average number involved per year in the 1990s (202,000) and 2000s (402,000). However, it is lower than the average in the 1980s (1,040,000).

Both the mean and the median number of working days lost per stoppage were higher in 2014 than in 2013. The mean value is generally much higher than the median, since working days lost can be greatly affected by large one off strikes. For example the number of days lost in the large public sector strike in 2011 has significantly increased the mean for this year compared with others. 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 in Figure 1 and Figure 2, where the median number of stoppages beginning in a year is more consistent over time than the mean.

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4. Review of 1995 to 2014

Figure 3 shows a time series of working days lost between 1891 and 2014. 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.

Figure 3: Labour Disputes Annual Estimates

United Kingdom, 1891 to 2014

The amount of industrial action has significantly reduced in the last 30 years.

Source: Labour Disputes Statistics - Office for National Statistics

Table 2 presents labour disputes figures for the period 1995 to 2014, 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 2 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 reference table in this article.

Figure 5 shows that there has been a significant decline in the number of strikes since 1995 compared with the previous years. Though volatile, the number of working days lost has remained broadly the same over this period. This shows that although the number of stoppages appears to be falling, large scale stoppages are becoming more common.

The second column of Table 2 shows working days lost per 1,000 employees for each year from 1995 to 2014. 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, and the level of working days lost has recently shown an increase. However, 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 788,000 working days lost in 2014 is equivalent to 27 working days lost per 1,000 employees, which is higher than the average over the last 20 years (24).

An alternative way of looking at labour disputes statistics is to consider working time lost through labour disputes as a proportion of time actually worked. In 2014 an estimated 51,200 million hours were worked in the UK. Comparing this with the 5.8 million hours lost through labour disputes shows that approximately 1 in every 8,800 hours were lost through strikes in 2014. The equivalent figure for 2013 was 1 in every 15,200.

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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 2014 broken down into 12 industrial groups (classified according to the Standard Industrial Classification 2007). Education is the second largest sector in terms of number of working days lost, while the public administration and defence sector has risen to the largest, accounting for just under 50% of the working days lost in 2014. However, this industrial group only accounted for 12% 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 313,000 working days lost in 2014, accounting for a further 40% of the working days lost. The strike rates for all industries are generally very low with the exception of public administration and defence (294) and education (119). The industry group with the largest number of stoppages is transport, storage, information and communication (34).

Figure 6 shows working days lost per 1,000 employees for four industrial groupings over a 20-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 since 1995. This industry group has a large number of labour disputes, but disputes are usually small.

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6. Regional analyses

Table 4: Working days lost (WDL), workers involved and stoppages in progress by region and industry group, United Kingdom, 2014 shows regional strike rates between 2007 and 2014, with a further breakdown of the figures for 2014 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 2014 were the North East (22) and London (21). All of the regions showed an increase compared with 2013. Since 2007, the North East, Yorkshire and The Humber, London and Wales have generally shown the highest levels of industrial action. The East of England, South East and Northern Ireland have shown some of the lowest.

Each region has seen a similar proportion of working days lost in each industry, with the majority in public administration and defence. However, this year the public administration and defence sector has had a smaller proportion of strikes compared with other industrial groupings, again reflecting the large disputes that have occurred in this sector.

Figure 7 compares working days lost per 1,000 employees between 2013 and 2014. It is clear from this that most regions showed an increase in strike action over this period. The north of England, Wales and London had the largest strike rate in 2014.

Figure 7: Working days lost (WDL) per 1,000 employees

United Kingdom, 2013-2014

The north of England, Wales and London had the largest strike rate in 2014.

Source: Labour Disputes Statistics - Office for National Statistics
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7. Causes of disputes

Table 5: Working days lost, workers involved and stoppages in progress by main cause and industry group, United Kingdom, 2014 shows stoppages in 2014 by principal cause and industry grouping. In 2014, 89% of working days lost were due to disputes over pay, accounting for 57% of all stoppages. The biggest contributors to this were public administration and defence and education.

It should be noted that 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.

Figure 8 and Table 6 give information on working days lost by cause of dispute by year. The figures are often dominated by 1 or 2 very large strikes, which can make comparisons over time difficult. Looking back over a 20 year period it is clear to see that pay often dominates the days lost within the UK, with only 2 years not having pay as the major cause of working days lost. For both 2009 and 2010, redundancy resulted in the highest number of working days lost, after which pay again became the dominant cause.

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8. Disputes by size

Table 8 shows disputes in 2014 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 92% of working days lost in 2014 resulted from stoppages where more than 5,000 days were lost in total, but only 10% of stoppages were that large. The highest proportion of stoppages was within the "under 250 days" category, accounting for 56% of all stoppages, although this category accounted for just less than 1% of working days lost. Table 8 shows the impact that large strikes can have on the figures.

Figure 9: Stoppages in progress by duration of dispute, United Kingdom, 2014 (%)

The Majority of stoppages lasted for less than 250 days.

Source: Labour Disputes Statistics - Office for National Statistics
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9. 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 2014. These show that a large number of stoppages (47%) lasted for only 1 day. These accounted for 92% of workers involved and 609,000 working days lost (77%). Although more than half of the stoppages of work in 2014 lasted for more than 1 day, these account for just under a quarter of days lost. This suggests that the larger disputes tend to last for a single day only, while the strikes that last for more than one day tend to be smaller in terms of the number of workers involved.

Stoppages lasting 1 day account for the highest proportion on working days lost.

Source: Labour Disputes Statistics - Office for National Statistics
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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 increased from 363,000 in 2013 to 716,000 in 2014. This increase in strike activity is also shown by the rise in the strike rate in the public sector from 64 working days lost per 1000 employees in 2013 to 133 in 2014.

In the private sector 72,000 days were lost over 87 stoppages, which accounts for 9% of all days lost in 2014. Figure 11b shows that over the last 3 years the private sector has seen a larger number of stoppages than the public sector in a change to recent history. However, the proportion of stoppages is split fairly evenly between the public and private sectors in 2014, with 56% of stoppages in the private sector and 44% in the public sector. The proportion of working days lost in the public sector is significantly larger, however, at 91%. This reflects the large strikes that occurred in the public sector in 2014, and continues the trend seen in recent years.

Figure 11a: Working days lost (WDL) by public/private split

United Kingdom, 1996 to 2014 (%)

The public sector has had significantly more working days lost than the private sector.

Source: Labour Disputes Statistics - Office for National Statistics

Figure 11b: Stoppages public and private sector split

United Kingdom, 1996 to 2014, (%)

The private sector has had more strikes than the public sector in the last 3 years.

Source: Labour Disputes Statistics - Office for National Statistics

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11. Trade union ballots

Annual trade union ballot data for the period 2002 – 2014 are presented in Tables 10 and 11. The number of ballots [1] has risen to 650 this year, this compares with 484 in 2013.

The number of ballots calling for "action short of a strike" in 2014 shows an increase on the previous year to 368. Proportionately this figure is lower than in previous years (57% of all ballots in 2014 compared with 66% in 2013). The proportion of those ballots resulting in a "yes" vote has remained stable and in line with the ballots calling for strike action.

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 do result in "yes" votes, with 88% in 2014 and an average of 86% over the past 10 years.

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12. Technical note

Further quality and methodological information regarding the survey can be found in the quality and methodology information for labour disputes survey

Coverage

We collect information regarding labour disputes within the UK from a variety of sources. Certain major industries and public bodies provide regular centralised returns but more often the information is collected directly from the employer or trade union involved after ONS have identified disputes from press reports. We publish figures on labour disputes each month. They appear in the Labour Market statistical bulletin and other publications, guidance and methodological documents are available on the Labour Disputes topic page on our website.

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.

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 1 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", that is, where an employer prevents their employees from working by refusing entry to the place of work, and "unlawful", that is, 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 September of each year taken from ONS’s most recent estimate of Workforce Jobs. It should be noted that, since it is not possible to split the working days lost for all strikes by region, this may decrease the strike rates given for some regions. However, this issue is not thought to have a disproportionate effect on any individual region, or impact any other strike rates given in the article.

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

ONS aims try to record the number of workers that are involved at any time in the stoppage. For example, consider a three-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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13 .Background notes

  1. Note that data produced in this article may differ to articles from previous years due to revised figures.
  2. Details of the policy governing the release of new data are available by visiting www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/assessment/code-of-practice/index.html or from the Media Relations Office email: media.relations@ons.gsi.gov.uk
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Contact details for this Article

James Tucker
james.tucker@ons.gsi.gov.uk
Telephone: +44 (0)1633 456589