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The Trade Union Act is a solution looking for a problem – and new strike figures show it’s not useful

The number of strikes have fallen, but the number of days lost is double that of two years ago. Nick Ansell/PA

The Conservative UK government may well be disappointed that their Trade Union Act 2016 has not had more of what it would see as a positive effect: newly released figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 219,000 working days were not worked due to strikes between March 1 and October 31 2017. While this number is a little down compared to the same period in 2016 (249,000), it is more than double the same period from 2015 (101,000). The number of strikes taking place over these periods has fallen, however, from 127 in 2015, to 113 in 2016, to 97 in 2017.

The act, effective from March 1 2017, requires that to be lawful strike or industrial action must now have a 50% turnout in a ballot. When the strike involves certain essential services such as education or transport, the additional requirement is that the proportion of those voting for action must also equate to 40% or more of all those entitled to vote – essentially treating non-voters as if they voted against the action.

The reason why there has been little decline in the number of days not worked due to strikes is not just because of an increase in strikes in the private sector – accounting for 87% of all days not worked in these figures. It is also because the Trade Union Act requires a union to give the employer 14 days’ notice of the strike action (up from seven), and that the mandate for the strike, once won, now expires after six months (previously there was no time limit). What this does is give employers more time to make contingency plans to counteract the effects of the strike, and provide an incentive for employers to try to string out talks past the ballot mandate’s expiry date.

In response, unions – and the Unite union, the largest in the UK, in particular – have “frontloaded” their strike action. Rather than calling a series of one-day strikes over many months as was common in the past, unions now call for much more concerted action over a much shorter period of time, in order to try and cause a bigger impact.

For example, housing workers and Unite members in Knowsley, Merseyside, began striking on a Monday and Friday every week from the beginning of December and will carry on until mid-February. Elsewhere, fellow Unite members at a Manchester housing association had already taken 40 days strike action before they paused and started another 49-day period of strikes, taking them well into next year. Additionally, there have been extensive strikes at British Airways and on the UK rail network (especially at Southern Railway).

By and large unions are not having problems surpassing the two new requirements when balloting their members, and are able to take the action they feel is necessary to gain their bargaining objectives.

Where the government might find some solace is that, compared to 2016 when 75% of all days not worked due to strikes were found in the public sector, in 2017 it was only 13%. But this could easily change in early 2018, with for example university lecturers balloting now for strikes over their pensions, and civil servants getting ready to ballot.

The irony in all this, of course, is that the Trade Union Act is an attempt to solve a problem that does not actually exist. No matter how much strike action there is in Britain today, it is a tiny fraction of that found in the past. While the number of days not worked due to strikes in 2017 was nearly twice the number not worked in 2015, the figure for 2017 was still the eighth lowest since records began in 1891. And since 1990, there have been just five years in which more than a million days were not worked due to strikes. Before that, between 1953 and 1989, the number of days not worked due to strikes was never lower than 2m per year.

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