An interesting aspect of the labour market that reveals workforce contentment is labour union activity. The United Kingdom has had vibrant labour organization throughout the last century. The UK being one of the key centres of the Industrial Revolution, the working class had always striven to make its voice heard. The strength of the British labour tradition is borne by the fact that in the wake of victory in the Second World War it was the Labour Party which was voted into power despite Winston Churchill’s legendary status. Coming to the phenomenon of worker strikes, although they disturb production schedules and affect the profitability of industry, most instances of it does serve a legitimate purpose, namely that of employee representation. In the scholarly article by John Godard, titled ‘What Has Happened to Strikes?’, we learn how worker strikes have gradually decreased in Britain. But, while strikes per se have declined, this does not imply that worker satisfaction with management has correspondingly improved. There are other factors at play which account for the decreased frequency of strikes, apart from improvements in levels of employee satisfaction. In other words, the unemployment situation in Britain cannot be taken as complicit and voluntary based on the decrease in frequency of strikes. (Godard, 2011, p.285)
The subsiding of frequency of strikes in the UK since the early 1990s meant that they have lost their prominence in Industrial Relations discourse. For example, from their heyday between 1970 and 1990, when British industry witnessed more than a thousand days lost per thousand workers on three occasions, the figures have hovered close to zero since the last decade (2005 being the only exception). (Godard, 2011, p.287) As a way of explaining this fall, scholar John Godard attempts to make a distinction between the terms ‘strike’ and ‘conflict’, stating that the latter is a generic state of affairs while the former is a specific manifestation. In his research article, Godard hypothesizes four plausible alternative avenues where “the conflict posited in Strikes has gone”. These four hypotheses are:
“(i) it has been diverted into alternative forms of conﬂict; (ii) capitalism has effectively triumphed, reﬂecting a lessening of the stock of discontent or, at least, the will to act on it; (iii) conﬂict has only become more deeply embedded, manifest in general attitudes and behaviours, either within or outside the workplace, and not traditionally considered to reﬂect the sources of conﬂict; and (iv) conﬂict, particularly the collective manifestation of it, is not dead, but rather has simply become dormant.” (Godard, 2011, p.288)
Drawing on Richard Hyman’s seminal 1972 publication Strikes, Godard seconds the view that “attempts to suppress specific manifestations…merely divert the conflict into other forms”. (Godard, 2011, p.289) This is especially a valid argument when one considers the rapid individualization of employment law in the UK and across the industrial world. The rise in individual rights has, to an extent, made redundant the need for union representation. Although data on alternative mediums of conflict is difficult to collate, the increase in Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) filings in Britain (especially as these filings have escalated since early 1990s), partially vindicates the Godard hypothesis. The steady increase in ACAS filings from laid-off employees (during the prevailing economic downturn) underscores the involuntary nature of their unemployment.
We can also gain insights into the nature of unemployment from Polish economist Michal Kalecki’s classic work Political Aspects of Full Employment (PAFE). Though it was first published in 1943, some of the basic tenets about the labour market contained in it are relevant even today. PAFE is said to be the progenitor of political business cycle analysis, making it highly relevant to the discussion on recession-induced unemployment.
“According to Kalecki, inflation and unemployment are not simply manifestations of capitalism but tools of control for the manipulation of workers. But Kalecki went far beyond traditional Marxism; Kalecki was, in fact, the originator of the political business cycle analysis. In his theory, however, business interests prevail over the political institutions; it is not so much the politicians who initiate and manipulate the electoral cycle as it is the capitalist class which manipulates the economy and politicians. Unemployment is the major means of disciplining the workers. Kalecki was not entirely wrong; unemployment does place a powerful constraint on union demands.” (Mair & Laramie, 2002, p.567)