Does statistics pertaining to worker strikes in the UK indicate increasing workplace harmony?

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 directly 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. The rest of this essay will elaborate on this point.

Strikes are an integral part of the discipline of Industrial Relations (of which Employee Relations is a part). But 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.285) 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’. 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. Changes in work environment (compelled by Britain’s shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy) have also played a role.

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