Is Cable's strike warning justified?

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You'll have probably seen coverage that the Business Secretary has cautioned unions of the consequences of strikes this autumn (if not, take at a look at the BBC, Guardian or FT (£) coverage).

Far from an attack on unions, Vince Cable's speech was more moderate, according to FT Westminster:

"We are undoubtedly entering a difficult period. Cool heads will be required all round. Despite occasional blips, I know that strike levels remain historically low, especially in the private sector. On that basis, and assuming this pattern continues, the case for changing strike law is not compelling.


However, should the position change, and should strikes impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric, the pressure on us to act would ratchet up. That is something which both you, and certainly I, would wish to avoid."

While the public sector unions have promised strike action, it's worth taking a step back and looking at how the number of labour disputes and the days lost to strikes have changed over time.

And what you see is that the number of stoppages and days lost has plummeted since the 60s, 70s and early 80s.

Across those three decades, the UK averaged 213 stoppages per month. In the Nineties and Naughties, it dropped to just 23. The numbers of days lost fell sharply too, from nearly 656,000 working days lost per month (!) in the 60s, 70s and 80s, to an economically less harmful 55,000 per month in the last two decades.

Labour disputes drop over the past two decades, working days lost (000s) and total number of stoppages Source: ONS

Breaking this data down by public and private sector, throws up an interesting quirk. Although there's no statisical difference between the number of public or private sector work stoppages due to labour disputes, there number of days lost due to public sector stoppages is 7.5 times that of private sector stoppages. There will undoubtedly be valid economic and political reasons behind this large gap, but one very obvious and basic reason is that more workers are affected by a public sector labour stoppage, meaning more days lost. (ONS don't provide data on number of workers affected by type of industry, or I would have used that stat instead).

In the context of the current rocky recovery, a sharp pick up in the number of public sector stoppages would put the government on gaurd given the potential scale of the impact and the risks to an already rocky recovery.

Hence the Business Secretary's words of caution today. But historically speaking, we'd need to see a 1300% increase in the number of days lost to public sector strikes and a 2800% increase in the number of stoppages before we got to 'autumn/winter of discontent' levels.

(NB: It's worth quickly noting the minimal level of private sector labour disputes during the incredibly painful recent recession. In manufactuirng, good relationships between the shop floor and management during the downturn has helped drive the productivity boom behind the sector's recent success.)

No difference in the number of stoppages due to labour disputes between public and private sectors, number of stoppages due to labour disputesSource: ONS

On average, public sector industrial action results in 7.5x more working days lost than in private sector, days lost due to labour disputes (000s)Source: ONS


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