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 con?ict; (ii) capitalism has effectively triumphed, re?ecting a lessening of the stock of discontent or, at least, the will to act on it; (iii) con?ict has only become more deeply embedded, manifest in general attitudes and behaviours, either within or outside the workplace, and not traditionally considered to re?ect the sources of con?ict; and (iv) con?ict, 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.
Whether or not the decline in strikes is a proof of the triumph of capitalism is not clear. Capitalist theories have always maintained that after peaking out, conflicts will plateau out due to the streamlining of the capitalist culture. Moreover, as the capitalist economy has now turned into a predominantly services economy, the percentage of white collar workers has increased tremendously. There is some merit to the view that jobs in the ‘new economy’ offer greater scope for fulfilling one’s creative potential than the somewhat restricted and monotonous jobs of the ‘old economy’. This change was believed to have reduced conflict, and by extension the necessity for strikes, since the early ‘90s. Further, it is also true that discontent from white collar workers is likely to show up as individual lawsuits as opposed to collective strikes.
Human Resource Management as a field of practice has grown in sophistication over the years. And companies with good managements put in place robust mechanisms for employee grievance redress, which nip potential conflicts in the bud. This could also be a contributing factor for the lessening number of registered strikes in the UK.
Hence, in conclusion, while statistics clearly show a decline in the number of worker strikes in the last two decades, they do not necessarily indicate a corresponding decrease in ‘conflict’. As John Godard, and prior to him Richard Hyman, perceptively state, Industrial Relations constantly witness conflict between the working and managing classes. But due to the change in the nature of the economy, as well as comprehensive legislation to protect employee rights, the conflict manifests in alternative forms such as individual lawsuits. The overall improvement in standards of living and work conditions has also alleviated conflicts to an extent. And finally, the greater sophistication of HR practices has played a role in mitigating conflict. In conclusion, while the drastic drop in strikes in the UK suggests improved employee relations, they do not imply a proportionate absence of conflict.
Godard, John., What Has Happened to Strikes?, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 49:2 June 2011 0007–1080 pp. 282–30