‘Hot strike summer’ is getting hotter. Workers across the public and private sector, from refuse collectors to call centre operators, are currently taking industrial action. In the autumn, we might see nurses, teachers, civil servants and firefighters joining their ranks as resistance to the cost of living crisis grows. So, it might seem strange that the government has stopped recording all but the barest of data on strikes.
Records of strikes in Britain began in 1891, using three measurements: the number of strikes (called ‘stoppages’), the number of workers involved, and the number of days not worked (called ‘days lost’). This data was broken down by sector, region and nation, so it existed for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as for the UK as a whole. For over five decades, the government produced an annual article summarising the state of play for the previous calendar year.
On 17 May 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the annual strike data for 2018. Since then, there have been no such reports. This means we have no overview of strike action in Britain for the last three years.
A year later, a statement was inserted into the May 2019 publication. “The effects of the pandemic on ONS capacity and capability during this period means we have reviewed the existing labour market releases,” it read. “As a result, data collection and publication of labour disputes will cease for the foreseeable future. This action will protect the delivery and quality of our remaining outputs as well as ensuring we can respond to new demands as a direct result of Covid-19”. In short: the strike data service had ceased operation.
Since then, there’s been no update on the future publication of any strike statistics. “Next release: To be announced” reads the message on the ONS webpage. Yet throughout the pandemic, the ONS has continued to publish the number of days not worked per month.
If the ONS can continue to gather data on the number of days not worked, it must also know how many strikes there have been and the number of workers involved in these strikes. Indeed, with a little digging around, the monthly statistics for number of strikes and number of workers involved can be found on the ONS website (although only up to January 2020). But this doesn’t mean the annual statistics can be worked out, as some strikes span a number of months.
Ultimately, woefully incomplete data means that the biggest wave of industrial action for years go largely unrecorded. We can’t rely on the media to record this comprehensively because even the most diligent outlets can only provide snapshots. As such, the public are being kept in the dark about the state of the labour movement.
Are there any other means of gathering the data? While Strike Map UK is a welcome new addition to the data landscape, it’s dependent on unions or others submitting details of strikes, doesn’t cover how many workers are involved in each strike, and doesn’t build up longitudinal time-series data.
There is, however, one other source of data – a result of the 2016 Trade Union Act. All unions are obliged to provide data on balloting for strikes and industrial action, along with records of any form of industrial action taken – even that which falls short of strike, such as an overtime ban – when they make their annual returns to the Certification Officer (the government body that regulates unions’ internal affairs). Since 2018, unions have provided this data to the government annually.
This data records the number of strikes which have occurred and how long they were, but not the number of workers involved or where wildcat strikes took place. The data is published at least six months after the year it reports on. It’s difficult to believe that – dysfunctional as it is – the government couldn’t combine this union-submitted data with the data the ONS still gathers (but doesn’t publish) to provide a more complete picture of industrial action in Britain. But currently, Britain – like Greece, Italy and Portugal – doesn’t publish these vital statistics.
Why not? Well, because the government doesn’t want to. In fact, with both prospective Conservative leadership candidates promising more crackdowns on organised action, it makes sense that the party would scrap a statistical service that kept the public informed about the state and power of the labour movement. In the months and years to come, this is a loss workers will only feel more keenly.
Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds.