Are we having a summer of discontent?

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Person holding a sign written on cardboard that reads #people not profit

By Dr Andy Hodder
Department of Management, Birmingham Business School


All of this comes at a time when strike action has been in long-term decline, and union membership levels are at 23.1% in the UK. However, low levels of strike action clearly do not mean that conflict at work has disappeared.

Industrial action appears to be on the increase in the UK this summer.

Transport workers have been particularly active. We have already seen the biggest rail strikes in 30 years in the UK when RMT members at Network Rail and thirteen train operators took industrial action last month. Separate to this, RMT members working on the London Underground have taken strike action this summer. Additionally in July, train drivers, represented by ASLEF, have voted in favour of strike action across eight different train operators, whilst TSSA members in engineering, maintenance and control roles have also voted for strike action.

Outside of the rail industry, British Airways workers at Heathrow have been balloted on industrial action relating to a 10% pay cut imposed on them during the pandemic, and bus drivers in the South of England working for Arriva are also balloting following the rejection of a recent pay offer with various conditions attached to it.

In education, the NEU and the NASUWT have said they will campaign for strike action over pay. The discontent is not limited to schools, with further disputes on the cards in both further and higher education. In the wider public sector, further strikes are looming as we look ahead to the autumn and winter, with the PCS union balloting members in the civil service over pay and pensions.

In mail and communications, managers in Royal Mail have also voted for strike action in a dispute over jobs and pay. Also in Royal Mail, property and facilities workers are preparing for a strike ballot, whilst this month post office workers held their third national strike in 2022. A further 115,000 Royal Mail workers balloted for strike action with the result expected next week.

Whilst strikes are not uncommon in any of these sectors described above, even barristers have walked out in a dispute over pay, causing disruption to a number of criminal court proceedings.

Looking abroad, in Germany, the union ver.di has called strike action across seven Amazon distribution centres, timed to coincide with Prime Day. In the USA, we are also seeing an increase in unionisation, with recent successes of workers unionising at both Amazon and Starbucks, although there is debate as to the extent to which this truly represents a resurgence of unions.

These are just some examples of the workers taking or balloting for strike action. All of this comes at a time when strike action has been in long-term decline, and union membership levels are at 23.1% in the UK. However, low levels of strike action clearly do not mean that conflict at work has disappeared. There is a clash of interests between management and labour, known as the structured antagonism, and this lies at the heart of the employment relationship. This clash of interests can lead to conflict in the employment relationship. If this conflict cannot be resolved through negotiation, and there is a breakdown in the management of the employment relationship, unions can co-ordinate industrial action. The current increase in strike activity shows that employment relations issues remain central to the contemporary world of work. Indeed, for a time, the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have changed the public narrative about work and employment. It is just three months since the decision by P&O Ferries to sack 800 workers without notice and replace them with agency workers was met public outcry. Yet these recent strikes have been met with negative language and portrayal in the mainstream media.

To what extent will the current wave of industrial action have a wider impact? We know from research that strikes cause increases in union membership levels, and according to Google Trends data, searches on ‘join a union UK’ and ‘how to join a union’ were at record levels in the UK in June 2022. Searches on Google for ‘join a union UK’ jumped from 33% in May to 87% in June, whilst searches for ‘how to join a union’ jumped from 29% to 67% across the same time period. All of the above suggests that the current strike wave is likely to continue unless employers take steps to address job quality and provide good work.



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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