Why are there so few strikes?

Issue: 145

Simon Joyce

This article addresses a key issue for socialists: the current low level of strikes.1 As Alex Callinicos recently put it:

The absence of any generalised upturn in workers’ struggle isn’t just a negative factor: it actively shapes the situation. Mass strikes, as Rosa Luxemburg famously argued, raise the confidence, self-organisation and political consciousness of the working class. By demonstrating the power of collective action, they make the idea of a socialist alternative to capitalism more credible. Finally, they offer a terrain in which rival “strategic hypotheses” (as Bensaïd calls them) can be developed and tested by different left currents.

Alex goes on to say that explaining this absence “is the most important single task facing revolutionary Marxists today”.2

This article is an attempt to take up that challenge. It is unlikely to be the last word on the matter, but the argument presented below is intended to open a discussion around the complex issues involved. One obvious limitation of the analysis is that it focuses on the UK. Some of the issues discussed are common to other national economies, but many are not. Hopefully, non-British readers will forgive my preoccupation with trying to understand the time and place in which I have been an active socialist.

The starting point is a recognition that the current low level of strikes is unprecedented in British history. Official records of strikes in the UK have been kept since 1893 and record numerous ups and downs, periods of calm and sudden upsurges. Seen in this perspective, the last 20 years are exceptional. Never before has a low-strike period lasted so long. A key turning point was reached in the early 1990s. In every year since 1991 the number of strikes has been lower than the number of strikes in any year prior to 1991.3 The issue is not simply the low level of strikes, but the stability of this low level of strikes.

The article begins by presenting some essential facts and figures and then discusses recent explanations for the present level of strikes—in particular, the view that the low level of strikes is caused by a low level of confidence among workers. It will be argued that the confidence theory of strikes has serious weaknesses. The article will then present an account of the decline of strikes in the 1980s and will use this as the basis for an alternative understanding of the present situation. It will be argued that developments in the 1980s did not simply undermine workers’ confidence, but significantly altered the context of workplace industrial relations. In particular, one crucial aspect has changed since the 1970s: by the early 1990s the strike weapon had effectively been taken out of the hands of shop stewards. This key development has important implications for the way workplace trade unionism has subsequently developed, and is the main explanation for the stability of the current low level of strikes in the UK. Finally, the article will look at some general implications of the present situation for socialists.

It should be noted at the outset that this article is not intended as an overall assessment of the present balance of class forces, nor of the current state of political and class consciousness within the working class: it is specifically an analysis of why there are so few strikes. The explanation of how we got to the present situation is not simple—and the solutions will not be simple either.

The scale of the decline

Most advanced industrial economies experienced a reduction in strikes during the 1980s, but it continued longer and further in the UK.4 The official figures record three different indicators of strike activity: the number of strikes, the number of workers involved, and the number of “working days lost”, which I will call “strike days”. In the 1970s these indicators were all at historically high levels, and fell dramatically in the 1980s—Table 1 shows the scale of the decline. The number of strikes fell further in 2010, to a historic low of 92, but have since recovered slightly. The big spike in recent strike figures was 2011, with two very large public sector strikes (on 30 June and 30 November, henceforth J30 and N30). In 2011 total strikes were only slightly up, at 149, but strike days totalled 1,390,000. There were similar spikes in 1996, 2002 and 2007, most of which represent large-scale public sector strikes.5 While an increase in strike activity is welcome, it is clear that the big one-day strikes have not led to the “generalised upturn in workers’ struggle” mentioned above. In 2012-13 strikes averaged 123 each year, with 347,000 strike days—a return to previous levels.

Table 1: Annual average strike activity, 1964-2009

Source: Lyddon, 2007a, p340; Hale, 2010, p48

Period Number of strikes Workers involved Strike days
1964-67 2,333 759,000 2,597,000
1968-74 2,846 1,684,000 11,703,000
1975-79 2,310 1,658,000 11,663,000
1980-84 1,351 1,298,000 10,486,000
1985-90 838 702,000 3,600,000
1991-2001 220 189,000 520,000
2002-05 128 370,000 721,000
2006-08 148 656,000 852,000
2009 98 209,000 455,000

Official figures in the UK exclude “stoppages involving fewer than 10 workers or lasting less than one day…unless the total number of working days lost in the dispute is 100 or more”.6 This means that very small and short strikes are under-recorded. The pattern of strikes before 1980 included large numbers of this type of strike, which were commonly associated with shop steward bargaining at the workplace. According to one estimate,7 the number of strikes in manufacturing was in reality four times the official figures, so the actual decline has probably been even greater than the figures indicate.

Figures for strike days are generally more reliable because they are dominated by a small number of large strikes and are therefore easier to calculate. Between 1960 and 1979 just 64 strikes accounted for 46 percent of all strike days.8 In 2009 just three stoppages accounted for 78 percent of strike days.9 Nevertheless, differences in estimates of the number of strikers can influence the figures for strike days. For instance, official figures for the 1984-5 miners’ strike record 26 million strike days, whereas an academic study puts the figure at 38 million.10 This would increase annual average strike days for 1980-4 to over 12 million—higher than the 1970s.

Despite problems with the figures, the long-term pattern is clear. All three indicators of strike activity were very high in the 1970s. In the first half of the 1980s the number of strikes fell sharply while strike days remained high. This means that strikes on average became longer, reflecting the bitterness of disputes in the period. Strikes continued to fall in the late 1980s, and strike days also fell dramatically, as did the number of workers involved. By the early 1990s a new pattern had emerged, with historically very low levels of strike activity on all measures.11 This pattern has continued for over 20 years. Since the early 2000s all measures of strikes have been very low, and quite small increases in strike activity can produce disproportionate spikes in the figures.12 But, viewed from a historical perspective, these are still very low levels of strikes.

The problem of confidence

Within the pages of this journal two explanations for the low level of strikes have been proposed.13 One explanation, advanced recently by Neil Davidson, argues that neoliberalism has changed the working class, altering employment in such a way that workers’ resistance is made very much more difficult.14 That is, the explanation for the low level of strikes is seen as lying in structural changes to capitalism. However, Neil offers little supporting evidence for this analysis beyond a complaint from a novelist about house prices,15 and he cites no industrial relations research.16 Besides a questionable factual basis, this sort of explanation appears to offer little hope of any major revival of industrial struggle. If the cause of the low level of strikes is to be found in the structure of capitalism under neoliberalism, how are workers to overcome such obstacles?

The second explanation, more prominent in this journal, is that the level of strikes is low because the confidence of the working class is low.17 The terrible defeats of the 1980s, it is argued, undermined workers’ confidence in their ability to take on the bosses to such an extent that it has not yet recovered, despite occasional and fleeting signs of revival. As workers do recover confidence, though, so will the level of strikes increase. However, there are a number of problems with this account too.

To begin with, in historical perspective, the relationship between confidence and strikes is not at all straightforward. There are many examples of strikes that arose not from confidence but from desperation.18 Important strikes can explode among workers with no history of militancy and no apparent signs of confidence, surprising even the workers involved.19 Furthermore, it has often been observed that, rather than leading to a strike, confidence grows from the experience of being on strike. Moreover, a high level of confidence on the part of striking workers is not always a strength. Problems arising from sectional confidence and over-confidence could be seen in many bitter disputes of the 1970s and 1980s.20

A further problem with explaining the low level of strikes as a consequence of low levels of workers’ confidence is that it is implausible that confidence should remain so low for 20-plus years, without some other underlying cause. That is, if the level of strikes is low because confidence is low, then why is the level of confidence low? Recently, Alex Callinicos has addressed this issue by suggesting that each time workers’ confidence has begun to recover, it has been undermined by “a vicious cycle of betrayal”,21 as the trade union bureaucracy has stifled partial revival with unnecessary defeats. Although this version is more plausible, because it doesn’t rely on a 30-year low-confidence hangover from the 1980s, problems remain. In particular, if rising working class confidence has not been able to overcome the trade union bureaucracy up to now, how might it do so in future?

But the underlying weakness of the confidence theory of strikes is that it fails to examine precisely how confidence might turn into strikes. If the level of strikes reflects the level of workers’ confidence, there must be some (more or less direct) connection, so that growing confidence is translated into rising strike levels. But this is a serious oversimplification of a complex process. A similar debate took place within academic industrial relations during the 1990s. In a famous essay entitled “The Counter-revolution of Our Time” Henry Phelps Brown22 argued that the ideological impact of Thatcherism had decisively undermined collectivism within the working class. For Brown, declining collectivism explained declining collective action during the 1980s. This analysis was subjected to two main lines of criticism. First, it was pointed out that there was in fact little evidence of declining collectivism among workers—and this continues to be the case.23

Second, and more importantly for the current discussion, John Kelly24 showed convincingly that it was a mistake to assume that collectivist ideas and collective grievances would automatically lead to collective action. In reality, a number of important processes lie between a sense of grievance and any eventual industrial action. Thus, in a workplace context, dissatisfaction must be perceived as an injustice; the injustice must be seen as a collective issue; the cause of the collective injustice must be attributed to the employer; workers must make a calculation about their chances of success with any proposed industrial action, and must decide that the benefits outweigh the possible costs; and workers must have sufficient organisation to make the action a reality. In all these processes the role of workplace leaders—such as socialist militants—is often crucial. And, if there are problems in any one of these processes, including a lack of leadership, the result is likely to be that an underlying grievance will not lead to collective action. The key conclusion that follows from this analysis is that the lack of collective action cannot be taken as evidence of a lack of collective sentiment among workers.25

It is not necessary to agree with every aspect of Kelly’s analysis to appreciate the general importance of this argument. Nor is it difficult for socialists who are active in trade unions to think of many concrete difficulties that can and do arise in mobilising workers to take industrial action. A similar logic can be applied to the relationship between confidence and strikes. The number of strikes will only go up and down with workers’ confidence if there is a relatively straightforward path between the two. It only takes a moment or two of reflection to appreciate that there are serious problems with assuming that such a path exists. In reality, many obstacles might arise to prevent the expression of confidence in the form of strikes. Consequently, it is mistaken to think that a low level of strikes is necessarily an expression of a low level of workers’ confidence in any straightforward sense. If there is no simple link between confidence and strikes, then it is possible that workers’ confidence, or anger, or politicisation, may recover (to some extent) without translating into any significant or sustained increase in the number or size of strikes.

Recent years have indeed seen some evidence of reviving workers’ confidence.26 For instance, the demonstrations accompanying the N30 strikes were large and impressively lively, and a number of smaller strikes have shown similar characteristics. How significant are these developments? When considering this question, the theoretical framework that is applied makes a difference. Unfortunately, the confidence theory of strikes has led commentators in this journal, on a number of occasions, incorrectly to predict a revival of strike action.27 It is important not to caricature the arguments presented in these previous analyses, which generally also included notes of caution. Nevertheless, many statements are clear enough. For instance:

A massive protest next year could electrify the trade union movement and become the launch pad for militant action.28

What is happening is quite clear. The generalised anti-capitalist mood…is pulling up the mood of resistance in much wider layers of the class. This in turn is beginning to erode the mood of defeat in the unions, thus affecting their numbers and willingness to take action. This process was already observable in small ways during the early 1990s…but it has become more pronounced in the last year…[and might] spill over into a decisive struggle on the industrial front.29

The growing radicalisation taking place in the trade union movement… things appear to be speeding up… In many cases they displayed a new confidence… The number of strikes seems to be multiplying.30

Similar views were expressed in the 1990s. For instance, a 1997 article argued that eight mainly small strikes “may be harbingers of future struggles”.31 An article in 1995 claimed: “All the signs are there that the first half of the 1990s is a period of the re-emergence of working class strength”.32

More recently a 2009 review of the state of the unions found “an explosive mix” creating “a time of alternatives, of volatility, when history is up for grabs… We have already seen the first signs of revolt”.33 And in 2012 it was said that the N30 strike of 2011 “has opened a new chapter in British working class history”34 before concluding: “After this great strike we are in a new era”.35 While it is possible to quibble over the exact meanings of “new chapter” and “new era”, the overall meaning seems clear: something important has changed in the working class as a result of the strike.

Seen from today, this view is clearly mistaken. The benefits of hindsight are well known, but persistent miscalculations regarding the likely development of the industrial struggle suggest a need for theoretical reappraisal. These articles share a common approach. The analysis starts by identifying modest signs of recovery in working class confidence and combativity, and then moves on to suggest that reviving confidence could be expressed in further industrial action, leading to a general upsurge. On this basis, for instance, Socialist Worker has foreseen possibilities of a “hot autumn” of industrial struggle in the UK in 2002, 2003, 2008, 2011 and 2012.36 Needless to say, none of these years experienced anything like the events of the original “hot autumn” in Italy, 1969.37

It is not my intention to cite exhaustive quotes on this point. Perhaps the authors will dispute my interpretation and remind readers that these articles include warnings that nothing is certain, that the trade union bureaucracy might retain control, and so on. Or perhaps, despite those caveats, they will agree that the general analysis in these articles is clear: namely, that there are signs of reviving confidence and that these might break through to a generalised increase in industrial struggle.

While it is important for Marxists to retain an appreciation of the possibilities inherent in any historical situation, the most important service we can provide for the labour movement is not to highlight what might happen, but to develop an understanding of what is most likely to happen. That helps socialist activists and militant workers to orientate correctly upon the class struggle. The confidence theory of strikes has proved problematic in this regard. It cannot account for the continuing low level of struggle over the last 20 years, and it has incorrectly predicted breakthroughs that did not occur. For this reason, we need to develop an alternative theory that can understand why signs of recovering confidence have not led to a breakthrough.

None of this is to argue that workers’ confidence is not important. But when trying to understand the course of the class struggle, confidence is only one part of the picture. The following section will look at wider reasons for the decline of strikes during the 1980s. Understanding those reasons is important for explaining both why there are so few strikes in Britain today, and why this situation is likely to continue.

Accounting for the decline of strikes in the UK

For more than 30 years accounts of trade union struggles in this journal have been theoretically informed by Tony Cliff’s downturn analysis, which remains crucial for understanding the political impact of setbacks on the industrial front.38 However, analysis of what caused the industrial downturn remains under-developed—in part because the original accounts were written as the situation was rapidly developing, and some key issues only became clear later on. Although there is not space here to discuss Cliff’s analysis in detail, a few points are worth making.

According to one version of the downturn analysis, the main reason for the decline of industrial action from the mid-1970s was that a layer of shop stewards had become bureaucratised.39 It is argued that senior stewards were granted increasing amounts of facility time, became divorced from workers’ day to day experiences, increasingly conservative in outlook, and held back workers’ struggles.

The problem with this argument is that the rise of full-time stewards does not coincide with wider developments in the industrial struggle.40 There was a significant layer of full-time stewards before and during the upturn of industrial struggle that started in the late 1960s, and their spread does not match the onset or development of the downturn. Although there certainly were instances where full-time stewards acted to undermine strikes, it is far from clear that the reason they did so was because they had found a cushy life away from the shop floor. In important cases, such as that of Derek Robinson at the Longbridge car plant, political loyalty to Labour and/or the Communist Party seems much more likely to have been the main influence.41 The growth of bureaucratised shop stewards’ committees may well have made it easier for politically committed senior stewards to control industrial action at workplace level,42 but the real problem was politics, not facility time.

In fact, early statements of the downturn analysis mention many other factors besides the spread of full-time stewards. These included the impact of incomes policy, productivity deals, the political influence of left union leaders such as Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, the role of the Communist Party, the rise of the “viability” argument, loyalty to Labour and the impact of economic crisis, cuts, sackings and closures.43 With the benefit of hindsight, the most important of these was the impact of economic crisis from the mid-1970s—though, of course, the response of workers and unions to the crisis was significantly influenced by the politics of the labour movement at the time. During the 1980s, however, the unions and the level of strikes were massively impacted by three key developments that could not have been foreseen when Cliff developed his original insight, and which had a far greater effect in reducing the level of strikes. These changes were: economic restructuring; changes to the law surrounding industrial action; and the catastrophic defeats of unions in a series of strikes. The following sections will discuss these issues.

Economic factors

The long post-war boom led to a generation of full employment, which was an essential underpinning of union militancy prior to 1980. Full employment radically shifted the balance of bargaining power in the workplace in favour of workers. Almost every account of industrial relations in the 1960s mentions full employment as a key factor in workers’ rising confidence in taking on the employers.44 If you got sacked, it was easy to get another job, and workers knew it. In industries like engineering, full employment helped to turn payment by results (piecework)—which had originally been introduced by employers as a way of screwing down wages—into a mechanism for boosting pay. Young engineering workers would move from one factory to another, following the best rates of pay as employers bid against each other to attract workers.45 Profits were high enough for capital to afford concessions. In these circumstances, in a number of industries, shop stewards pursued vigorous workplace bargaining using unofficial strikes as their main weapon, driving a growing strike wave throughout the 1960s, which exploded into the 1970s. However, the return of serious and sustained recession from the mid-1970s undermined this militancy, and in the 1980s the situation worsened dramatically.

It is important to understand the pattern of strikes in the UK before 1980, which was highly concentrated in a few sectors. Coal mining, docks, motor vehicles, shipbuilding and “other manufacturing” together accounted for almost three quarters of all strikes (Table 2). According to one reputable commentator, just 4 percent of union members contributed 53 percent of strikes.46 But economic crisis hit these industries especially hard. In the early 1980s manufacturing suffered massive recession, and from the late 1980s the coal industry underwent wholesale destruction. Today those heavily unionised, “strike-prone” industries either no longer exist or are significantly smaller. Thus economic restructuring simply removed a very significant source of strikes in the UK.

The 1980s recession also accelerated the long-term shift in UK employment away from manufacturing towards the private service sector, which is poorly unionised. The decline of union membership since 1980 is itself a significant factor reducing strikes, because strike action is almost always action by unionised workers. By 2013, union density in the private sector was a little over 14 percent,47 and union membership roughly half its 1980 level. Economic restructuring has been an important factor in the decline of union membership as unionised industries and workplaces have closed and new enterprises have not become unionised.

Table 2: Annual average number of strikes by sector, 1964-2005

Source: Lyddon, 2007a, p350

1964-67 1968-74 1975-79 1980-84 1985-90 1991-2001 2002-05
Metals, engineering, shipbuilding, vehicles 810 1,355 966 421 203 42 18
Other manufacturing 215 486 457 237 98 19 15
Transport, communications and distribution 218 421 263 204 157 65 47
Construction 251 257 211 57 24 12 3
Coal 686 202 277 288 199 6 1
Public services 21 75 98 123 164 80 49
Other 40 58 67 37 13 8 8
Total 2,233 2,846 2,310 1,351 851 228 131

Within manufacturing the average size of establishment has greatly reduced, so those private sector strikes that do occur tend to be smaller. Since 2000 the public and private sectors have had roughly the same number of strikes, but the public sector has accounted for around 80 percent of days lost because bargaining units are larger. A peak in 2007 saw the public sector account for 96 percent of all strike days.48

The impact of economic restructuring helped to break the habit of striking in other ways. The shocking and sustained increase in unemployment undermined the bargaining power of labour and (re)introduced the fear of dismissal and unemployment into workers’ calculations over strike action in a way unknown for a generation.49 In manufacturing, increased product market competition restrained strikes.50 The onset of economic crisis also saw the rise of the “viability argument”, ie the argument that if the company doesn’t make a profit it will close and the workers will lose their jobs.

Employers can and do use this argument as a scare tactic, and there are many examples of unions giving in unnecessarily. But the real problem with the viability argument is that it is true: if the company doesn’t make a profit, it will go out of business. The end of the long boom (re)introduced this harsh reality and it could not fail to undermine workers’ enthusiasm to take on the employer.

Economic restructuring also shaped the pattern of strikes that emerged in the 1990s. Some industries are less exposed to international competition. These include public services, such as health, education, civil service and local government. Here strikes increased during the 1980s as union organisation strengthened and workers with greater job security grew more willing to take industrial action.51 Similarly sheltered, the transport, communication and distribution sector is now proportionately more important in strike activity, which also reflects the growing importance of logistics in globalised production chains. These two sectors account for most recent stoppages (Tables 2 and 3).

Table 3: Annual average number of strikes by broad industry group, 2006-2009

Source: Hale, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010

2006-08 2009
Manufacturing 23 6
Transport, storage and communications 38 37
Construction 4 7
Coal etc 1 1
Public administration, defence and education 58 35
Other 29 12
Total 148 98

ONS industry categorisation altered slightly from 2006, but broad comparisons are reliable

Another important influence on strikes is pressure on wages. This was reduced in the 1980s as inflation fell. Furthermore, redundancies in the 1980s were often accompanied by productivity gains and pay rises for those workers remaining in employment. Indeed, for most of the 1980s wages rose faster than inflation.52 Apart from a spike around 1990, inflation has remained relatively low for almost 30 years, and this has contributed to lower strike levels. More recently the combination of slightly higher inflation and austerity-driven wage freezes has led to renewed pressure on wages, but union leaderships have been able to contain pressure from members over pay. How this process might have played out if inflation had been at 1970s levels can only be guessed at. But it does seem likely that generally lower inflation has some influence on current strike levels.

Legal changes

Since the late 19th century unions taking strike action while engaged in a lawful trade dispute have had immunity from claims for damages.53 Between 1980 and 1993 Conservative governments introduced a series of laws which progressively limited these protections, thereby making it much more difficult to take strike action and stay within the law. In 1980 and 1982 secondary picketing was banned and secondary action severely restricted.54 This resulted in dozens of legal actions against unions.55 Print unions were in court during the Stockport Messenger and Wapping disputes, as was the NUM during the miners’ strike of 1984-5. In 1984 the requirement to ballot before (official) industrial action was introduced (it was further complicated in 1993). This inhibited the main way strikes started, ie among ordinary members, sometimes being made official later. This particularly undermined union action over “perishable” issues: that is, “issues that management would win by default if workers did not act immediately”.56 More court cases ensued, with 47 injunctions in three years.57 In a key dispute at Austin Rover a strike was called by a joint union committee and the employer obtained injunctions against eight unions over failure to ballot. The result was a “rout” of the unions, with the TGWU (Transport and General Workers Union, now part of Unite) fined £200,000. The next year strikes at the company collapsed almost to zero.58

Although the law was only used in a minority of disputes, individual unions repeatedly found themselves in legal difficulties. Between 1983 and 1995 unions were subject to 201 legal actions.59 The GPMU (Graphical, Paper and Media Union) was in court 33 times. Unions were hit with damages and, more significantly, injunctions.60 By 1995 the TGWU, Unison and AEEU (Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union) between them accounted for 48 injunctions.61 If injunctions were ignored, fines for contempt and sequestration could follow, causing massive disruption to the union—graphically illustrated in accounts of the Wapping dispute and the miners’ strike.62

Given the generally feeble submission before the law of union leaders today, it comes as quite a surprise to recall that there was initially considerable defiance of the new laws—hence the large number of court cases. But by the later 1980s unions started to comply. Injunctions led to action being called off and disputes collapsed as a result.63 In recent years there have been few injunctions for secondary action or picketing, most being for technical breaches of complex balloting regulations.64 Accurate lists of members are essential. In industries with a highly mobile workforce, such as construction, this is almost impossible. Union mergers, of which there have been many in recent years, are known to disorganise membership records. Unions that ballot regularly, like the RMT, develop much more accurate membership lists, though even here successful legal challenges are possible.65

Balloting laws that were supposedly introduced to ensure union democracy have increasingly been used to prevent strike action, even when supported by a majority of union members. In this area, as in others, statute has been significantly added to by “judicial creativity” as judges have interpreted the law in ever more restrictive ways. Legal protections for unions taking strike action have been reduced to “tattered waifs”.66 This harsh reality now faces any group of union members considering strike action. Further restrictions seem likely, given the current clamour in Tory circles.67 Furthermore, the ideological effects of these laws should not be underestimated: they were intended to reduce the legitimacy of workers’ opposition.68

Finally, the 1980s also saw changes to the criminal law which made the conduct of strikes more difficult for unions. The well known Code of Practice on picketing was widely enforced as if it were criminal law, and the 1986 Public Order Act put into statute many of the policing tactics developed during the miners’ strike.69

Crucially, the new laws pressed unions to police their own members.70 The TGWU acknowledged the Austin Rover fine as a “major restraining influence” on strike activity.71 The same disaster prompted the AEU to remove the power to call strikes from district committees. Gradually union leaders sought to keep themselves out of court by gaining control over strike action.72 This contributed to the great reduction in unofficial strikes. From 1990 unions were required to “repudiate” unofficial action, and now regularly do so.

Defeats and the “demonstration effect”

The hugely damaging and demoralising defeats of powerful unions in the 1980s are probably familiar to readers of this journal and will not be dealt with in detail. The 1980s have been accurately described as a period of “coercive pacification” of the unions.73 Employers used the pressure of recession and the new laws backed by the power of the state to inflict a series of devastating defeats on workers and their unions. This had a significant “demonstration effect”, whereby “each defeat discourages others from the risk of a strike”.74 Defeats such as that of the steel workers, Wapping, the dockers and, above all, the year-long miners’ strike had a huge demoralising effect.

From the mid-1980s employers started to dismiss strikers. Most prominent was the sacking of 5,500 workers at Wapping, but other examples include P&O Ferries and the Liverpool dockers. Between 1986 and 1989 dismissal of strikers was used at least 45 times and threatened 38 times.75 There was a growing perception of the vulnerability of workers taking industrial action.76 To emphasise the point, official ballot papers must by law contain a warning that striking “may be in breach of your contract”.77 Dismissals of strikers continue, such as at Gate Gourmet in 2005 and selective sackings of BA cabin crew during the 2009-2010 dispute. Other sanctions have included loss of redundancy pay.78

Unsurprisingly, workers lost the confidence to strike without the backing of the union, further reducing unofficial strikes79 even before they were legally restricted. Official strikes are now the great majority, which has implications for the pattern of stoppages (see below). The defeats also had effects on union officials. Unions de-prioritised industrial action in dealing with employers, adopting strategies of concession and compromise or “new realism”—a phrase first used in 1983.80 Later, from the mid-1990s, many unions sought explicit “partnership” agreements, “avoiding strike action wherever possible and trying to rebuild membership and influence through collaborative relationships with employers”.81

New stability and new habits

In the 1970s, in key sectors of industry, strikes were a commonly used method for dealing with workplace grievances or demands. Workers were said to be “in the habit” of taking industrial action.82 As late as 1983 a leading academic commentator wrote:

What can safely be said…is that the character of British strikes is firmly embedded in traditions of workplace organisation…and it will take a major upheaval to destroy the practice of solving disputes at the point of production and the pattern of short workplace-based action that goes with it.83

Of course, a major upheaval did take place and the old practices were largely destroyed. The question, then, is what new habits emerged to take their place?

Important features of the industrial relations landscape before 1980 had their origins in the period of employment reforms around the time of the First World War, which were in part a response by employers and the state to a huge wave of workers’ struggles. These reforms set the broad framework for union-employer relations, including: the promotion of national-level bargaining,84 which left the workplace open for rank and file organisation; a broad definition of “lawful trade dispute”; and considerable legal protections for industrial action.85 Within this framework union activists in the 1930s, including many socialists and Communists, were able to rebuild workplace organisation after the defeats of the 1926 General Strike and the Depression of the 1930s. The framework was further reinforced during the Second World War. After 1945 union activists also used the new found bargaining power offered by full employment further to strengthen workplace organisation, to build shop steward organisation in many industries and to fight hard at workplace level for better pay and conditions.86 Thus the situation before 1980 comprised a complex mix of legal and institutional arrangements, together with traditions of workplace organisation and activism buoyed by the confidence of a generation of full employment.

Margaret Thatcher’s assault brought key changes to the legal and institutional framework around unions and industrial action. Examples include the removal in 1993 of Acas’s statutory duty to “promote collective bargaining”,87 and the dismantling of almost all remaining multi-employer bargaining,88 which also reduced arrangements for multi-union coordination in collective bargaining. Legal and institutional changes went alongside economic crisis, renewed employer hostility and state policy that turned against previous engagement with unions.

The overall consequence of these changes was to remove what have been called “safe spaces”89 in which unions had previously operated. Although workplace activists might object to the suggestion that union activity was ever very safe nevertheless the wider point is surely correct. Unions now face hostility on all sides. The degree of legitimacy and important elements of institutional security that existed prior to 1980 have now completely gone. The removal of this institutional framework has left unions facing significant difficulties that make it much more difficult for them to establish and maintain bargaining strength.90 And changes to the institutional and legal framework saw the development of new forms and habits of activity at the workplace.

In this sense, the “downturn” of the 1980s was not just a reduction of strike levels within a framework of continuity. Rather the 1980s were a period of transition from one regime for conducting relations between unions and employers to another. Although there are problems with the formulation, the “post-war settlement” had ended and a new settlement had taken its place. In terms of factors affecting the number of strikes, the key feature of the new arrangements is that the control of strikes is securely in the hands of the national union leadership.91 That is, the strike weapon has been taken out of the hands of shop stewards. It is now far more difficult to take strike action independently of the union officials. This is the key obstacle to the expression of any revival of workers’ confidence in the form of an increase in strikes. It is therefore also the key factor underlying the stability of the present low level of strikes. If working class confidence and combativity revive to a level that would in the past have led to a revival in the level of strikes, that outcome is much less likely today. A number of implications follow from this.

First, it explains the current pattern of strikes, which are overwhelmingly official. This is in huge contrast to the preceding period, where the vast majority of strikes were unofficial. In the late 1960s it was estimated that at least 95 percent of strikes were unofficial.92 Today unofficial strikes are rare and tend to be concentrated in particular circumstances, such as parts of the construction industry. Important as these examples are, the overall picture is one of workplace union reps facing great difficulties in organising local strike action over perishable issues.

Also most strikes are discontinuous. Historically, national unions usually preferred these tactics in official industry-wide disputes, and this pattern has continued, with large public sector strikes lasting only one or two days.93 The same pattern has now been brought into the conduct of strikes at enterprise level too, as a result of balloting laws that push local union reps towards union officials for permission to ballot and to strike—the alternative being action with far fewer protections.94 The dominant pattern of short and discontinuous strike action is not, as some have claimed,95 the result of a recent aversion to all-out strikes. Rather it represents the ascendancy of official control of strikes.96 The almost total absence of large and long strikes, which in the past usually started among the rank and file, partly explains the low strike figures.

The officials’ strike strategy is supplemented by the use of strike ballots, which currently average around 700 to 800 a year.97 Balloting has had an unintended consequence: ballots give legitimacy to a grievance or demand in the eyes of employers, union members and others. Unions can use ballots in collective bargaining to gain limited advances.98 Lengthy balloting procedures also introduce a series of deadlines into the bargaining process, which further encourage a negotiated settlement rather than industrial action.

The difficulty of taking strike action independently of the union bureaucracy has a second important implication. Stewards who can no longer address workplace issues by strike action have learned to find alternative means of pressuring employers. Most commonly stewards have developed considerable expertise in the use of employment rights for bargaining purposes. These rights are usually described as “individual”, and counterposed to “collective” issues. However, experienced and determined stewards also deploy legal rights as bargaining resources to pursue collective issues with employers.99 For instance, health and safety regulations are used to challenge work organisation; grievance procedures and the threat of Employment Tribunals (ETs) are used to tackle bullying managers; the sophisticated use of disciplinary procedures is used to constrain management’s right to dismiss.

Employment Tribunal claims rose dramatically from around 29,000 a year in the late 1980s to 236,000 in 2009-10.100 Although ETs have been rightly criticised for their inadequacy in dealing with employers, surveys of employers have identified surprising impacts of ET procedures. In 2004, 60 percent of workplaces with more than 500 employees had experienced at least one ET claim in the previous 12 months (large workplaces are more likely to be unionised). Of these, around half had changed workplace procedures as a result.101 This represents a considerable collective outcome from “individual” casework. It remains to be seen what effects the catastrophic decline of ET claims resulting from the imposition of charges will have.102

In this account the increase in individual casework by stewards does not represent a simple retreat from taking on employers, as it is often wrongly described by commentators in the blogosphere. Rather it is the continuation of workplace struggle by other means, in an era where stewards have no simple recourse to strikes.

In some industries militants have been able to improvise other non-strike bargaining methods. One particularly important example is the BESNA construction workers’ dispute in 2011-12, where activists devised a method of organising that was impressively successful, but was not based on strikes nor on traditional workplace organisation (though there were work stoppages and some important strikes). In another example, contract cleaners at a further education college, Conel in north London, used a version of naming and shaming to defend terms and conditions.103 None of these activities will show up in strike figures, but this should not be mistaken for a lack of combativity.

This combination of factors explains the stability of the current low level of strikes: the strike weapon is no longer in the hands of shop stewards, and consequently stewards have developed non-strike methods for attempting to deal with employers.

The important final issue is, if the new arrangements are relatively stable, what are the prospects for change? The answer is in two parts. First, it is important to recognise that once in place, institutional arrangements for conducting relations between unions and employers tend to be fairly robust and are only altered in “times of great crisis”.104 It is likely that it will take some type of wider social or political crisis significantly to upset the current institutional arrangements. Where this might arise is impossible to predict, but what is certain is that capitalism has not been able to solve some very deep-seated contradictions, so crises will arise at some point. Secondly, it is important to understand that the current low level of strike action is not straightforward evidence of a lack of combativity. Rather shop stewards and other activists show considerable tenacity and determination, but fight with inadequate weapons. What are lacking, though, are the weapons—not the willingness to take on employers. Consequently, should a period of crisis once again present shop stewards with the opportunity to throw down their current weapons and take up the strike once more, we can expect that they will do so in good numbers.

Meanwhile, the present period is one where a considerable level of workplace struggle is taking forms that do not register in familiar ways. Figuring out how to deal with this new pattern of workplace struggles will probably take a considerable effort and some false starts, but socialists must take it into account when deciding policy on the trade unions. This is not the place to make detailed programmatic proposals, but some possible themes can be suggested.


Strikes declined in the 1980s due to three main factors: traumatic economic changes, increasingly tough new laws to curb industrial action, and chastening defeats of major unions. These factors combined to transform the landscape of industrial relations. Since the early 1990s a new pattern has become established which involves few strikes. Large strikes are rare and seldom last long. Extensive areas of employment are virtually strike-free. Strikes occupy a different place in the process of collective bargaining in most industries, and are usually official and planned in advance. Strike figures are dominated by public services. As old ways declined, new ones developed, such as the use of ballots in the bargaining process and the pursuit of individual cases through workplace procedures and employment tribunals.

There is no evidence that workers are any happier at work than before; indeed there is much evidence to the contrary. There is no evidence that workplace grievances or demands have diminished. Yet the changes outlined above mean that there are now very significant obstacles in the way of the expression of workplace grievances in the form of strikes. Workers continue to look for alternatives to striking, but the low level of strike action should not be mistaken for acquiescence in workplace relations.

But it is now much more difficult for sections of the rank and file to strike independently of the officials. The fact that the strike weapon has been taken out of the hands of shop stewards means it will be very difficult for increasing anger and/or confidence to be translated into rising strike levels. Similarly, the prospect of strikes moving beyond action called by union officials is severely restricted, and it is unlikely that official strikes will spill over into a generalised upsurge of workers’ struggles. Strike numbers are likely to stay very low. In these circumstances, it is important that Marxists warn the most active and political workers that this is likely to be the case, and explain the present situation and its frustrations. This essentially political activity will be an important part of pulling a network of workplace activists together around a body of political ideas.

Before 1980 the ability of shop stewards to organise effective industrial action independently of the bureaucracy was an important factor in the internal life of many unions, significantly reducing conflict with the bureaucracy.105 The fact that this avenue is now virtually closed means that internal tensions within unions are likely to be significantly more pronounced than in earlier periods, especially between left activists and officials. Many readers will recognise this picture. The new reality both increases the importance of politics within the union and makes such conflicts more difficult to resolve. Dealing with these tensions is likely to be a significant issue for activists in the current period.

As outlined above, obstacles to industrial action mean that shop stewards are significantly concerned with workplace procedures and with the legal frameworks behind them. Socialists could engage much more seriously with these issues than is usually the case. There is ample opportunity for political commentary and analysis regarding employment law, legal changes, important case law rulings, and so on, which can be useful for union activists and draw important political lessons. Simply calling on union leaders to break the law is not enough.

Of course, strikes do matter. Non-strike methods are much less effective for taking on employers. The fact that the strike weapon is no longer in the hands of shop stewards means that unions are in a much weaker bargaining position vis-a-vis management, and will find it hard to defend workers. In the absence of effective strike action, employers will continue to grind away at terms and conditions. Therefore, the strike issue is a key political question for the future of the unions.

Consequently, the importance of the strike weapon could be taken up more widely by socialists as a campaigning and propaganda issue, not just as an agitational issue when actual disputes arise. There is room inside the unions, and in the working class more widely, for a campaign in favour of the right of workers to withdraw their labour when faced with harsh or unfair treatment by an employer. The demand for the right to stop work could be made part of every discussion of unfair employment practices, such as zero-hours contracts. Raising demands for changes to the law over the right to strike, for instance, could be part of wider discussions with the best militants over the importance of strike action for defending workers—and such discussions might prepare the ground ideologically for any future return of significant strike action.

None of the above means that unions could not be considerably more militant and successful than they currently are. It is important that socialists continue to raise demands that union leaders show more determination in taking on employers and the government. And it is essential that socialists press every opportunity to broaden and deepen resistance. However, socialists also need to recognise that changes in the economic and institutional setting, the removal of “safe spaces” for union activity and continuing hostility towards unions from employers and the state, mean that there will be no return to the pattern of strikes seen in the 1970s. Given these harsh realities, neither is it likely that there will be a return to 1970s levels of union membership. Consequently, it is a mistake to measure the present situation using standards derived from a historically unusual period, and will only lead to disorientation. Considering the disrepair of union organisation and shop steward coverage in many areas, a serious application of socialists to developing a programme for rebuilding should be seriously considered—not only as an agitational matter, but also as a political rallying point for union activists.

The analysis outlined above suggests two things above all. The first presents socialists with a major problem: there are currently significant barriers in the way of a general increase in the level of strikes—barriers that will not easily be overcome. The second implies the possibility of rapid transformation in the right circumstances. Continuing, if hidden, shop steward combativity suggests that if strikes became more readily available, stewards would take them up, though it is difficult to predict circumstances in which this might happen. Until such time, socialists need to develop new strategies and tactics for dealing with the present situation, which has no close historical parallels.


1: I would like to thank Dave Lyddon for reading and making comments on an earlier draft and for general encouragement, Alex Callinicos for pestering me to write and numerous friends for listening to me boring on about industrial relations. However, they can’t be blamed for the final results, which are all my own work.

2: Callinicos, 2014, p123.

3: Lyddon, 2013, p64. Dave Lyddon’s short piece pulls together a lot of recent strike statistics.

4: Kessler and Bayliss, 1998, p247.

5: ONS, 2014. Due to technical ineptitude, new software and a tight schedule, I have been unable to add the most recent figures to the tables I had previously. The ONS publication has lots of graphics, though.

6: Hale, 2010, p58, original emphasis.

7: Brown, 1981, p100.

8: Lyddon, 2007a, p346.

9: Hale, 2010, p55.

10: Lyddon, 2007a, p353.

11: For historical comparison, see Hyman, 1989, p28.

12: Lyddon, 2013, p65.

13: Alex Callinicos notes a third explanation, provided by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, which argues that neoliberalism has changed workers’ subjectivity to the extent that they are no longer capable of challenging the power of capital. Alex’s criticisms of this approach seem right, and I won’t pursue the matter further. See Callinicos, 2014, pp124-125.

14: Davidson, 2013.

15: Davidson, 2013, p192.

16: Neil does cite John McIlroy, but in relation to the Labour Party, not the unions. Davidson, 2013, p211.

17: For instance, Kimber, 2012, p16: “A victory could see a surge in confidence and a generalised recovery.”

18: As described, for instance, in Lenin’s “On Strikes” (Lenin, 1899).

19: For instance, the famous Pilkingtons strike-Lane and Roberts, 1971.

20: Harman, 1985, pp71-72. For a discussion of sectionalism generally, see Hyman, 1975, pp177-183.

21: Callinicos, 2014, pp125-126.

22: Brown, 1990.

23: British Social Attitudes Survey, see Park and others, 2013.

24: Kelly, 1998.

25: Kelly, 1998, p64.

26: Kimber, 2012.

27: During preparation for this article, I realised that a similar criticism had been made by Gregor Gall in an article of which I was previously unaware (Gall, 2005). Gregor is currently my PhD supervisor. Nevertheless, I would like to make it clear that the analysis presented here was arrived at independently. Any resemblance to previous articles is entirely accidental.

28: Smith, 2010, cited in Smith, 2011.

29: Rees, 2001, cited in Smith, 2005.

30: Smith, 2002, pp54-57.

31: Rees, 1997, pp9-10.

32: Morgan, 1995, p76.

33: Kimber, 2009, p36, p34.

34: Kimber, 2012, p15.

35: Kimber, 2012, p37.

36: Google search on Socialist Worker website: www.google.com/search?q=hot+autumn&sitesearch=socialistworker.co.uk. Older readers might recall talk of “green shoots”.

37: Harman, 1988, pp193-219.

38: For overview and references, see Birchall, 2011, pp440-474.

39: Eg Beecham, 1984.

40: As Dave Lyddon has conclusively shown, Lyddon, 1984.

41: Harman, 1985, p71. For a detailed account, see Lyddon, 1977.

42: Hyman, 1979.

43: Cliff, 1978; Harman, 1985. Jones and Scanlon were left wing union leaders in the 1970s, whose influence among the rank and file was a key factor in holding back workers’ struggles under the “Social Contract” policy of the 1974-9 Labour government-which Jones and Scanlon supported.

44: For instance, Donovan, 1968, p105; Cliff and Barker, 2002, p31 (originally published 1966).

45: During the discussion following Pete Jackson’s talk at Marxism 2013, a former engineering worker recalled exactly this experience among his workmates. Available at: http://swpradiocast.bandcamp.com/track/1972-74-when-workers-brought-down-the-tories

46: Robertson, 2009, p174. Unfortunately, Jack gives no reference for this figure, but it seems about right.

47: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2014, p5.

48: Office for National Statistics, 2014, pp19-20.

49: Edwards, 1983, p216.

50: Lyddon, 2007a, p340.

51: Lyddon, 2007a, p340.

52: Hyman, 1989, p227.

53: Although the extent of the immunities was not settled until 1913 (Wedderburn, 1986, pp16-38).

54: Wedderburn, 1986, p597.

55: Evans, 1985.

56: Hyman, 1989, p24.

57: Evans, 1987, p421.

58: Lyddon, 2007a, p354.

59: McKay, 1996, pp14-15.

60: Wedderburn, 1986, p684.

61: McKay, 1996, pp14-15. During this period many unions merged and changed names. For simplicity, I have put together cases involving the merged union and any predecessors.

62: Melvern, 1986; Milne, 2014.

63: Evans, 1985; 1987.

64: Lyddon, 2009, p337.

65: Darlington, 2009, p93.

66: Wedderburn, 1986, p704.

67: Gall, 2014.

68: Wedderburn, 1986, p562.

69: Wedderburn, 1986, p551.

70: Wedderburn, 1986, p531.

71: Lyddon, 2007a, p354.

72: Evans, 1987, pp422-423.

73: Hyman, 1989, p199.

74: Hyman, 1989, p226. This is one area where confidence is important-but as one part of the decline of strikes not as a general explanation of the subsequent stability of low strike levels.

75: Lyddon, 2007a, p357.

76: Lyddon, 2007a, p351.

77: Department of Trade and Industry, 2005, p20. Of course, striking certainly is a legal breach of contract, but this choice of wording for ballot papers is not accidental.

78: Lyddon, 2009, pp334-336.

79: Lyddon, 2007a, p348.

80: Hyman, 1989, p235.

81: Darlington, 2009, p83.

82: See Lyddon, 2007a, p351.

83: Edwards, 1983, pp233-234.

84: Lyddon, 2007b; Sisson, 1987.

85: Wedderburn, 1986.

86: For an overview of the post-war period, see Campbell and others, 2007, and McIlroy, and others, 2007.

87: Go to www.acas.org.uk/?articleid=1400

88: Joyce, 2013.

89: This phrase was used by Martin Upchurch during a discussion at the Historical Materialism Conference, London, 2014. It summarises the analysis in Upchurch and others, 2009.

90: This doesn’t mean that unions couldn’t do better-but the changed circumstances must be recognised.

91: Terry, 2003, p268.

92: Donovan, cited in Gall and Cohen, 2013, p94.

93: Lyddon, 2009, pp318-322.

94: Lyddon, 1998, pp109-112.

95: Davidson, 2013, p194; McKinlay and McNulty, 1992.

96: Lyddon, 1998.

97: Hale, 2010, pp56-57.

98: Lyddon, 2009, p338.

99: My own research has found strong evidence of shop stewards using employment rights in this way, but for academic reasons the findings must be published elsewhere.

100: Renton, 2009; Ministry of Justice, 2010.

101: Kersley and others, 2006, pp225-226

102: Graham, 2014. During discussion at the Manchester Industrial Relations Society 50th Anniversary Conference, 21 November 2014, a representative of Thompsons Solicitors stated that ET claims are currently down by 80 percent, with claims for unpaid wages and unfair dismissal having almost completely disappeared.

103: Moore, 2013.

104: Sisson, 1987, p191; Joyce, 2013.

105: Hyman, 1975, p166.


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