Rise in industrial action in the UK to be explored by trade union activists and academics

Dr Andrea Bernadi
Dr Andrea Bernadi

A rise in trade union activism in the UK during an era of high inflation and a decline in real wages is being researched by academics at Oxford Brookes University.

Over the last year in the UK railway workers, bus drivers, refuse collectors, nurses, university lecturers, doctors and postal workers have been involved in strike action. 

Dr Andrea Bernardi, Senior Lecturer in Employment and Organisation studies at Oxford Brookes University, said the main cause of the strikes is the decline of real wages over the past 15 years.

“In this, the UK did worse than Germany, France, Netherlands and several comparable nations. Now, inflation makes things suddenly harder but there are industrial disputes in place over a variety of topics, such as pension, workload, conditions, casualisation and gender inequality,” he said.

Dr Bernardi and his colleagues, Dr Jill Millar, Senior Lecturer in Business and Management and Andy Kilmister, Senior Lecturer in Economics, are organising two workshops involving academics and trade union activists.

The first workshop on 24 February  will identify key issues and will begin with a talk from  Miguel Martinez Lucio, Professor of international HRM and Comparative Industrial Relations at Manchester University. Prof Martinez Lucio is a prominent academic in the field of employment relations. A second workshop, at a date to be confirmed in May, will explore potential revival strategies for unions as well as workers’ participation. 

Dr Bernadi said: “These workshops will explore whether there is a renewed interest in trade unionism and explore ways in which trade unions can contribute to win-win solutions in efficient negotiations with employers. In a high-inflation environment, everybody is concerned with real wages. But salary is not the only topic on the table, there are also working conditions, shifts, high-performance work systems, benefits and services, training and development. If a negotiation is joined in good faith by both parties they can build a more healthy and productive working environment.

“Industrial relations as an academic discipline and as an HR practice have been neglected for a long time in the UK. It was believed that it was no longer necessary to have programmes, modules and academics specialised in Industrial Relations. In the UK, unlike in continental Europe, trade union activism and collective bargaining were almost considered a relic of the past.”

Dr Bernardi described a post-Brexit and post-Covid-19 labour market characterised by systematic staff shortages and high turnover. “Workers are more selective, more demanding, and less loyal to employers, especially if they feel neglected. They choose new work-life balance arrangements. The phenomenon is being studied and named the great resignation, the great reshuffle, or the quiet quitting. Those problems are common to most western countries but in the UK they are being exacerbated by a unitarist approach by employers and a laissez-faire ideology of the policymakers.”

“Some alternative approaches to employment relations are available. We can look at highly successful countries like Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands where the employers believe in workers' participation, cooperatively engage with unions and the governments are actively involved in major industrial disputes and industrial crises.

“Collective bargaining and tripartite negotiations are the norm in the EU. We call it the European social dialogue model. Employers cannot ignore unions and governments should actively facilitate the resolution of the most important industrial disputes. The British Government instead has avoided any explicit involvement even in important public sectors and publicly funded industries,” he said. 

“In the past five years, we have been observing some changes in trade union statistics. Rather than a continuation of the historic decline in membership, there was a rise. If we observe the figures published by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy in the Trade Union Membership Statistical Bulletin, we realise that we might be experiencing a once-in-a-generation shift in the trends.”

Below are two charts from the latest report (May 2022), but official data for 2022 is not yet available. They show an upward trend with trade union membership in the UK rising from 6,577,000 in 2017 to 6,719,000 in 2021. Dr Bernadi said the trend upwards paused due to the pandemic, furlough and redundancies in 2020 and 2021. He expects the 2022 government statistics, due to be published in May to show another rise in trade union membership figures.

“The inversion of the decline and the 2017-2020 increase is already important news.

In the public sector the increase is more visible and present in 2021 as well, making it a six-year continuous increase,” he added.