Striking out in a new direction? Strikes and the displacement thesis.

AuthorGall, Gregor
PositionBehind the News - Essay


Strike activity in Britain continues at its historically low ebb. The level of strikes is likely to remain low or even fall further as a result of the introduction of the Tory Trade Union Act 2016 on 1 March 2017. This raises the issue of whether other means of the expression and resolution of workplace grievances are being used instead when strike action is not or cannot be used. An examination of the available data on the frequency of these other means indicates such displacement has not occurred to any great extent, in part because we have also seen successive attempts by government to suppress the level of individual disputes over the last three to four decades.

Keywords strikes, industrial action, grievances, legal regulation


The implementation of the Tory Trade Union Act 2016 from 1 March 2017 further tightened the screw on the ability of workers and their unions to lawfully organise collective industrial action, strikes in particular. This was despite Tory MP, David Davis, criticising part of the then Bill for being Franco-esque (Guardian 14 September 2015), bodies like Liberty, Amnesty International and the British Institute of Human Rights condemning the Bill for its abuse of civil liberties (joint media statement, 7 September 2015) and the Trades Union Congress saying it would throw the 'kitchen sink' into defeating the Bill (and then the 'fridge' and 'television set' as well) (Mirror 14 September, Morning Star 21 March 2016). The Act's key provisions passed into law with regard to strike and industrial action are (a) at least half of the eligible union members are required to vote so a minimum turnout is established and (b) in a selection of important public services, there is also the requirement that at least 40% of all those entitled to vote must also vote for action (meaning non-voters are treated as 'no' voters). The Act's other measures concerning industrial action include reducing the validity of mandate from being open-ended to 6 months (unless extended to 9 months with the agreement of the affected employer) and increasing the period of notice to employers of action from 7 days to 14 days.

One of the major criticisms of the Trade Union Act 2016 in regard of industrial action was that there was no public clamour for it despite a small number of strikes, in transport in particular, gaining a disproportionate level of media coverage and being used in an opportunist way by the Tories to justify the measures in the Act. Ironically, many of these strikes in air (e.g. British Airways) and rail transport (e.g. Southern Trains) have continued after 1 March 2017 because they attained the new double thresholds. Another major criticism was that there is no evidence base for the Act; rather, it seeks to solve a problem that does not actually exist. Indeed, the publication by the government of the annual strike statistics for Britain for 2016 in May 2017 apdy made this point for the statistics showed that activity continues to fluctuate at historically low levels. For example, although the number of days not worked due to strikes in 2016 was nearly twice the number not worked in 2015, the figure for 2016 was still the eighth lowest since records began in 1891. And since 1990, only 5 years have seen more than a million days not worked due to strikes (Office of National Statistics (ONS) 2017). Before that--from 1953 to 1989--the minimum number of days not worked was never lower than 2 million per annum (ONS 2017). Trends in the number of strikes and workers involved follow a broadly similar pattern.

As the intention of the Trade Union Act 2016 is to reduce the levels of strikes and other forms of industrial action, namely, industrial action short of a strike, further still, the question posed in this Behind the News contribution is, 'With strikes continuing at their lowest historical ebb, what is the evidence for the phenomenon of method displacement?' The displacement thesis suggests that other means will take up the 'slack' or demand when workers do not or cannot express--and seek their resolution of--their collective grievances at work through the method of strikes. Such other means might include an array of methods with varying degrees of formal organisation or coordination like work-to-rules and overtime bans, protests inside and outside the workplace, leverage campaigns (including using social media to damage brands and organisational reputations), use of conciliation services, sickness/absence rates, employment tribunal applications, staff turnover, sabotage and organisational misbehaviour.

To expand, and drawing upon Sapsford and Turnbull (1994), Gall and Hebdon (2008) argued,

The notion of method displacement suggests, inter alia, a trade-off between strikes and other forms of conflict ... When strikes are structurally blocked by laws or institutions, and capitalist globalization helps weaken organized labor, alternative expressions of conflict may increase. The prevailing wisdom from the ... [workplace] conflict literature suggests that conflict may be redirected in two ways; collective actions will be more covert, appearing in the form of collective job actions (for example, sick-outs, slowdowns, work-to-rules), and there will also be more individual conflict expressions (for example turnover, absenteeism, grievances), (p. 600) The concept of a balloon was employed by Sapsford and Turnbull (1994) to suggest that when pressure is exerted upon one point through squeezing, the air within the balloon created a bulge in another part. Some evidence to support method displacement was found for Canada and the United States (Gall & Hebdon...

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