Credit: Nick/Wikipedia

London Tube strikes: is this the summer of discontent?

Strikes paralyse London for the second time in as many months, but walkouts will remain the exception rather than the rule.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 27 Aug 2015

It may sound like today’s London Underground strike has brought the city to a standstill, but it’s hard to assess its exact economic impact. Certainly, the leisure, retail and hospitality sectors will be suffering as tourists and workers avoid the commuter chaos, though the latter will probably spend the same on goods and services, just in different places or on different days.

One way of measuring the impact of strikes in general is the number of working days lost directly to industrial action in a year. The figure was 788,000 last year, according to the ONS, up from 443,600 in 2013 and 249,000 in 2012. Do the tube strikes fall into a pattern then? Should we get ready for power cuts and the return of the three day week?

Let’s not get carried away. Strike action has followed an up and down pattern for decades (2011, for instance, had nearly 1.3 million days lost), so there’s no reason to think the upward march of militant unionism would continue.

To understand why this is, look at how the strikes break down into public and private sector disputes.


Since Margaret Thatcher banned closed ballots and lightning strikes, the membership and power of the unions have plummeted, especially in the private sector. Since 1990, the level of private sector industrial action has been tiny and not especially volatile, and it remains so.

In large part, this is because of the UK’s transition to a service economy – you can’t really imagine scores of militant baristas blockading your local Starbucks over working conditions, can you?

The decline in public sector industrial action has been less severe, however, and indeed those areas of the private sector that are prone to strike tend to be those upon which government policy has a big impact (university lecturers, railway workers or taxi drivers bitter at Uber’s rise all come to mind).

Even when public and private are taken together, the level of strikes in the modern UK is far less than it was in the 70s and 80s. In 1979’s ‘winter of discontent’, a whopping 30 million days were lost. That’s roughly 0.5% of the country’s labour wasted, compared to around 0.01% last year.  

A return to those days is almost impossible to imagine (unless Jeremy Corbyn wants to see that aspect of 1970s industrialism make a comeback too), and if the government's new law making it even harder to strike passes, that will make it doubly so. 

The number of days lost may be rising year on year, but this is really about tetchy relations between public sector workers and the state. If the era of austerity and cuts hasn’t brought strike action up to 70s and 80s levels, it’s unlikely anything else will.  

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