European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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Strikes in the UK: background summary

There is no right to strike in the UK. However, if trade unions legally organise industrial action, they are protected from prosecution. Changes to the legal framework governing the organisation of industrial disputes, contained in the Trade Union Bill may jeopardize this fundamental right. These changes are strongly opposed by trade unions.

  • There is no right to strike in the UK. However, if trade unions legally organise industrial action, they are protected from prosecution. In practice, the most common forms of industrial action are: strikes; and action short of a strike, which may include practices such as work to rule, or overtime bans.
  • According to the UK Office for National Statistics, in 2015, a total of 170,000 days were lost to strike action, compared with 788,000 in 2014. The 2015 figure was the second lowest annual total since records began in 1891. The decrease of working days lost in 2015 was mainly attributable to a number of large-scale public sector strikes in 2014.
  • Strike action in 2015 was most common in education, while the greatest number of days lost was in transport and storage. The main cause of industrial action in 2015 was pay. This has been the main cause of industrial disputes for the past 10 years, apart from in 2009 and 2010, when the main cause was redundancy.
  • The public and private sector saw the same amount of disputes in 2015, in a change to recent history. However, the public sector had more working days lost than the private sector.
  • Both the mean number of working days lost per stoppage was lower in 2015 than in 2014; 1,600, compared with 5,086. However, the median was higher (195 compared with 171). This is due to the fact that the number of working days lost can be significantly affected by large one-off strikes. Therefore, the median figures tend to give a more typical measure of the average number of working days lost per stoppage.
  • Recent high-profile labour disputes in the UK include those organised by the RMT trade union against planned changes to the organisation of working for tube train drivers in London, in conjunction with the introduction of all-night tube services, and by the BMA trade union against changes to contracts for junior doctors. During 2016, train drivers on Southern Rail have been staging a series of stoppages in protest against proposed changes to the role of train conductors.
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