Publicly funded industries account for 96% of strike days, says report

Resolution Foundation report links real-terms pay cuts, union membership, and challenging working conditions to strike action while noting above-average increase in vacancy rate
Source: Adobe Stock

By Tim Gibson

14 Aug 2023

The number of working days lost to strike action last year in publicly funded industries was 3.74m, according to a report from the Resolution Foundation. That equates to 96% of all strike days, which totalled 3.9m for the whole of the UK between May 2022 and May 2023.

The overall figure is the highest since the 1980s, but still some way short of the peaks of the 1970s. In its report, the Resolution Foundation points out that the number of days lost to strike action during that decade was sometimes more than eight times higher than over the last year, at a time when the workforce was 25% smaller.

Even so, it acknowledges the current levels of strike action buck the trend of recent years. In the 2010s, for example, an average of 450,000 days were lost per year to strikes.

It says public sector workers have “seen a bigger pay hit than the private sector overall”, which may go some way to explaining the higher strike rate in publicly funded industries such as health, education, and public administration.

Overall, public sector workers experienced a 9.2% drop in real-terms pay in the three months to May 2023 compared to the three months to May 2021. The average fall in the private sector was 2.9%.

While some pay disputes have been settled in recent months, with several public sector professions agreeing to a pay settlement of between 5% and 7%, groups such as junior doctors are continuing with industrial action.

Another correlation noted by the Resolution Foundation is between unionisation and strike action – hence the parallel correlation with public sector workers. “It’s clear from [the data] that high union membership is a pre-condition for strikes,” it says.

This also explains why private sector industries like hairdressing and computer repairs, in which staff are badly affected by the cost-of-living crisis but do not tend to belong to unions, have not experienced high strike rates.

In a further nuance, the report shows that not all strike action happens in concert with real-terms pay cuts. For example, the transport, storage and communications sector, which includes former nationalised industries such as rail and mail, had the highest per-worker rate of strike days (0.7) of any industry, but saw just a 0.2% drop in real-terms pay since 2021.

Addressing this data, the report observes “…one could argue that it is strike action, or the threat of it, that has enabled workers to protect their pay in real terms.”

Pay is not the only issue at stake for workers, says the report. Pressure on working conditions is another factor, with public sector workers consistently reporting higher levels of exhaustion and tension than their private sector counterparts.

In 2017, the last year for which data was recorded, 57% of public sector workers reported that they “always or often come home exhausted”, in comparison to 48% of private sector workers. Similarly, nearly 10% more public sector employees than private sector staff said they “work under a high degree of tension”.

Aligned with real-terms pay cuts, more challenging working conditions may explain why the vacancy rate in publicly funded industries has increased more quickly than in the private sector. It was 33% higher in the public sector in March 2023 than prior to Covid, while it was 23% higher across the rest of the economy.

This acceleration came from a lower base, which means the vacancy rate in the mainly public sector industries is now roughly in line with the private sector, at 3.5% as opposed to 3.3%. But there are significant variations, with the social care sector seeing a vacancy rate of 11% for frontline roles in 2021-22.

“In the long run,” the report concludes, “pay and conditions in the public sector can’t drift too far apart from those in the private sector – if they do, then it becomes increasingly difficult for the public sector to attract workers.”


Economics HR
Share this page