Overton Blog

Strikes and workers’ rights: policy insight from the UK and US

In the last year there has been a dramatic increase in industrial action across Europe. In the UK alone, nurses, teachers, barristers, postal workers, railway workers, university staff, junior doctors and members of the civil service have all gone on strike since mid-2022. This is the country’s most significant period of walkouts in eleven years, and the highest number of days lost to industrial action since the Thatcher era.

Though the incidence of strikes in the UK is still much lower now than in previous decades, global inflation increases and a drop in living standards have galvanised workers into action.

In this blog we’ll explore how the UK and US approach industrial action and labour rights, and what policy insights we can glean using the Overton data. 

We’ll compare these two regions because of the stark contrast in their current leaders’ rhetoric around strikes and unions — while the UK government is at present trying to curtail the right to strike, US President Joe Biden has styled himself as the most ‘pro-union President ever’

Why strike?

Strikes are an incredibly powerful tool in labour relations and provide a way for employees to hold employers to account, demand higher wages and improve working conditions. Many of the employment benefits that we take for granted today were won through industrial action. For example the minimum wage, paid holidays and sickness entitlements, maternity leave and overtime pay.

The right to strike is recognised as a fundamental human right by many international bodies including the International Labour Organisation, as well as a crucial tool for promoting democracy and protecting civil liberties. However, countries differ in their interpretation and regulation of this right. 

The United States

The United States has a complex and highly changeable policy approach to labour relations and industrial action. In 1935 they passed the National Labour Relations Act which protects the right of employees to form and join unions and engage in strikes. Though by 1947 the subsequent administration had passed a bill that restricted the activities of unions, industrial action was fairly widespread in the mid decades of the 20th century.

However, since the 1980s the number of strikes has decreased significantly. A major reason for this is the decline in union membership. Only 10% of American workers are unionised, which is one of the lowest rates in developed countries. Though this decline has many factors — including changes to the economy and overall attitudes to industrial action — the legislative framework is now also much more hostile to workers’ unions. 

Though the overall framework is established centrally, the actual regulations are often left up to state and city governments. In recent years, several states have enacted policy changes that make it more difficult for workers to organise and engage in industrial action, including the controversial Right to Work law. This law makes it optional for workers in unionised workplaces to join said group and pay the membership fees. Critics argue that this disincentives membership and weakens the union financially because employees can benefit from the activity of members without needing to join themselves. In response to Congress passing the Right to Work law, the House of Representatives passed the Protecting the Right to Organise (PRO) Act which would override the former and make it easier to form and maintain unions. However the bill failed to pass in the Senate. At the time of writing, legislators are attempting to pass the bill for the third time and the fight for the rights of unions continues.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the US is ranked one of the worst countries for workers’ rights. The US is the only developed nation in which employees aren’t entitled to paid holiday, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. There is no requirement for companies to offer parental leave. Employers can terminate a worker’s contract without notice, for no reason (as long as the worker isn’t in a protected class). There is also no requirement in law for workers to have lunch breaks. Though some individual states offer workers more protections, at a federal level the US offers significantly fewer rights to their workers than in other countries with similar economies. 

What does the Overton data say?

At the time of writing the Overton database has 6,310 policy documents related to strike action from 88 countries and 551 sources. Though most of the policy documents come from EU countries — reflecting their traditionally pro-worker tendencies and the high number of European think tanks focusing on labour — the US is the single biggest source of publications on the topic.

This might seem surprising, given the apparent aversion to unions in much of the US. However, it perhaps reflects the growing interest in the labour movement. The pandemic proved somewhat of a turning point for many. The risks taken by frontline workers brought their lack of rights into sharp relief. This, combined with the resulting labour shortages, meant that many workers felt motivated and able to push back. Workers have successfully formed unions — often against huge pushback from management — in major corporations such as Amazon and Starbucks. Whether this is the start of a larger trend remains to be seen, but public approval of unions is at its highest level since the 1960s.

  • The most common policy source type is city-level government, which suggests that issues are being actively discussed at local level, as well as at the state/federal level. 
  • Harvard, MIT and the University of California, Berkeley are the most cited institutions on the topic.
  • The State of California has the most policy on the topic, with 279 documents in the database.

The preoccupation with the issue in California is interesting. Though other states are more heavily unionised in terms of percentage of overall workers (Hawaii and New York come top), it’s one of only two states in America that still has union members numbers  in the millions. It also has a history of strong labour protections and powerful unions, as well as a diverse economy. The latter factor means that there’s a variety of different labour issues which need to be addressed through specific policy initiatives. Crucially, it’s a progressive state which means that the legislature is more labour-friendly and likely to engage with unions. The policy approach to strikes and unions tends to be politically polarised, with Republican states overwhelmingly using ‘right to work’ laws and Democrats siding with their traditional labour allies.

The United Kingdom

While the UK policy environment is generally more sympathetic to unions and workers than in the US, it’s still far more inhospitable than its neighbours. Laws governing strikes in the UK are held by many to be the ‘strictest in Europe’. 

The legal framework regulating strikes is the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992, which updated a piece of legislation from 1906. Under these rules, strikes are illegal unless several hurdles are cleared — unions must hold a vote in which at least half of their members participate (by postal ballot), and the majority of these are in favour. This means that non-union members cannot organise a strike (though they can participate in an existing ‘legal’ one). In most other European countries, a ‘right to strike’ is guaranteed by law. This creates an interesting situation in which a country like France can have a high incidence of strikes but overall low union membership, as this isn’t a prerequisite for staging a walkout.

Things have recently become only more restrictive, with 2015 legislation introducing more barriers to industrial action and the ‘Anti-Strike' Bill currently making its way through parliament. The latter policy mandates minimum service levels for critical industries and would allow for workers to be sacked and unions fined if these levels were not met on strike days. Opposition MPs have called the bill an attack on human rights, and unions are likely to contest it in court. According to the Overton database, the impact assessment of the bill doesn’t cite any scholarly research, relying instead on news articles, publications from the UK and Welsh Government and a report from the Office for National Statistics.

What does the Overton data say?

  • Most policy on the topic is published by central government, likely due to the higher incidence of public sector strikes than private.
  • There has been a spike in publications on this topic in the last two years, with 47 policy documents published so far in 2023 (more than double the amount for most other years, despite being only March). This likely reflects the massive increase in industrial action since 2022 and the debate around how best to respond.
  • The most highly cited institution in the UK on the topic is the London School of Economics, reflecting perhaps the university’s expertise in economic matters. As many of the strikes in the UK are from public sector workers the question of whether to cede to their demands is a political and economic one rather than simply a business decision as in the private sector. 
  • The year with the most publications overall was 2015, which probably relates to the junior doctor contract dispute in which they launched their first strike in over 40 years.

Interestingly, there are still documents being published on the topic of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, such as this 2020 publication from the Scottish government reviewing the police response to the strikes. This stresses how seminal a dispute this was, and how it still informs the way that governments and unions understand and approach labour disputes. Indeed, this strike period is clearly still obviously still a symbolic device for both governments and unions, with Grant Shapps invoking Thatcher’s hardline approach to resolving labour disputes in recent comments on strikes.

What does the future hold?

Though both the UK and the US have a fairly restrictive approach to industrial action, which likely both caused and reflects the significant decrease in union membership of recent decades, it remains a hot button issue in both countries. 

Though the US has a tougher starting point — with fewer rights for workers enshrined in law — attempts to pass the PRO Act at a federal level signify an intention to engage with unions to improve conditions for workers. It’s also significant that policy around striking and collective bargaining is set at the local level. This means that there is a lot more flexibility and diversity in the policy approach, and (generally democrat led) areas can enact more pro-labour policies

The picture looks bleaker for unions in the UK, with a government set on restricting their power. However, it remains to be seen if the bill will pass through the House of Lords and if the legal challenges against it will succeed.

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