Monday, July 21, 2008

Measuring the effectiveness of strike action

Not wishing to disappoint regular readers Sid and Doris Blogger, I think I should start trying to answer some of the questions I posed this morning. How effective was our strike action last week and how do we measure its effectiveness?:

To make any sense I think it is necessary to take the second question first, and to accept that measuring the effectiveness of anything presupposes that you know what you are trying to achieve (so that you have some criteria for success against which to measure the effectiveness – in reality – of what you have been able to do).

So, to begin, I take it that our objective in the national pay dispute is to exert sufficient pressure, by whatever means, upon whoever it is helpful for us to exert pressure, in order to secure a significantly better pay rise for local government workers. In aiming for this we also want, as far as we can to build up union membership and strengthen union organisation.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the Miners’ Strike will recall the daily reporting of how many miners were on strike and how many had returned to work. As the Thatcher Government gambled everything on defeating the strongest section of the organised working class there was a great focus on the numbers on strike.

Like so much else about that struggle, this has left a legacy, such that the Local Government Association are focusing very much upon the number of local government employees reported to have been on strike by their employers last Wednesday and Thursday – and are very happy to report that the percentage is low. Their figures clearly massively understate the numbers on strike, but it is difficult from a practical point of view for the unions to issue effective data to rebut the employers because we lack the organisation necessary to collect and publish such data swiftly and credibly. However, these numbers do not in any case tell the whole story.

Obviously the numbers of people taking strike action must be one important measure of the effectiveness of strike action, as must the (separate but not unrelated) number of people not at work. However, going back to the miners, what mattered was not how many miners were on strike but how many pits were closed and how much coal was dug. Therefore another important dimension of the effectiveness of a strike in local government is the impact on service provision, in terms of services closed and services disrupted.

This is perhaps the single most important measure of effectiveness since it relates to the function and purpose of local authorities (the delivery of public services) and is of the same order of importance as the impact of private sector strike action on profitability (the function and purpose of a private company). However, this too is not the whole picture.

Whereas in the private sector the ultimate determinant of management strategy is the search for profit, in the public sector management has no such single goal. The objectives of a public sector organisation are politically determined and those in charge of the organisation are ultimately susceptible to political rather than economic pressure. Therefore what might be peripheral elements of a successful strike against a private company (such as media coverage, expressions of public sympathy and support, petitions, letter-writing, Early Day Motions, general political lobbying etc.) are much more significant in a public sector dispute.

These things matter because the politicians who hold the purse strings which, if loosened, would settle a public sector pay dispute are beholden not to shareholders at an Annual General Meeting but – eventually – to voters in an election. (I should probably point out that there are factors which tend to make public sector employers behave like private sector employers and that the similarities between industrial relations across the two sectors are at least as important as their differences, but that doesn’t matter too much for the purposes of this post).

Therefore, to return to the second question (which I said I would answer first) I think the answer to how to measure the effectiveness of the national local government pay strike is to look at a number of different factors, as best we can on the basis of the data we can get hold of. These are;
The numbers on strike;
The numbers not at work;
The number and nature of services closed;
The number and nature of services disrupted;
The extent and nature of media coverage;
The extent and nature of expressions of public and political support.

Also, given that the dispute needs to influence the thinking and behaviour of politicians it matters enormously whether we appear to be able to repeat such political harm as we may already have caused them.

So, how effective was last week’s strike action? I want to spend a little time trying to gather better evidence but my initial view would be that the numbers actually on strike, whilst lower than we would have liked by a long way, were – in the context of the numbers not at work – sufficient to achieve a significant disruption to services which provided the focus for some positive media coverage and the mobilisation of further political support.

Overall therefore, the action seems to me to have been effective and worthwhile, though it will take a little more time for the picture to become clearer. As to the critical question of whether, and if so how and when, we can take further action to exert political pressure on our employers, I think that this depends to some extent upon the debate which now needs to take place among rank and file UNISON (and UNITE) members.

The question which those of us who need a fair pay rise in local government have to ask of ourselves and our colleagues is – what shall we do next?


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

waiting for next post