How effective is strike action in pay and benefits disputes?

strike action pay benefit
  • Employees often take strike action over issues such as pay, health and safety, pensions, benefits, changes to terms and conditions, and union recognition.
  • The UK has strict laws regarding strike action and it cannot take place if certain requirements have not been met.
  • Employers should consider employees’ financial wellbeing while on strike, because they are not entitled to pay and may face difficulties.

March 2023 saw 553,000 working days lost to employee participating in strike action in the UK, the largest number of the whole year, according to data published by Statista in May 2024. While the biggest number of working days spent on strikes so far this year is lower, at 165,000, it still suggests that employees are unhappy with some aspect of their employment and feel like strike action is the only tool left in their negotiations or communications with their employer.

Strike action over employment issues, such as disputes around pay and benefits, can impact productivity and potentially affect an organisation’s attraction and retention levels if it is perceived as being difficult or unwilling to communicate with employees or take steps to discuss their concerns.

Reasons behind strikes

Strikes are often a last resort for employees. Organisations can sometimes find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to employee demands and the organisation’s current circumstances. Poor industrial relations and a communication breakdown between employers and unions can also lead to action.

Unions may call strike action regarding issues such as pay, health and safety, pensions and terms and conditions changes, to name a few.

Kate Palmer, employment services director at Peninsula, says: “Pay is the dispute that we hear about most when it comes to strike action. Given that we are currently in a cost-of-living crisis, many workers are turning to their employer to ask for a pay rise to help with increased outgoings. Lots of employers, however, are also feeling the pinch and don’t necessarily have the resources to agree to any such increase.”

Strike action can be caused by an employer wanting to axe or reduce a benefit, or employees no longer feeling safe and secure at work. There has also been action because employees want their employer to recognise a trade union for bargaining purposes.

Charlie Pullinger, project officer for organising and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) Solidarity Hub, says: “Fighting for pay itself is often a fight to improve working conditions. Better pay helps with staff recruitment and retention.”

Wages have not kept up with other countries, adds Nita Clarke, director of the Involvement and Participation Association, which merged with the Institute of Employment Studies in 2023. For example, Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minster, claimed in May that Poland’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita could surpass the UK’s within five years.

“People feel that pay has stagnated,” says Clarke. “Disputes involving the NHS and train networks have won a lot more support from the public than they would have done 10 years ago; they have been supportive of them wanting to improve their pay and working conditions.

Strike action is more common in industries where there is a higher level of union membership, such as the public sector. Workers in health, education, local government and transport have taken part in some form of action over the past few years, some for the first time.

Sampson Low, head of policy at Unison, says: “For public service workers, it is often about protecting services and jobs. If this can be done through negotiation, avoiding the need for anyone to walk out, then this is clearly the ideal solution.”

Strike rules

Employees, employers and unions must follow industrial action law, as covered by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and the Employment Rights Act 1996. These also include protections for workers who choose not to participate.

UK strikes can only take place if strict requirements are met. At least 50% of eligible members must respond to industrial action ballots, and at least 40% must vote yes if they work for a public service. If a ballot is successful, the union has six months to take action. If it wants to do so after that, another one will need to be held.

“Once a successful mandate for industrial action has been achieved, the union then has a responsibility to notify the employer,” says Pullinger. “A trade union must give an employer notice at least 14 days before it starts. During official industrial action, employees are protected by industrial action law. An employee who is not a trade union member is able to take part in official action that has been authorised.”

Not every sector can take part in strike action. Police officers, for example, are notably not permitted to do so due to a law implemented in the early 20th century. Additionally, temporary workers cannot be used to cover for staff on strike.

“If it’s an official strike about a trade dispute, which has been agreed by most members of a trade union, then an employer can’t stop workers and they must be allowed to participate,” adds Palmer.

Points for employers

Employers should look at why their staff have voted to go on strike in the first place, what the ballot result reflects, and whether it can be prevented by negotiating a better outcome. If there has been an internal issue, they should investigate and come to an agreement on improvements.

Charles Cotton, senior reward adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says: “Employers should look at what the drivers of the strike are, what compromises can be made and be prepared to use an outside party to help resolve the action through arbitration, mediation or conciliation.”

While on strike, employees are not required to undertake any activities, but are not entitled to pay, so employers will need to liaise with payroll to make sure this is accounted for. Workers on annual leave during action are entitled to pay, but employers could choose to cancel it providing they give notice, which should be at least the same number of days as the leave.

“Employers should also be prepared to shut down services and production where safe to do so,” says Low. “Unions will listen and respond to a case based on safety and risk that certain limited services must continue.”

Communication is key to trying to resolve issues before they get to the point of strike action. However, there may be instances where employers feel that employees’ demands are unreasonable or inappropriate, and they are then faced with action, or the threat of it.

“If employees or unions are making demands that employers are not able to meet, or that they deem unreasonable, then organisations need to try and find some kind of compromise,” says Palmer. “The employers’ goal here is to try to avoid the demands from escalating to the point where a strike is inevitable, or to try to stop prolonged action. Speak to the union and affected employees and look at other options, to see whether a compromise can be reached.”

Employers can also address this by finding a balance between respecting employees’ rights to strike and maintaining their operational interests.

Effect on pay and benefits

Whether a strike results in positive changes to pay and benefits for workers will depend on the specific situation and an employer’s circumstances. If it is experiencing its own financial difficulties, for example, it may not be able to agree to employees’ pay rise requests.

Strikes can be effective when employees have strong bargaining power, for example, if action could cause significant disruptions to key services or production. In such circumstances, an employer may be more willing to meet some, or all, of the demands.

“Attracting and retaining employees is high on employers’ priorities list at the moment, so they need to ensure they are providing strong pay and benefits packages in order to do so,” says Clarke.

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The fact that employees are not entitled to pay during strike action is also something to bear in mind. “Not being paid while on strike could cause money problems for workers, so either employers could set up a support fund or the action must be short enough not to cause financial harm,” explains Cotton.

While strike action is typically a last resort for most employees, therefore, in some situations it may be a way of boosting communications between employees and their employer in order to discuss demands around overall working conditions, pay and benefits.