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Strikes and trade union membership

During the 20th century, employees banded together in unions to work to improve their pay and conditions.

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Today, trade union membership is gradually falling and, in comparison with earlier periods, strikes are rare. In 2011, despite major protests over public sector pensions, there were fewer working days lost to strikes and other labour disputes than in 1948. There were eight times as many days lost in 1908, when there were disputes in the engineering and shipbuilding industries in the North East, and strikes in the cotton industry over proposals to reduce wages.

Figures for these Olympic years are small compared with the numbers of days lost in certain other years in the early part of the century. 1926 saw 162m working days lost to industrial disputes, largely due to long stoppages in coal mining and an associated general strike.

While the number of days lost to strike peaked in the 1920s, the number of people who were trade union members was at its highest in 1979, when you could, for example, be a member of the Scottish Union of Power Loom Overlookers, the National Union of Scalemakers, or the Screw, Nut, Bolt and Rivet Trade Union.

Since 1979 trade union membership has been gradually declining, although most people still believe that trade unions are essential to protect workers’ interests. Views of trade union power have changed, however: in 1979, 80% of people thought that trade unions had too much power in Britain; by 2011, this had fallen to 35%.

Today trade unionists are more likely to be female than male, and are more likely to work in the public than the private sector. This is in contrast to the situation in 1908, when less than a tenth of trade union members were women and the sector with the largest number of trade unionists was mining and quarrying.

More working days were lost in 1926 than in the 37 years since 1974 combined
The chart shows trade union membership and the numbers of working days lost to strikes since 1900.

The chart shows trade union membership and the numbers of working days lost to strikes since 1900

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