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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 July 2007, 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK
Why are strikes a day at a time?
Striking postal workers

The Magazine answers...

Postal workers are engaged in a series of rolling one-day strikes, but why did industrial action become a matter of 24-hour stoppages?

The stereotypical image of a strike used to be pickets warming themselves by braziers, as they braced themselves for a long stint of hardship and battles with authority to secure their goal.

But now the standard modus operandi of trade unions in Britain is the 24-hour strike, augmented by its cousin the 48-hour stoppage.

The postal workers' union is employing an unusual tactic in picking different strike days for each part of the Royal Mail and Post Office to create a "rolling" effect, but workers will still only be out for a single day at a time.

One-day strikes are cheaper, grab attention and reduce the risk of defeat and unpopularity for unions

Indeed, according to the Office for National Statistics, in both 2005 and 2006, 55% of all stoppages lasted for just a single day. This is up from 49% in 2001. In 1988, the figure was 42%. In 1977, only 17% of stoppages lasted for a single day, while 18.5% lasted 12 days or more.

In 2006, only 2% of disputes lasted more than 20 days and none more than 50.

Just in the last six months civil servants, meat factory workers, firefighters in Scottish airports, rail signal workers in Scotland, and Tube staff in London have all had one-day strikes.

Compare the situation with that of the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s, when long strikes like the Grunwick photo processing strike, the miners strike, the Timex watch and Liverpool docks disputes became protracted and titanic battles.

Leaders' tactics

Professor Paul Edwards, of Warwick Business School, said long-failed strikes in the past such as the 1984-1985 miners strike had obviously had an impact on union tactics.

"That strike in particular did affect trade union leaders; how they think and how they organise. People are much more conscious of the risks of strike action. They are therefore using the 24-hour strike as a demonstration of solidarity and commitment, not a test of economic strength."

And of course, strike action in general has been on the decline. From 4.1 million working days lost to industrial action in 1989, there were only 754,000 lost in 2006.

A regular feature in the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

"Essentially, strikes are far rarer than they used to be. It is the really big set-piece confrontations that have tended to disappear. The average has been getting a lot shorter," Prof Edward says.

There has been research suggesting strikes do achieve a result, the academic says, but the case is less clear for the longer disputes.

"You probably gain more in the long-term from increased wages. But the longer the strike the less likely you are to get the benefits."

Another factor for unions to consider is popularity. If they went out indefinitely, there would be blanket disruption, something that might cost them public sympathy.

All these factors add up to suggest that the one-day strike is here to stay.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I was a close observer of strikes in the UK motor industry in the 1970's. The conclusions were stark. Within six months of a prolonged strike 15 jobs were lost for every day of strike action simply because the customers went elsewhere. Eventually of course there were no more customers at all.
David, Quimper, France

The over-riding reason that strikes now only last one day, is because people don't get paid when they strike. Unions know that unless they offer to cover workers wages, they would be unlikely to get the support they need for a strike as people would not be willing to forgoe their salaries.

Unions need to learn that strikes generally do not work. Often, the organisations have time to implement contingency plans and warn the public that services will be disrupted, and, as people receive fair warning, they tend to blame the strikers rather than their employers. Working to rule is often a much better form of causing disruption for the employers as most businesses rely on people willing to work overtime and do things that are over and above their job descriptions. If industrial action focussed on this, it would affect employers more and the public less. The problem is that workers often get paid overtime or flexi time for the extra hours and are not willing to give up these 'perks'.
Lena, Midlands, UK

The message hasn't quite got through to South Africa yet, we've only just seen the end of a four week long strike by almost all public servants including teachers and nurses.
James Collister, Johannesburg

It's obvious: the primary reason for a 24-hour strike is that those taking action only lose one day's pay! But it is a useful method of making a point without causing undue disruption to innocent third parties such as your employer's customers.

Pity that people don't go in for more innovative methods to make their views known. One good one is to instruct your employer to give one day's pay to a charity of your choice. Masses of effort needed to administer, but your customers still get served (and a charity benefits into the bargain). Or go for an 'everyone wear yellow' day or silly hats... merely striking is so dull!
Megan, Cheshire UK

A one day strike is generally better than a week for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that for the company it is more difficult to get temporary staff to cover one working day. Also, if the postal workers decided to go on strike for a week they would probably find that their jobs would be gone as private businesses who use the RM for contract deliveries would be turning to competitors. A one day strike seems to get the message across yet not alienate too much the people who use the service.
Vaughan Jones, Nuneaton, Warks

Professor Edwards knows his stuff. 'Gung-ho-all-out' strikes are long gone. With punitive taxes, high energy bills and overly large mortgages etc, today's workers cannot afford to sustain such long strikes. Some of my fellow postal collegues are already feeling the pinch and we've only been "out" for two days in the last fortnight. Apart from losing a day's pay each time, they are also losing the four hours overtime they normally do before or after their normal shift. They rely on the overtime pay to actually make ends meet!

Why limit strikes to 24 hours? Perhaps because, as anyone who's had more than one unplanned day off work knows, coming back to a massive backlog is even more disheartening.
Chandra, London

Margaret Thatcher promised to put an end to Unions' power and if you examine history carefully you will see that she lived up to her promise. Back in the days when people could strike for long periods of time, most were living as tenants. Now, thanks to Maggie, too many are mortgaged up to the hilt to be able to do any more than public display of displeasure that lasts for just 24hrs. Anymore than a 24hr strike has the real possibility of costing the person and their family their home, and as family is more important than work we cannot and will not take a chance of losing family and our home to fight for better working conditions and pay.

I say Maggie knew exactly what she was doing when she encouraged home ownership and she has successfully eliminated any real Union power.
David, Cambs

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