The proportion of working days lost to labour disputes which were accounted for by the public sector has varied considerably in recent years – between 29% and 85% – official figures for the past decade reveal.
Between 1997 and 1999, the majority of working days lost were in the private sector, but research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS)shows the number of working days lost has been higher in the public sector in every year since 2000.
In 2005, the public sector accounted for 63% of days lost to disputes. The lowest percentage in the public sector – 29% – was in 1999, while the highest – 85% – was in 2002.
The number of working days lost in the public sector has also varied over the period 1996-2005, with a peak in 2002 of 1,123,000. This was due to a large national dispute involving local authority workers. The lowest number recorded was 70,000 days lost in 1999.
The lowest number of working days lost in the private sector was recorded in 2005 at 59,000. This contributed to the lowest total number of working days lost, of 158,000, since records began.
Dr John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: “The paradox to emerge from these new ONS figures is that relatively fast growth in employment and pay in the public sector in recent years seems to have fuelled rather than quelled worker discontent.
“What explains the paradox is that public sector organisations are typically larger than those in the private sector, have a much stronger trade union presence and still tend to operate centralised employee relations systems.
“At a time of increased investment but also pressure to deliver the Gershon efficiency savings, these three factors have combined to create a potent brew; with a number of high-profile disputes always capable of causing significant loss of working days, as well as giving rise to major inconvenience to the public.”
Philpott said the figures are a warning sign that public sector reform will continue to prove difficult without further improvements in management practice and trade union behaviour.
“But with the next comprehensive spending review set to tighten the public purse strings as well as demanding greater value for the taxpayer, tensions between government and public sector unions may come under further strain,” he added.
For more on the rise in union disputes, check www.personneltoday.com tomorrow