Strikes set to spread across industry

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The wave of public sector strikes and general unrest could be about to spread to the rest of industry as as the economic recovery passes bargaining power back to workers, according to a pessimistic survey by a leading firm of employment lawyers.

More than two-thirds of unions expect industrial action to increase over the next 12 months, while a third of unionised employers anticipate more disputes, a rise of 9 per cent on last year's survey. The fact that so many more unions are anticipating disputes than employers suggests management has severely underestimated the likelihood of industrial action in the coming months.

The fourth annual survey by solicitors Dibb Lupton Broomhead shows employers only expect actions which fall short of outright strikes to take place, such as work-to-rules and ballots used by unions as a bargaining tool. One of the authors, Paul Nicholls, said: "It is of concern to see a dichotomy of perception between employers and trade unions on the current state of industrial harmony, which has not been previously apparent. This may, sadly, presage a return to a divide between employers and employees, which cannot be in anyone's interests."

The survey shows industrial unrest still overwhelmingly concentrated in the public sector, where 70 per cent of employers had some form of labour trouble over the past year. Surprisingly, not one public sector employer said relations with unions were distant, suggesting good industrial relations are no guarantee of a trouble-free atmosphere.

Already this year looks like being the worst for industrial disputes since the beginning of the decade. Last week official figures showed the number of working days lost in June, at 228,000, was the highest in any single month since March 1990. Most of the increase in industrial action was due to the Underground and postal strikes. In the first six months of 1996 the statistics show 350,000 working days were lost, more than in the whole of 1994 and close to last year's total of 415,000.