By some accounts, ‘a greater natural identity of interest’ exists between employers and the employed over OHS, and because of this, conflicts of interest are less likely to arise. Such assumptions about consensus in the employment relationship fit well with the ideology of HRM and they are, to some degree, supported by the statistics on industrial (strike) action in the UK. In 1998, the number of stoppages (strikes) in the UK plummeted to the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1891. Other data shows that across twenty-three OECD countries, the UK had the eighth-lowest strike rate 1(TUC 2000). Compared to other European countries, the UK had 12 days per 1,000 employees, in contrast to Spain with 127, Italy with 40 and Ireland with 31. The US figure was 42, while in Australia the figure was 78. Based on these figures, industrial harmony in the UK might appear at an all-time high. However, strike action is not the only expression of industrial unrest. A range of other statistics put into question the dubious proposition that employers and trade unions have miraculously reached a state of consensus, particularly those relating to the exponential rise in the number of ballots for industrial action in the UK.
A Trades Union Congress (TUC) study of ballots for industrial action (covering 81 per cent of the TUC’s affiliated membership) reports that 60per cent of affiliated unions had organised ballots between June 1999 and May 2000, and the majority (57 per cent) had done so on five or more occasions. For that period, the unions had organised 983 ballots for industrial action - nearly twice the number organised in the previous year (TUC 2000). With only 32 per cent of ballots leading to industrial action, unions appear to be using these as a (very expensive) bargaining tactic. However, expensive with the average cost of ballots reported to be as high as £18,747 (TUC 2000) this approach to resolving industrial disputes may not be open to some of the smaller trade unions. In the most recent survey of this type, this cost had risen to £32,700 (TUC 2001a) - a hefty price shouldered by the trade unions and their members to achieve agreement over so-called consensual issues such as health and safety.
Waddingon and Whitson (1996) report how health and safety remains one of the most common issues raised by union members. Indeed, just over