Three hundred years of British strikes: contours, legal frameworks, and tactics


1 October 2023


Volume 1 – Number 11

How to cite

Dave Lyddon



Britain has the longest continuous history of striking, which is explored in three aspects. It experienced the first industrial revolution from 1760, cotton being the pre-eminent industry, but pre-industrial skilled trades had already developed traditions of association and strikes. Strike waves (as in several other countries) from the 1870s to the early 1920s saw new groups unionize. Coal miners dominated the typical small-scale short unofficial strikes from the mid- 1930s to the mid-1960s when engineering became the prime site. After the 1968–74 strike wave, participation peaked in 1979. Mass unemployment, an employers’ offensive, and industrial restructuring, saw unofficial strikes collapse by the early 1990s. Strikes are now mainly in the tertiary sector. Criminal sanctions, used tactically by employers, had lasted until 1875 but failed to stop most strikes. Judges then developed tort law against unions (facilitating court injunctions and damages), but unions won a wide freedom to strike in 1906, which has been incrementally eroded by Conservative governments since 1979. Widespread pay strikes in 2022–23, particularly in public services, dominated by women, overcame the most recent anti-strike barriers. Long-established strike patterns and strike laws have been historically transitory, with no obvious long-term trajectory, being buffeted by the winds of class struggle. There are, though, strong continuities in strike conduct: picketing and strike pay, strike-breaking and victimization. Some strike tactics have changed, reacting to employers’ behaviour and legal constraints. The survey provides data sources for further study.


Strikes, Trade unions, Employers, Product markets, Legislation