Historical Data on Labour Conflicts

An invitation to join an international project
This call invites interested researchers all over the world to join in a project to assemble, discuss and analyze historical data on labour conflicts. We feel that, to really understand the present developments in strike activity, a long-term view is needed. To construct this view, and to compare long-term trends by country and by economic sector, we need to assemble and standardize data. Thanks to the internet and to specialized software for virtual collaboration such an enterprise is feasible. The International Institute of Social History is willing to support the building-up of an international research group as part of the Global Labour History project. The short-term aims of the project are to organize a conference on the subject, the building of a collaboratory, and the publication of a book based on the discussions during the conference.

Strikes matter. Despite the general drop in strike activity across a large number of countries since the peak of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, they are still an important, and in many ways essential, feature of the fabric of working life. As more countries have embraced free market capitalism or ended regimes which suppressed freedom of association, the constituency for striking openly has actually dramatically increased across the world. The fact that in most advanced capitalist countries strike activity is at historically low levels, and has been for some years, has led many commentators to speculate whether this trend is irreversible. Nearly half a century ago a similar discussion was taking place. In 1960, Ross and Hartman published a book explaining the apparent decline in strike activity across a range of countries, including India and Japan, over the period 1900-56. While they cautioned against projecting current trends into the future, that did not stop them speculating and they coined the term 'the withering away of the strike', which has been quoted ever since. Their explanation for this was mainly institutional. What is not remembered is that they also predicted that 'the strike will not wither away in the United States as it has done in Northern Europe' (added emphasis; Ross and Hartman 1960: 181).

Another American research project of the 1950s, the 'Inter-University Study of Labor Problems in Economic Development' (Kerr et al. 1973: 307), took an even longer historical and broader geographical, perspective on industrial conflict. One of its major outputs, Industrialism and Industrial Man (1962), argued that there were 'universal responses of workers' to industrialization, with a 'natural history of [worker] protest', in which the forms of protest changed as workers became increasingly organized and institutions were created to contain industrial conflict. According to them, over time, workers' initial responses of absenteeism, turnover, fighting, theft and sabotage were replaced by spontaneous stoppages and demonstrations; these in turn led to organized strikes and political protest and activity, culminating in the use of grievance and dispute machinery without strikes, labour courts, and political parties and alliances. Kerr et al. concluded that 'worker protest in the course of industrialization tends to peak relatively early and to decline in intensity thereafter' (1973: 218). Reinforcing this message was the authors' view that the second century of world-wide industrialization (from 1950) would see an even less central role for worker protest as industrialization was increasingly embraced by new workers.

In fact, before the end of the 1960s there was the beginning of a massive offensive-strike wave internationally, with May 1968 in France and the hot autumn (autunno caldo) in Italy the following year probably being the high points. This activity was recognized in a number of academic studies such as the volume edited by Barkin (1975), entitled Worker Militancy and its Consequences, 1965-75, covering Western Europe and North America, and the two volumes edited by Crouch and Pizzorno (1978), The Resurgence of Class Conflict in Western Europe since 1968.Almost before we could digest these findings, the widespread recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the rise of unemployment across most of the western world led to 'the resurgence of labour quiescence', to use Shalev's (1992) phrase. The pattern of very large strike waves at periodic intervals has been the subject of much discussion and is now generally related to Kondratieff's notion of long waves in the economy.Kelly (1997) summarizes the main features of the literature, noting that strike waves occur at the turning-points from economic upswing to downswing and vice versa. Major strike waves (1870s, 1910-20 and1968-74) are associated with the former (i.e. upswing to downswing) and minor strike waves (early 1890s, late 1930s-early 1940s) with the latter. Kelly (1997: 23) argues that 'it is the pattern of interactions between workers and employers over the duration of the upswing that seems to prepare the way for the ruptures at its peak'. The clash of employers' declining profitability with workers' attempts to maintain their living standards (after a long period of upswing) is shaped by their respective levels of confidence as much as their organizational capacity. The behaviour of workers after a long downswing is viewed as more complex. Kelly cautions against any mechanical application of long-wave theory.

International comparison

The strike, or the fundamental statement of the humanity and intelligence of the working class (Cronin 1979: 195), seems to persist.There is, however, a statistical problem when researchers want to compare several times and places. In general, we have the data published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) at our disposal. There are quite a few problems with these data because collectors of national data do not follow exactly the recommendations of the ILO (1993). National Statistical bureaus collect three main indicators: number of stoppages, workers involved, and days not worked. It is a commonplace in research on strikes to highlight the inadequacies of officially collected data; sometimes alternative statistics are available, though only for limited periods. The general consensus is that figures for days not worked pick up the bulk of strike volume; by contrast, and hardly surprisingly, figures for numbers of stoppages usually seriously underestimate the actual picture. Probably uniquely, I have personally created an alternative database for the Netherlands. This has been possible because the Netherlands is a small country, so it was relatively easy to search in archives, magazines, monographs, booklets and other sources for strikes and lockouts. I have done this single-handedly over a decade and have been able to cover the whole period of 1830-2005 (see van der Velden (2000; 2003). Similar projects would probably be difficult to accomplish for larger countries, although Tilly and Shorter (1974) have done this for France (1830-1968). The research done by the World Labor Research Working Group (WLG) of the Fernand Braudel Center in New York also shows that it is possible to build large databases containing labour conflicts (see Silver et al. 1995 and Silver 2005). Lockouts have been and are a particularly important indicator of what might be termed 'employer militancy'. While their incidence is generally much less extensive today, lockouts, as with strikes, have not disappeared and are still important in a number of countries. Their continuing use draws attention to the power relations underlying industrial conflict (van der Velden 2006). While there are practical difficulties in distinguishing some lockouts and strikes (and there are further discussions of this in van der Velden (2006), rescuing the lockout from aggregate figures of industrial disputes is still an important scientific duty.

An international network

So, labour conflicts are an important phenomenon in the history of capitalism, but also in other societies in which unequal labour relations exist. Through labour conflicts, social, economic, political and legal relations have been greatly altered. Researchers concerned with social and economic history but also those involved with institutional or political history cannot ignore labour conflicts. The International Institute of Social History (IISH) has taken the initiative to set up a network of scholars (a collaboratory) working with this kind of data, and to establish a moderated list of data files of labour conflicts (a hub). Scholars working in this field are invited to register their work, and to make their databases available through the internet - either on their own web pages (which will then be made accessible via the IISH-list) or on the web pages of the IISH. The databases cover strikes, lock-outs and other labour conflicts. The reason for collecting this data is, as has been said before, that the official data of the various national statistical offices and derivatively those of the ILO are demonstrably incomplete, often not easily comparable, and often available only at a high level of aggregation (annual data).

We wish to construct this collection in a similar way to the existing collection of data on wages and prices, of which Prof. Jan Luiten van Zanden is the moderator. See:


To obtain such a list, we call on researchers who have access to digital records of data about labour conflicts to make these available to the IISH, or connect them to the collection via a link. We will begin with inventorizing existing digital records and websites. Ideally, the records should be constructed according to the following format:
  1. Definitions. The terms, definitions and measurement as stated bythe ILO (1993) will be used.
  2. Coverage. The statistics should cover the whole nation or any specific region, and go back in time as far as possible
  3. Basic data to be collected includes:
    1. Strikes, lockouts and other expressions of class struggle as covered in 1.
    2. The number of workers involved in these actions
    3. The duration of these actions in days regardless of year or season
    4. The amount of time not worked by workers directly, indirectly or secondary involved in these actions
    5. The number and names of the companies involved, including conglomerates to which they belong
    6. The demand(s) that caused the actions
    7. The outcome of the actions and method of settlement
    8. The calendar date of the actions
    9. The geographical position of the action (if possible the longitude and latitude)
    10. The profession of the workers consistent with the Historical International Classification of Occupations (HISCO)
    11. The economic sector according to the International Standard Industrial Classification
    12. The workers' and/or employers' organizations concerned
    13. Was the action official or unofficial (wildcat)
    14. Special groups of workers (e.g. women, children, aliens)
    15. An account (if possible in English, otherwise in the national language)
  4. Sources
    1. If available, the official, national statistics
    2. Yearbooks, magazines, leaflets, books etc. issued by workers' and/or employers' organizations or others
    3. Newspapers, the World Wide Web
An example of records constructed according to this format is available at:


Regrettably this database is currently only available in Dutch language, although a translation into English is being prepared.

Many old records on labour conflicts are obviously not digitalized. These however will also get their place in the list through a description or reference to the source in a monograph or periodical.

We strongly feel that this is the time to take advantage of the possibilities the internet offers. On-line collaboration is feasible through modern software such as Sharepoint and we will certainly use such a system to build a virtual laboratory. The collaboratory on labour conflicts is part of a bigger and very ambitious project to cover the long-term shifts in labour relations on a global scale. See:

[url]http://www.iisg.nl/research/labourcollab/ [/url]

We call on researchers who are interested in this project to co-operate.
First, the IISH invites you to enter into a discussion about the format, problems, and possibilities. This discussion will start on-line, but the group will try to reach a conclusion at a conference to be held in the spring of 2008. The main aim of this conference will be to set the standard for the digital data which will be published on the internet.The results of the conference will be published in a book. Besides, the project aims at coming to really comparative studies on a solid statistical basis. Researchers who are already able to provide records or who have information on digital or paper records anywhere in the world are of course kindly requested to contact us.

Please contact:
Dr. Sjaak van der Velden
Cruquiusweg 31
1018 AT Amsterdam
The Netherlands
[mailto]svv@iisg.nl [/mailto]


- Barkin, S. 1975, Worker militancy and its consequences, 1965-75: new directions in western industrial relations, New York, Praeger.
- Cronin, J. 1979, Industrial conflict in modern Britain, London, Croom Helm.
- Crouch, C. and Pizzorno, A. 1978, The resurgence of class conflict in Western Europe since 1968. Volume 1, national studies, and Volume 2, comparative analyses, London, Macmillan.
- ILO, 1993, 'Resolution concerning statistics of strikes, lockouts and other action due to labour disputes, adopted by the Fifteenth International Conference of Labour Statisticians', at http://www.ilo.org/public/english/bureau/stat/download/res/strikes.pdf
- Kelly, J. 1997, 'Long waves in industrial relations: mobilization and counter-mobilization in historical perspective', Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, no. 4, pp.3-35.
- Kerr, C. et al. 1973, Industrialism and industrial man: the problems of labour and management in economic growth, Harmondsworth, Penguin (2nd edn; first published in the US, 1960).
- Ross, A. M. and Hartman, P. T. (1960), Changing patterns of industrial conflict, New York, John Wiley.
- Shalev, M. 1992, 'The resurgence of labour quiescence', in The future of labour movements, ed. M. Regini, London, Sage, pp.102-132.
- Shorter, E. and Tilly, C. 1974, Strikes in France, 1830-1968, London, Cambridge University Press.
- Silver, B. J. 2003, Forces of labor. Workers' movements and globalization since 1870, New York, Cambridge University Press.
- Silver, B. J. et al.(eds.) 1995, 'Labor unrest in the world economy, 1870-1990', Review (Fernand Braudel Center), Special Issue, vol. 18, no.1.
- Velden, S. van der 2000, Stakingen in Nederland: Arbeidersstrijd 1830-1995, Amsterdam, Stichting beheer IISG.http://www.iisg.nl/databases/stakingen.html
- Velden, S. van der 2003, 'Strikes in global labor history. The Dutch case', Review (Fernand Braudel Center), vol. 26, no. 4, pp.381-405.
- Velden, S. van der 2006, 'Lockouts in the Netherlands: why statistics on labour disputes must discriminate between strikes and lockouts, and why new statistics need to be compiled', Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, vol. 31, no. 4, pp.341-362.