In 1889, Ben Tillett, a dock worker from Bristol, persuaded his colleagues to do what no one had previously thought possible: go on strike. Dock workers were seen as the “lowest of the low”, a disorderly rabble whose modus operandi – turning up at the dock each morning to compete with one another for a few hours of poorly paid labour – meant their bosses thought the chances of their organising into a union were virtually nil.
But they hadn’t reckoned with Tillett who, despite a severe stutter, “was very funny, very charismatic, very likeable, and didn’t take himself too seriously”, says Edda Nicolson, a doctoral researcher at the University of Wolverhampton who focuses on the trade union movement. Tillett encouraged his comrades to be polite and well behaved, marching through the streets waving banners and poles topped with fish heads and rotting onions, which represented their terrible diets. To the upper classes, who had thought of dockers as “the scum of the earth”, it came as a surprise. “Here were these polite, articulate people saying, ‘This is how awful our working life is – we just want a fair day’s wage, that’s it.’” Rich women waved their handkerchiefs from their windows as a sign of sympathy; collections raised “significant funds”. Public support for the dockers swelled, and within five weeks they had won.
The success of the dock strikes struck a chord with workers in other industries, and over the following years union membership swelled. Tillett became a founding member of the Independent Labour Party, and the union movement grew, as did the number of strikes. It was a “flashpoint”, says Nicolson.
We may be experiencing a similar flashpoint now. This week, thousands of train drivers at the Aslef and Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) unions have voted to walk out over a pay dispute. We’ve already seen what that could mean: last month, train services in the UK ground to a halt as members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union working for train companies and Network Rail walked out. Meanwhile, Post Office staff and criminal barristers were on strike this week, while Arriva bus workers and tram drivers are voting on taking action. Teachers, airline workers, NHS workers – they’re all considering it. Politicians have denied that we’re returning to the 1970s, but the industrial action of the “winter of discontent” has already returned.
In the strikes of the late 1800s, workers were protesting against low wages and unfair employment practices. There’s a similarly obvious cause for the present swell of industrial action: inflation climbed to 9.1 per cent in May, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) while regular wage growth was just 4.2 per cent between February and April – meaning that in real terms, wages are falling. A survey published this week by Abrdn Financial Fairness Trust and researchers at the University of Bristol found that 4.4 million households in the UK – that’s 16 per cent of households nationwide – are in “serious financial difficulties”, an almost 60 per cent increase from last year. Another 20 per cent are “struggling”.
Given those figures, it’s not a massive stretch to suggest that post-pandemic anger is also contributing to the surge of industrial action. After years of austerity, the pandemic brought a nation together. “So many people were really behind the collective effort of trying to ride out this pandemic,” says Nicolson. Then came partygate. “You have this serious disappointment in our leadership for how they handled it and how they weren’t part of our collective action and collective response. That’s created a sense of disillusionment; there’s such a sense of anger and frustration.”
Now a latter-day Tillett, in the form of Mick Lynch, the plain-speaking RMT leader who has taken on the politicians in the media rounds and, on the whole, won, is creating public support. “He is very eloquently offering an analysis of the situation that seems to capture the imagination,” says Harry Pitts, a lecturer in work, employment, organisation and public policy at the University of Bristol’s School of Management. A poll by Opinium at the end of June indicated that 45 per cent of the public backed the rail strikes, compared with 37 per cent who didn’t.
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The problem for the government is what to do about this. So far, it has gone on the attack, complaining that train drivers (very few of whom actually joined the strike) are already on high wages and that giving pay rises to workers will create a “wage-price spiral”, as people with more disposable income push up prices. The general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Frances O’Grady, has hit back against those claims, pointing out that “inflation is not being driven by nurses and care workers wanting enough pay to keep food on the table without visiting a foodbank”. Shampa Roy-Mukherjee, an associate professor at the Royal Docks School of Business and Law, University of East London, agrees that the government’s argument is based on a fallacy.
“Inflation is not being caused by increased wages,” she says. Rather than wages pushing up costs, “it’s a supply-led inflation,” she says. “Cutting wages is not the answer here… The answer is to get the supply side working again, getting down fuel costs and making people feel better in terms of the amount that they spend in grocery stores, etc. Because it’s those prices that have gone up, not wages – it is supply disruptions, mostly.”
Even before the government became more focused on its own infighting than on solving industrial disputes, all the indications were that we were in for a summer – and winter – of discontent. Now, that is magnified, suggests Pitts. “Whoever becomes Tory leader will not be taking a more conciliatory approach to industrial relations,” he says. “The trouble is, we’ve got a shrinking economic pie, and the competition over that is intensifying. And it’s quite difficult, if we don’t have a particularly dynamic economy – we’ve got big shortfalls in productivity and growth and all these kinds of issues. And that makes it much harder to strike compromises around this. So I do see things intensifying.”