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24 April 2008updated 24 Apr 2014 1:34pm

Everybody out! Are strikes coming back? And if so, why?

The workers are getting restless. Last year, for the second time in five years, more than a million days were lost to strikes. Why?

By Peter Wilby

In my mind’s eye, I can see it now. Down our road, in the middle of a prolonged period of dry weather, came a small but steady stream of water. It could mean only one thing: a burst main. And, it being the 1970s, the people who repaired such things were on strike. It would be the beginning, I knew, of several weeks of dry taps, during which we (myself, my wife, and our two small children) would trudge with water carriers to the standpipe erected at the top of the road and wait patiently with our neighbours in an orderly queue as though we were refugees in the Europe of 1945.

We accepted it phlegmatically. Strikes were then part of everyday life, whether Labour or the Tories were in office. When power workers took industrial action (or the miners denied supplies to power stations), we endured electricity cuts lasting three and sometimes six hours at a time. For a couple of months under the Tories, industry was put on a three-day week to conserve power. Dustbins went uncollected and, in icy weather, roads ungritted. Firefighters warming their hands against charcoal braziers as they stood on picket lines became a familiar part of the urban landscape. Food supplies became spasmodic as lorry drivers went on strike. Newspapers arrived erratically.

Indeed, I was myself idling at home while the Times and Sunday Times stayed off the streets for 11 months – though that was the result of an employers’ lockout of the printers, not a strike. Still, Labour agreed to bust its own pay guidelines and sanction a BBC wage settlement so that we wouldn’t be deprived of Christmas television.

For such small mercies, we were duly grateful. Did we have confidence in the government? As long as it kept Morecambe and Wise on screen, of course we did.

It all seems like another century – as, indeed, it was.

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This month’s strikes, involving schools and further education colleges, plus jobcentres, benefit offices and sundry other government agencies, are small beer by comparison. We are promised more, but none will last more than a day or two and very few will affect the private sector, where only 16 per cent of workers now belong to unions. Yet days lost to strikes went above a million last year, for only the third time in 17 years. The number will probably be higher this year. Even journalists, usually a grumpy but industrially docile lot, are holding strikes, with a walkout this month at the Express Group and another narrowly averted at the Telegraph.

Coastguards have been on strike for the first time in their history. The people who deal with passports, migrants, pensions, driving and vehicle licences, driving tests and land registration are all disgruntled. Oil refinery workers at Grangemouth near Edinburgh are planning a 48-hour walkout over proposed changes to their pension scheme, which, according to one Sunday paper, “could cripple petrol pump supplies for at least a month”.

Are strikes coming back? And if so, why?

The prospect of loss is a stronger motivator than the prospect of gain. Strikes tend to be widespread when people in work fear becoming worse off. This can be the result of deflation as well as inflation. Between 1920 and 1926, the year of the General Strike, the retail price index fell by nearly a third. Employers, facing falling profits, tried to cut wages or increase hours. The response of the workers was expressed in the miners’ slogan: “Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day.” Even excluding the General Strike, nearly 200 million working days were lost in seven years. Conversely, in the 1970s, prices more than trebled. To control the inflation, governments repeatedly tried to impose pay policies and, for a time, Labour succeeded. At one stage, the average worker’s purchasing power fell by 7 per cent in two years, prompting the permanent secretary at the Department of Employment to talk of “the most severe cut in real wages in 20 years”. Alas, Jim Callaghan’s government pushed its luck too far and tried, with inflation still over 10 per cent, to impose a 5 per cent pay norm. The result was the Winter of Discontent. Over the decade, 127 million working days were lost (29 million in 1979 alone), against 32 million in the 1960s and less than seven million in the 1990s.

The present unrest faintly echoes the closing years of the 1970s. Now as then, the prime minister has unexpectedly called off a general election. Now as then, the unions sense that a weak government, desperate for allies, might buy them off. Now as then, the government has a pay policy – in Gordon Brown’s case, a 2 per cent cap on public sector pay rises. Now as then, prices are rising. True, it is nothing like the inflation of the 1970s. But nor is it as trivial as either official measure – the consumer price index, rising annually at 2.5 per cent, or the retail price index, which includes housing costs, at 3.8 per cent – would suggest. On some estimates, food is up 15.5 per cent (more conservative estimates put the figure at 7 per cent), gas and electricity more than 12 per cent and petrol 16.5 per cent.

Among low-paid workers, food and energy, in particular, will account for a higher-than-average proportion of the household budget. Many such people were involved in the strike that the Public and Commercial Services Union called for 24 April. “More than a quarter of the civil service is on less than £16,000 a year,” says Alex Flynn, the union’s spokesman. They include the coastguards, who needed a special pay rise to keep them above the national minimum wage when it went up. The effect of the abolition of the 10p tax band, cutting take-home pay for several million low-paid workers, has not yet been felt, but among the more politically aware union members, it will add to the sense that they are becoming drastically worse off.

Public sector workers know that, since 1997, they have mostly done better than their private sector counterparts. Yet that doesn’t make them more willing to accept losses in real wages now. There is also a sense that the government isn’t applying its pay policies fairly and consistently. Why, teachers ask, is their pay being held down when ministers are ready to offer “superheads” £200,000 a year? And some leading union figures are wondering, after ministers overturned the recommendations of the police pay review, whether this government can be trusted.

Smart action

What we won’t get, now or in the near future, is anything comparable to the 1970s. There are many reasons for that, most of them familiar: union membership, which stood at more than 13 million in the late 1970s, is now barely 7.5 million; laws passed under Margaret Thatcher’s governments, and only partly modified by Labour, make it more difficult for unions to call strikes; the breaking of the 1984-85 miners’ strike shattered the confidence of the union movement for a generation; and union members, struggling with high mortgages and credit card bills, are less willing to sacrifice wages than they were 30 years ago.

Perhaps most important, globalisation has created a worldwide labour surplus and a highly competitive international market for capital. The laws of supply and demand put labour in a strong position for the first 30 to 40 years after the Second World War; the same laws have made it much weaker in our own day.

Unions, therefore, have to be smarter. Strikes were once trials of strength between them and the employers, in which it was a question of who could absorb more punishment, and who would beg for mercy first. In the 21st century, they are more like fencing, or even chess, than wrestling.

“Strikes,” says Mike Terry, professor of industrial relations at the University of Warwick, “are a public demonstration that unions are alive and well and trying to do something. It keeps them in the news, raises awareness.” The strike is part of a media strategy, rather than an attempt to inflict real damage; it is “a carefully orchestrated display of discontent”, as Terry puts it. It is an opportunity to feed stories of members struggling to put food on the table to the press and television, threatening Brown with the image of being hard-hearted and uncaring.

Still a cause of outrage

The strike is also part of a political strategy. The unions’ hand is probably stronger than at any time in the past 15 years because Labour now finds it more difficult to raise money from business or private donors, and fears it is less likely to get support from non-unionised, middle-class voters. “The unions sniff the possibility of slightly greater concessions in the run-up to an election,” says Terry. “They may get certain promises for the future, such as a big pay review.”

Moreover, the belief that strikes are bad for the Labour Party, whichever government is in power, is deeply rooted. The 1958 London bus strike was said to have lost Hugh Gaitskell the 1959 election – the Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan, noted in his diary that it “seemed to be a turning point”. Though inflation probably played the main role in Harold Wilson’s defeat in 1970, growing industrial unrest – nearly seven million working days were lost in 1969, the second-highest level since 1931 – didn’t help. And the 1979 Winter of Discontent put Labour out of power for a generation as surely as the Tories’ disorderly retreat from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 sealed their fate.

Strikes now inflict on the public nothing like the inconvenience that they did 30 years ago. There is no question of power cuts or threats to the water supply. A postal strike is an irritant but, with the growth of other means of communication, no longer a catastrophe. Even public transport strikes don’t quite bring things to a standstill as they once did, because most people can find alternative means of travel.

Yet strikes still cause outrage. In the 1970s, we joked that carrying water from standpipes kept us fit and brought us closer to our neighbours, that power cuts kept the bills down and, in any case, it was romantic to huddle round coal fires by candlelight. If we couldn’t go to work, we cheerfully took the day off and pruned a few roses. Now we are all busier, more career-oriented, more mobile, more dependent on everything working well. Working parents are upset by the smallest disruption to their tightly organised routines.

Like veterans of rationing and the London Blitz, those of us who lived through three-day weeks and winters of discontent learned to grin and bear it. We look back on it all with a degree of nostalgia, and sneer at the young softies who now whinge about waiting a few days longer for a new passport. The unions may be emasculated, but they don’t have to do much to impress anyone under 40.

 

 

A short history of withdrawing labour

  • 12th century BC Craftsmen working on the tombs of the pharaohs down tools in a demand for better rations, the first recorded strike in history
  • 1888 The “matchgirls” at the Bryant & May factory in Bow, east London, go on strike for better wages and conditions
  • 1926 The TUC calls a general strike in support of a pay claim by miners
  • 1971 The Heath government introduces the Industrial Relations Act, severely limiting the right to strike. The TUC campaigns vigorously against the act
  • 1973 Three building workers, including Ricky Tomlinson (now an actor), are charged with conspiracy for picketing. The Shrewsbury Three serve prison sentences of up to three years
  • 1974 A year of strikes by power workers and miners lead to the three-day week and propel Heath to election defeat
  • 1977 Photo processors at Grunwick striking for union recognition (below) become a cause célèbre
  • 1984-85 Miners take action against pit closures and unite the trade union movement in their support, but lose
  • 1986 Printers fail to prevent Rupert Murdoch moving his four newspapers to a computerised printing works
  • 2007 For the second time in a decade, days lost to strikes top a million

 

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