Due to an increasing number of strikes the current situation has been compared with the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1978/1979. At a closer look, however, there are a number of core differences between then and now. In the 1970s, the struggle was over wage increases and how to control inflation, now it is about rising state debt and increasing unemployment. In the Winter of Discontent, there was a disjuncture between the private and public sector, with the former being able to meet higher demands by workers. Now, both private and public sector are equally affected by the global economic recession and increasing levels of unemployment. Finally, in the 1970s it was easy for trade unions to organize strikes, now they are faced with an extremely complex ballot system.
During the 1970s, the British economy was characterized by high levels of inflation. It had reached almost 26.9 per cent in August 1975 and, with the exception of 8.3 per cent in 1978, inflation was above 10 per cent every year between 1974 and 1981. The main question was about how to get inflation under control. In 1978, the government set a wage increase limit at 5 per cent. Considering the high levels of inflation this implied that it expected from workers to accept drastic pay cuts. This government target was, however, undermined by a high settlement of 17 per cent at Ford Motors in November 1978. Initially, Ford had made an offer of 5 per cent in line with government guidelines. In response, however, 15000 workers mainly organized by the Transport and General Workers Union began an unofficial strike on 22 September. When the strike expanded further, the management of Ford eventually offered 17 per cent. The company had had a successful year and was able to pay such an increase. Ford Motors functioned as a kind of wage setter in private industry and this settlement was accepted as a benchmark in other parts of the private sector. In view of the high wage increases in the private sector, however, public sector workers went on strike across the board to achieve a similar result. In short, there was a clear disjuncture between the private and the public sector and the main dispute was over wage increases.
Currently, both the private and public sector are hit by the recession in the global economy and disputes are also increasingly over job losses. The dispute at Network Rail, for example, is over an intended cut of 1500 jobs in the rail industry. Moreover, the government’s cuts in public sector redundancy terms are a preparation for job cuts according to the Public and Commercial Services Union. In the 1970s, unemployment was around 5, perhaps between 5 and 6 per cent and, thus, relatively low. Now, unemployment has increased again from 5.5 per cent in July 2008 to 7.8 per cent in January and February 2010 with more job losses on the horizon. In other words, the current situation of high unemployment puts trade unions in a structurally much weaker position and indicates that they are ultimately much less likely to stage a sustained strike campaign.
In the 1970s, it was easy for trade unions to organize strikes. Solidarity strikes by workers in other sectors were possible and secondary action took regularly place. In the wake of the anti-trade union legislation by the Thatcher governments in the 1980s, today’s situation is rather different. Trade unions need to run a highly complex and rigorous ballot of their members and they need to give an advance notice of seven days of any strike action to the employer so that the employer can prepare for it and minimise the damage caused. There is a complete ban on solidarity and secondary action. In short, trade unions are not only structurally in a much weaker position now than in the 1970s, the legal changes have also put them in a disadvantageous situation vis-à-vis the employers and the state. Hence, it is highly unlikely that we will witness a repetition of the Winter of Discontent and large-scale disruptions of services.
Consumers may appreciate this situation at first sight. They are less likely to be affected negatively by strike action. Nevertheless, such a view assumes that people stand somehow outside industrial relations as observers. Yet, it is important to remember that the vast majority of people are workers in the first instance and, thus, a direct part of industrial relations. Only with employment are people in a position to be actually consumers. Today, someone may be a consumer affected negatively by a particular strike. Tomorrow, however, it may be this same person, who is in danger of unemployment. In this sense, every strike against job cuts not only defends the directly related jobs, but also jobs in other sectors, which may be the next target, should the first attempt at job cuts be successful. Therefore, trade unions and striking workers clearly deserve our support in their resistance against job cuts.
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ldzab