Adam Boulton on lessons from strikes past, present and what they mean for the future | Political news



The British public is used to confrontations between public sector workers and the government of the day.

Over the decades, there have been strikes and work-to-rule involving miners, teachers, railroads, civil servants, and health care workers, among others.

In the past century, the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978-79 and the miners’ strikes of 1972, 1974 and 1984-85 were polarizing events that changed the course of British political history.

Deserted stations and idle trains across the UK – latest rail strikes

Despite the efforts of certain polemicists on the right and on the left, it would still be premature to put the dissatisfactions of this summer in the same box.

The railroads are not the coal mines, and for most people this is not a classic “capital versus organized labor” conflict. Former Labor minister David Blunkett thinks those who want to see him on these terms are “wrongly waging a class war of decades ago”.

Keir Starmer’s reluctance to wade goes hand in hand with the confused emotions of the public.

This week pollster YouGov found that 37% support the strikes and 45% oppose them. But in the Savanta survey, a majority, 58%, said they believed the strikes were justified.

This is not a solid basis for the government to ask the country to retreat for months of confrontation, while refusing to engage in discussions. The public mood seems to be much closer to “why can’t they just fix it”.

Things have changed since the cost of living crisis started to bite. With inflation soaring towards 10%, demands for 7% wage increases, like the RMT’s, no longer seem so unreasonable.

Read more: What you need to know about rail strikes

Union leaders march during the miners' strike in 1984
Union leaders march during the miners’ strike in 1984

Who is blamed for not stopping the strikes?

But somehow the UK could soon be going back to the 1970s.

Miners’ strikes then led to power cuts and a three-day work week. Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath called a general election on the question: “Who rules Britain?” The mixed result of the suspended parliament that followed at least said: “Well, not you, mate”. Labor took over under Harold Wilson and then Jim Callaghan.

Large-scale industrial disruption continued, led by union bosses who became national figures, culminating in “the winter of discontent”, as The Sun dubbed it, when public sector strikes even meant that ” the dead lay unburied,” in the words of a famous Conservative Election broadcast. Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory for the Conservatives in 1979.

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Jim Callaghan’s Labor Party suffered in part from its affiliation with trade unions, then widely seen as too powerful.

The Thatcher government set out to limit the power of the unions and to make preparations to ensure that it won the confrontation with the miners that Heath had lost, and with a minimum of disruption to the mass of the population.

But the fate of Heath and Callaghan shows that the impact of strikes is not always politically partisan.

Voters tend to blame the incumbent government, regardless of color, if things get out of control and their lives are significantly disrupted.

Read more from Adam Boulton:
The slow death of PMs and what awaits Boris Johnson
The ties that bind the United Kingdom are under tension

Striking railway staff picket at Nottingham station, as rail, maritime and transport union members begin their nationwide strike in a bitter dispute over pay, jobs and conditions.  Picture date: Tuesday June 21, 2022.

Have the unions lost power?

In many ways, the 2020s are nothing like the 1970s or 1980s.

Second, the economy had experienced decades of expansion and growth after the war. Instead, since the 2008 banking crisis, the pressure has been mostly on public sector workers and services.

This decade there has been only one hundredth the number of days lost to strikes compared to 1979.

At just over six million, union membership is less than half of what it was then, accounting for less than a quarter of the total workforce. Even if it wanted to, the RMT could not cripple the nation, not least because the pandemic has taught many how to work from home.

About 76% – three out of four of us – told Savanta that they hadn’t had to change their travel plans because of the strike. About 20% of the trains ran on strike days anyway.

Much of the shrinking power of trade unions is due to labor law and industrial relations reforms that began in the Thatcher era.

Only a handful of services run nationwide

Has privatization reached the buffers?

But this conflict is testing another of its key policies: privatization.

Its aim was to ease the burden on government by bringing the discipline and investment muscle of the private sector into moribund public operations. Relatively few people today would support a full renationalisation of, say, the telecommunications sector, but in utilities, such as power and water, the model faces challenges.

In the railways, the locomotive of privatization has already hit the buffers.

As a business presenter Ian King explainedthe railways – the tracks and the operation of the trains – are again largely the responsibility of the taxpayer.

While insisting that the resolution of the dispute is not theirs but “the employers'”, the government simultaneously dictates that it must be resolved on their strict terms to avoid an inflationary spiral in wages or prices in the public sector.

Andrew Haines, the head of Network Rail and probably the new revival of ‘Great British Rail’, agrees that “Government intervention at this stage would be an invitation for unions to politicize workplace disputes from a way that would encourage their proliferation”.

But he should also be aware that elsewhere in the transport network where ministers have less clout, such as in Wales and London, pay claims are settled at around the level offered by the RMT.

A picket line is seen outside the West of Scotland Rail Network Maintenance Delivery Unit and Signaling Center in Cowlairs, Glasgow, as members of the Rail, Maritime and transportation begin their nationwide strike in a bitter dispute over wages, jobs and conditions.  Picture date: Tuesday June 21, 2022.

Will other strikes in other sectors follow?

When asked by Sophy Ridge, RMT leader Mick Lynch made it clear that he saw his union as the the vanguard of a larger struggle.

His union is no longer affiliated with the Labor Party and provides only relatively modest support to a few MPs’ offices. Keir Starmer does not support strikes – yet he echoed the same theme as Mr Lynch in PMQs when he contrasted the Government’s license for unrestricted bonuses for bankers while urging wage moderation in the public sector.

These are difficult and complicated times, where on a daily basis there seems to be less cake to debate. The public is worried and uncertain.

The best policy for any politician might just be to keep a cool head, even on an empty platform on a hot sunny summer day.

Adam Boulton writes a column every Friday for Sky News


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