15 Apr

Are the Empire’s Strikes Back?

Posted By polity_admin_user

First posted 31st March 2010

In 1973, The Strawbs – an old-fashioned pop combo, a bit like today’s boybands but they played their own instruments and wrote their own songs (I know, it’s ridiculous) – released their now classic song, Part of the Union, which contained the following lyric: “So though I’m a working man, I can ruin the government’s plans, / Though I’m not too hard / The sight of my card / Makes me some kind of superman”. Clearly an ironic critique of trades union militancy which was very much the hot topic at the time. I heard echoes of that song last week when UK Conservative Party leader David Cameron said that the trades unions have ‘scented weakness’ in the Prime Minister and, presumably like hungry sharks scenting blood, are lining up to take strike action.

There is also talk of a ‘spring of discontent’, a reference to the 1978-79 ‘winter of discontent’, which was the final straw that broke the Labour Government and helped bring Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979. But is there any realistic possibility of history repeating itself? In a word, no.

Inflation in 1978 was 10%, about three times higher than it is today, and it had been at 26% in 1975. In 1978, the Labour government tried to impose a 5% pay norm which triggered a whole range of strikes in both the private and public sector, from car manufacturing at Ford to lorry drivers at oil refineries, waste collection workers, ambulance workers and gravediggers (in Liverpool and Tameside): the unrest and action amongst unions was very widespread. January 22nd 1979was the largest one-day public-sector stoppage since 1926 with 1.5 million workers taking strike action.

So far, around 200,000 civil servants staged a one-day strike on 24thMarch to coincide with the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget announcement. British Airways cabin crews held a 3-day action on 20th March, 4 days on 27th March and more to come, while the rail unions have a 4-day strike planned for 6th April.

One big difference in this recession is that before this wave of strikes, the most striking (pun intended) thing about workers and unions in many private companies and public-sector environments has been the way that unions have actually worked with management: accepting pay cuts, shorter working weeks, unpaid sabbaticals and other ways of cutting costs, to help their businesses ride out the recession without the kind of conflict and rapid rise in unemployment we saw in 1978-9. It’s hard to see how this outbreak of moderate trades unionism can be equated with the militancy of the 1970s. There is another big difference, too. The BA strike is partly about pay of course, but it’s also about reducing staff numbers on long-haul flights and changed contracts for new staff. Similarly, the proposed national rail workers strike is about plans to cut 1,500 jobs and increase evening and weekend working. OK, the civil service action was in relation to proposed reductions in redundancy payments, but that’s not quite the same as striking over an imposed government pay norm. Again, it’s hard to see a direct comparison between the winter of discontent and the present strikes.

One paradoxical finding from what used to be called ‘industrial sociology’ is that trades unions tend to be stronger in economic booms and weaker in economic downturns. This is odd because it’s in the downturns when workers need their unions most. But it’s easier for management to accede to pay demands when business is good, much less so when times are hard. Hence what Zygmunt Bauman once called the ‘economization of class conflict’ – the channelling of management–worker conflict into issues of pay where they can be more easily resolved – works less well in recessions. Of course, what this should lead to today is more intractable conflicts as companies just don’t have the finance to pay off their workers’ demands. All of which makes the previous cooperative agreements between unions and management even more remarkable. Why are workers more willing to be ‘reasonable’?

One factor could be the decline of class and work as central forms of people’s identity. Anecdotal reports from some of the workers who accepted shorter working weeks, for instance, show that provided mortgages can be paid and cloth cut accordingly, many workers saw the extra time off as enabling. It allowed them more time with their children and partners, time to focus on leisure or hobbies or even plan for a new career. The kind of ‘all-or-nothing’ strikes of the 1970s and ’80s, when work and class very much defined a person’s self-identity and attacks on their industries were felt very personally, now appear to be absent from such accounts. A second factor must surely be the economic climate itself. For example, interest rates remain historically low with the Bank of England base rate having stayed at just 0.5% for over 12 months now. This has meant that mortgage payments have been more manageable and allowed workers to accept rather more flexibility than in the 1970s. Similarly, inflation has not spiralled to the levels of the 1970s, making it somewhat easier to cope in the present climate. So, sadly for me, it’s unlikely that The Strawbs’ anthem will be revived this year; but as Westlife say, this is after all Where We Are.

Philip W. Sutton