The return of ‘industrial action’?
My first academic job back in the 1980s was that of lecturer in industrial relations in Trinity College Dublin. This came just after Britain’s ‘winter of discontent’ that fatally undermined Jim Callaghan’s term as British Prime Minister, and just before the British miners’ strike, which probably more than anything else contributed to the erosion of trade union strength in the UK. In Ireland at the time industrial unrest was also widespread. In the year before I took up my post Ireland had lost over a million working hours due to strikes, about a hundred times the number that would be normal now.
Over the two decades that followed, strike action was subjected to far more legal constraints, including the requirement of a secret ballot before action could go ahead. In addition, with the rise of the ICT sector trade union density – membership as a proportion of the total labour force – declined. This combination produced an era of low levels of industrial action.
Is this about to change? There have been mutterings in Britain about strikes, or even a general strike, in response to government policies and cutbacks. Some trade union leaders have taken to issuing threats, or maybe predictions, of industrial unrest. This in turn has prompted the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, to state that trade unions are ‘forces of stagnation’ and that they are set to hinder economic recovery.
While there is clearly a fair amount of uneasiness in society about the impact of government economic policies, there is little evidence that the wider public would look benignly on waves of industrial action. The miners’ strike in the mid-1980s was actually a turning point, in that it helped to swing public opinion behind the Thatcher government rather than against it.
A free society needs to protect the right of employees to withdraw their labour. But using this as a tool in a political campaign is not wise, as has been reccognised by the UK Labour Party. Trade unions would do well to think very carefully about such campaigns.