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.

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7 Comments on “The return of ‘industrial action’?”

  1. Al Says:

    Our actions are all compromised by the massive mortgages we owe. It also segments the trade union body with younger more endebted members feeling compromised, while the elders are more free relatively, give or take a villa on the continent….

    • Jilly Says:

      Very true, Al. And if you ever try to have a serious discussion of the issue, the ‘elders’ get a chance to trot out their ‘more radical than thou’ stance. Easy to be radical when you own (outright) a large red-brick villa in a nice suburb.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    “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.” History is incredibly valuable, however not always a perfectly accurate template for events to come, the various categories of people affected by the current economic cuts (and the threat of unemployment/lack of pension etc.) which might consider strike actions cannot be compared to the miners in the 80s, as for public opinion’s reaction to the miners’ strike it is historically true that it was against it, however as this editorial points out: ‘the public’s heart bled for the miners and their families.’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/mar/07/1984-miners-strike
    I might be wrong but I have the impression that this time around the public’s heart might bleed again for those on strike, not least because (most of)the public and those on strike would share the same and only heart!

  3. Vincent Says:

    Two things torpedoed the labour movement in the 80’s. They fixated on themselves ignoring a huge unemployed section of the community. And while they could get away with such rubbish here, in the UK unemployed Essex-man is a force. And he simply voted for Thatcher.
    The second, the University sector has much the same problem, they seem to have gone out of their way to install the most unsympathetic face they could find to deal with the public.
    Oh, one of the reasons for the drop in Labour support in the past few weeks stem from the notion that the civil service and Labour are one and the same. And that labour would willingly destroy everyone else to protect their constituency, so are no different from FF in that respect. It’s just a question of who is protected.
    Protect the Croke Park and slaughter the people on welfare.
    I’m upping my FF numbers daily. By election day they should be on about 69.

  4. Rab Says:

    During the miners’ strike in the 80s I was a kid at school – 15 years old, I think. I had no firm political convictions. Just a youthful and idealistic sense of what was just and fair. That changed during the miners’ strike. I was inclined to be sympathetic to the strikers but new I didn’t have a firm enough grasp of what was going on to make a really committed decision on the issue. That changed one evening when I was watching the news. There was coverage of a Young Conservatives event at which a group of Oxbridge-types (just a little older than me) were singing songs that poked fun at the hardship faced by the miners faced that Christmas. After that I knew exactly which side I was on and I’ve never doubted it since.

    Those young Tories are in power now. I loathed them then and I loath them now. I’m just one of the rank and file, so have little influence in the overall scheme of things but I want the trade union leadership to give me the opportunity to join others and fight the cuts with every weapon at our disposal. This is why I take issue with your last paragraph, Vincent. All it says is that you have the right to strike, just don’t make a nuisance of yourself. Those Tories who advocate the right to peaceful protest do so because they know that peaceful protest won’t make a blind bit of difference.

  5. David Says:

    More a quick reflection than anything. Not analysed nor researched but maybe something in this.

    Any industrial relations climate is generally a reflection of history, society and economic circumstances. By contrast, an employee relations environment is more a reflection of internal leadership, culture and relationships.

    The real problem is that we have experienced an increasing and deepening crisis of leadership for many years with too many of those whom we trusted turning out not to be deserving of that trust and, with loss of trust comes loss of respect, and with that comes loss of authority to decide, act and control.

    It has been happening for quite a long time now, probably since the war (coincidence?)…examples can be found in almost every area…in the field of politics (health care for life -who ever believed that? underhand strategy for taking us into EU and constitutional changes since, probable lies about Iraq and cabinet decision making plus endemic corruption – expenses, cover up of BAE alleged ‘brown envelopes’, Lib Dem policy changes etc etc), social work and care (sytematic child and elderly abuse and gross failure to act), teaching (discipline, child abuse and unchallenging acceptance of low numeracy and literacy), medicine (systematic cover up of gross medical negligence), religious affairs (child abuse and lack of response to modern challenges to ‘faith’), business (endemic corruption), police (corruption and systematic failure to engage with comunities), financial industry (what can I say), sport etc etc. Those we trusted to lead us honestly and to be role models for ourselves and our children have been found to be anything but. Of course there are good people in all these walks of life but dishonesty and corruption amongst even a few leaves a lasting impression and ‘cover up’ of it leaves a great big hole once exposed.

    The financial sector has been the focus….who remembers the first great new technology boom, when we were all encouraged to invest our TESSAs in new technology only for most of it to go bust a year later and our money with it? If I recall rightly this was followed by the great mortgage and other financial scandals, where the consumer found itself ripped off by charges and penalties. And more recently the credit crunch driven by breathless greed and risk taking.

    Problem: money has become primarily a commodity in its own right rather than a means of transaction and therein lies the nub of what has happened to our financial sector. It survives first by keeping us in debt and secondly through trading as a commodity to make profit.

    Add to this the age of the inet and instant mobile communications, individual rights to access information more and more plus the age of ‘choice’ which is underpinned by the right to information to be able to make an informed choice…and to act.

    And, when times are tight and information so freely available, people will get excited about things that matter to them and which just don’t make sense. Who can justify millions of tons of fish being thrown back (at the taxpayers expense)when fish is increasingly expensive and millions are starving? Answer, those who profit from it! Of course there has to be conservation of stocks but is this really served by throwing back dead fish in their millions? The same applies to forests and fields being chopped down/replaced to make way for plantations grown for bio-fuel crops to drive cleaner cars! And its why companies and speculators are buying up farming land in eastern europe cheaply, because when the global food shortage really hits prices that land will be ‘hot property’.

    Where am I going…the failure of leadership is now exposed and people are increasingly empowered by information and choice. My question…can a fundamentally failing and often corrupt, private sector, market driven economy actually survive all of this without radical reform and (oh yes) where are the honest leaders who will lead such transformation without getting sucked in themselves? Can anyone spot them?

    So I guess I’m not so sure this is about trade unions any more but a fundamental shift in the balance of power between people and state with ‘the people’ saying they want more of it and taking it. It’s a worldwide phenomenon and we think we are immune at our peril.


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