The rail unions have announced further strikes for December and January. Nurses have already voted to strike for the first time in over a century. Now university lecturers, postal workers and Scottish teachers have joined in. So are we headed for a second Winter of Discontent – emulating the last months of the Callaghan government in 1979, when the rubbish piled up in Leicester Square and the dead went unburied?
Things would have to get a whole lot worse before we get anywhere close to matching that grim season. In 1979, the number of days lost to strikes reached a post-war peak, at 29.5 million. Last time the unions threatened a national strike, in response to the coalition cuts in 2011 the figure was 1.4 million. But even 1979 looks mild compared with what went before. In 1926, the year of the general strike, a whacking 162.2 million days were lost to strikes. Mass labor disputes were common prior to that time. Other bleak years were 1921 (85.9 million days), 1912 (40.9 million) and 1893 (30.4 million). As for the 1970s and 1980s, infamous for poor labor relations, the other bad years were 1972 (23.9 million) and miners’ strike year of 1984 (27.1 million).
On that measure, then, Britain has steadily become a harmonious place for labor relations. How come? Is it because unions and management have found better ways of working together – or is it simply a product of a changing workforce? There are fewer industries now which employ large numbers of staff. Technology has shrunk the payrolls of most large industries, so there are fewer workers to go on strike. In 1947, for example, nearly 700,000 people worked on the railways. This is now down to 240,000. If every rail worker in Britain went on strike for an entire year it would mean around 60 million days lost to strikes – which would still be far fewer than in 1926.
But the number of days lost to strikes doesn’t really give a measure of the effect of strikes on the economy. The railways may employ only a sixth as many people as they did in the 1940s, but those workers can still close down the system.
On the other hand, we have fewer monopolies than we did in the past. The railways are a prime example in that we now have a multiplicity of employers – so national strikes are rarer. In the 1970s coal unions had the power to put the lights out. That is more difficult now that nationally-owned coal power stations have been replaced with a more diverse network of generators – gas, wind, solar and nuclear power stations are in the hands of many different companies. Moreover, we have far fewer manual workers – who really could, literally down tools – and a far greater number of white collar workers whose labor is less likely to be missed if they strike for a day. Public services, to be blunt, would not come to a halt if the nation’s diversity officers were to call a strike. They could strike as long as the NUM did in 1984/85 and it is doubtful that many people would notice the difference. Even rail unions are losing their power, now that many workers are in the habit of working remotely.
In short, then, it is far harder for unions to create havoc than it was for them in the past. Maybe unions and management work better together, too, and possibly employment legislation has given workers less cause to strike. But a large part of the reason behind the falling incidence of strikes is that unions know full well that the economy has evolved in such a way as to diminish their power.