Britain may be facing the largest wave of industrial action for many decades – even “the biggest since the General Strike“, according to one union leader. This is a scenario which depresses most of us, but thrills three types of people. One happy group is headline writers with a fondness for retro cliches from the 1970s and 1980s. They can dust off – and they already are – sentences composed of all possible permutations of “union militants”, “shop-floor extremists”, “industrial warfare”, “showdown with government” and “autumn of discontent”.
Then there are some Tories who tingle with excitement about the prospect of a titanic struggle with an adversary of old. It gets the testosterone surging in a certain kind of Conservative when they imagine rerunning the battles with the unions of the Thatcher era. Elements of the Tory right, who are becoming noisily contemptuous of David Cameron for his recent U-turns, would like to turn this into a sort of virility test for the prime minister in which he must “crush the unions” to prove that his balls are big enough.
The only other people who can be looking forward to industrial action are the less intelligent trade union leaders, the ones who have failed to grasp that their own position is far from powerful and that the strike weapon is not as potent as it once was. “Union baron” once made sense as a way of describing them when they were the likes of Hugh Scanlon of the engineers, Jack Jones of the T&G, and Joe Gormley of the miners. Union leaders of the 70s were mighty figures, often better known to the public than many of the cabinet and with the industrial muscle to bring mere prime ministers to their knees. “Baron” is a ludicrously inflated nomenclature for today’s generation of union leaders. But some of them may be just foolish enough to imagine that a protracted struggle against a Conservative prime minister could restore them to the glory days when unions did make Number 10 tremble.
The strikes will begin with a one-day co-ordinated walkout at the end of this month by unions representing about 750,000 public sector workers, the majority of them either teachers or civil servants. The catalyst is the government’s demand that state employees work longer and pay more for their pensions. To that specific grievance is added all their other discontents about the pay freezes, job cuts, reduced services and the government’s overall economic policy. The action will certainly have an impact on schools and colleges, job centres, government offices and courts. I suspect, though, that most voters will be able to live with tax inspectors walking off the job.
It is laughable to compare one day of protest to the epic industrial relations battles of the past. They are not going to destroy the government’s authority by turning off the lights, which is what the miners and power workers did to Ted Heath. Nor will they completely cripple essential services which is what the lorry drivers, health unions, refuse collectors and others did to Jim Callaghan when there really was a “winter of discontent”.
The planned or threatened strikes of this season are not a sign that unions are swaggering again. Rather, they indicate the opposite. You really do have to go back three decades to find examples of major strikes resulting in an unequivocal victory for a union over an employer. When a union strikes these days, it is almost always a sign not of strength and confidence, but of weakness and desperation.
Ministers involved in the negotiations see a union movement that is divided. Mark Serwotka, the leader of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents lower-paid civil servants, does come across to them as “a man hellbent on a confrontation with the government come what may”. He is atypical. Most of today’s union leaders are cautious people who would still much prefer to negotiate a settlement. The largest public sector union is Unison with more than 1.3 million members. Their leader, Dave Prentis, sounds gung ho for battle when he says: “We are prepared for rolling action over an indefinite period” and makes comparisons with the 1926 General Strike. He is certainly rattling the sabre, but it is important to note that his union has not actually drawn sword from sheath yet. Mr Prentis may sound angry – indeed he is angry – but this softly spoken man is not a hothead. Ministers who have negotiated with him acknowledge that he is considered and careful.
Previous generations of union leaders would have had their members out long ago in instant protest against the redundancies and effective pay cuts imposed by the coalition. Yet Unison’s leaders are still agonising and arguing about whether to call a strike ballot. This is because most contemporary union leaders appreciate that using the blunt weapon of industrial action is very high risk for them. A sustained withdrawal of labour – as distinct from one-off protests to vent steam – will leave their members seriously out of pocket at a time of austerity. They have to be very confident that a strike will extract enough concessions from the government to make it a more sensible option than staying at the negotiating table.
Britain’s most successful union is not Unison or Unite. It is not any of the teaching unions. It is certainly not the poor old university academics who will make their point, but hardly bring the country to its knees, by refusing to give lectures on the day of action. The brilliant union I am thinking of – brilliant, that is, at shaking down the employers – is not affiliated to the Trades Union Congress. In fact, this is a union which does not even call itself a union, which may be part of the secret of its many triumphs. Britain’s most ruthlessly effective union is the British Medical Association. The doctors have just played an instrumental role in destroying the coalition’s original plan for the NHS. The BMA did so by saying loudly and often that its members were against the plan.
Not once did the doctors have to threaten to strike to get their way. They did not need to because they could rely on the public to be more likely to trust doctors than politicians, especially Tory politicians, with health. Civil servants and teachers will have to be very effective indeed to force a reversal on David Cameron as humiliating as that achieved by the militant medics. Since the foundation of the NHS, when Nye Bevan had to stuff the mouths of doctors with gold before they would drop their opposition to the creation of a universal health service, the BMA has time and again bested governments of all complexions.
That is a cautionary and instructive example for unions thinking of taking on the government. The main reason that prime ministers buckle to the BMA is because politicians don’t think they can beat doctors in the court of public opinion. The unions will have to play things very cleverly – can they do canny? – if they are to win public sympathy for their side of the argument.
Level-headed ministers appreciate that there are perils for the government as well if this dispute should escalate into a prolonged battle. The public may well turn against unions which close children’s schools or hit healthcare, but the same voters are unlikely to be impressed by a government that allowed things to get so out of hand. There are some battles in which it is possible for both sides to lose.
You can, of course, find Tories who lick their lips at the prospect of a massive struggle with the public sector unions because, in the words of one minister: “They want an enemy to fight.” They do not speak for the Lib Dems nor for all Conservatives. Threats to change the law to make it even harder to strike are “not helpful”, says one middle-ground cabinet member, because “it winds up the unions”.
The two principal negotiators on the government side are Francis Maude, the Conservative Cabinet Office minister, and Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury. I get the strong impression that neither of them harbours a desire to turn a negotiation about pensions into a death match with public sector workers. Union leaders say Mr Maude has devoted more effort to getting to know them than ever did his Labour equivalents. Mr Alexander inflamed some of the unions with remarks he made on Friday which they interpreted as pre-empting the talks. That was not his intention. He supposed himself to be sounding conciliatory when he said that poorer-paid public sector workers are to be exempted from making additional pension contributions. Privately, Mr Maude has been suggesting to the unions that they ought to settle with Mr Alexander because they will get a better deal from a coalition containing Lib Dems than they will if there is a future all-Tory government.
For all the rhetorical overheating of recent days, there are sensible figures on both sides who want to avoid a wave of strikes from which no one – not the unions, not the government and certainly not the public – would profit. This is not the 1970s, but there is a danger in people starting to speak as if it were. The risk is that they will talk themselves into a war that neither side really wanted.
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