Strike action doesn’t have to be very extensive to send British society into fits of frightening folk memories of the 1970s. People murmur knowingly about a winter of discontent coming back to haunt us from the past. Real connoisseurs will recall the Army being brought in, ageing Green Goddess fire engines wheeled out to cover for striking firefighters. For all the nuance we now apply to our assessment of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government of 1976-79, it remains the ultimate example of industrial unrest, government paralysis and economic decline.
Yet as we begin 2023, all the talk is still of industrial action. The rail network has been plagued by strikes for weeks now, as the RMT and ASLEF—admittedly small players in the union world—have conducted a series of highly disruptive walk-outs. In response, the government is preparing new legislation which would allow employers in certain sectors to sue unions and sack workers if strikes breach minimum service requirements.
Trade unions have been part of the political landscape in Britain for a long time. They were illegal until 1824; then they became a pressing demand of reformers in the mid-19th century, as Welsh social reformer Robert Owen attempted to create a national federation in 1834. The Trade Union Act 1871 created the first legal framework. Notably, it was trade unions that coalesced to create the modern Labour Party in 1900.
The picture, however, is changing. Union membership nationally is around six million in a workforce of 33 million. Before Margaret Thatcher came to power, there were twice as many union members. The most highly unionised industries like mining, shipbuilding and steel have largely gone, and legal restrictions have banned secondary picketing and made contributions to political funds an opt-in rather than automatic. In this context, the proposed legislation is a comforting hymn sheet for a Conservative Party which still idolises the memory of Thatcher. But is it the right response?
The principle of collective action remains an unbreachable agreement of our politics. The government was quick to reiterate, through a press release from the business department, that it “will always protect the ability to strike, but it must be balanced with the public’s right to life and livelihoods”. But achieving a balance between those two rights is an elusive goal. Rishi Sunak and his business secretary, Grant Shapps, will hope they have caught a shifting public mood, and they might be right.
Recent polling shows that only 30 per cent of the public supported last month’s transport strikes, with 36 per cent opposed. Conversely, back in September, 43 per cent of those surveyed supported the strikers, and only 31 per cent were against them. Both of those sets of figures leave a significant proportion of “don’t knows”. Public sympathy for particular professions like nursing, teaching and firefighting remains high. By contrast, nowadays big business gets little instinctive support.
The government is right to act, because the strikes are costing the country money when we can hardly afford it. The hospitality sector lost £1.5bn in December alone – half of that just in London – after a long period of pain through the Covid-19 lockdown. While voluntary agreements on pay and conditions remain the ideal outcome, there is almost no goodwill left to facilitate them.
New legislation must do two things above all. Firstly, it must be effective in reducing the number of strikes and the hours lost, so that disruption is minimised. The public responds to nothing so well as efficacy: if they can see the problems melting away, they will give credit to the government. It must also be legally watertight. Labour leader Keir Starmer has warned of challenges to new laws curbing strike powers, and protracted court cases or judicial review would simply reinforce a picture of a government struggling to cope.
Thatcher broke the overweening power of the unions in the mid-1980s with determination and endurance. Rishi Sunak does not have that luxury, with less than two years of the parliament left to run. What he needs is an effective solution that gets people back to work without conceding everything the unions demand and beggaring the public purse. Legislation may be necessary, but it seems very unlikely that it will be sufficient.