One cannot read or hear the news now without hearing of some group of workers going on strike.
People evoke the 1970s – a decade synonymous with industrial unrest – and especially, given the many disputes at the moment, the time when a culture of strikes effectively brought down a government: the Winter of Discontent of 1979. That autumn, I was waiting to go up to university and lead a life of comparative idleness, which was just as well, as the country was more or less gridlocked.
As workers demanded pay rises of between 15 and 20 per cent, footage appeared on television night after night of urban streets lined with overflowing rubbish bins, because council workers were on strike.
NHS ancillary workers blockaded hospitals, and only serious emergencies were admitted. A lorry drivers’ strike meant goods started to disappear from supermarket shelves, and petrol became in short supply.
This meant that the unions, and not management, controlled entry to many trades. I had to join the National Union of Journalists for, I think, a month to have the honour of working for it and pay for the privilege. The then owners, recognising the technological revolution taking place in journalism, along with most of our competitors, did away with that closed shop, and with conventional hot-metal printing controlled by the unions. It was impossible to get a job «in the print» unless you were in one of the print unions.
It was hard to get into the print unions unless a father, brother, uncle or brother-in-law was already in it. Sympathy strikes – the mass coordination of which had in 1926 enabled the General Strike – would close down businesses whose management had no connection with the dispute, and force out on-strike workers with no quarrel with their employers. For example, in the Winter of Discontent, workers for Cadbury Schweppes at Bournville – mainly women – walked out and prevented deliveries by strike-breaking lorry drivers. Similarly, some oil refinery workers came out to support tanker drivers.
They were a gift to that minority of trade unionists who were motivated not by the interests of the workers but by political ideology. The most recognisable manifestation to the general public of these extremists was the flying picket, someone with no connection to a particular place of work but who would be drafted in from elsewhere to intimidate any workers who sought to cross a picket line. The one weapon at the management’s disposal, if it felt the unions were being entirely unreasonable, was the lockout, in which they would stop workers coming in until they began to be starved into submission and were prepared to resume negotiations. As the new generation of strikers is finding, you don’t get paid and can’t draw benefits.
This is a problem for today’s strikers. This is partly a middle-class observance of the rules, partly that workers with a professional ethos have their consciences pricked by the thought of causing undue suffering to the public, and partly because of the cost of striking. But there is another key difference between now and the prehistoric era, exemplified by the train strikes. There is now a work-from-home culture that has prevented many businesses from grinding to a halt. It is not just the scope of trade unionism and union law that has changed since the 1970s: the world has, technology has, and attitudes have.
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Source: The Telegraph