Is now the Spring of our discontent?
“We are facing a spring of discontent as yet another union flex their muscles and threaten to walk out.”
Eric Pickles, Conservative Party Chairman, March 2010
“Britain now faces Labour’s spring of discontent with militant unions threatening to bring our railways to a standstill as well. Strike action could leave the country facing a serious transport meltdown.”
Theresa Villiers, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, March 2010
“There’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.”
William James, quite a while ago
Its hard to turn on the TV or radio, or pick up a newspaper these days without a politician or commentator making dire warnings about Britain sliding inexorably into a ‘Spring of Discontent’. Library footage of side-burned pickets, flares and braziers is wheeled out to illustrate that Britain is indeed heading for industrial meltdown.
But beneath the hyperbole, what is the real state of industrial relations in Britain today? Well, for a start, its undoubtedly true that there a number of key, high profile disputes underway in the likes of BA, Network Rail and the civil service. I’ll say a little bit more later on about why we might have seen such a flurry of industrial action recently – but the bald fact of the matter is that no matter how high profile these disputes are, we are a long way away from a ‘Spring of Discontent’. Larry Elliot at the Guardian nails this fact quite nicely here.
The graphs below – based on figures pulled together by John Forth at the NIESR – illustrate this fact quite clearly. The first shows the number of days lost to strike action between 1975 and 2009. At the height of the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’, nearly 30m days were lost to strikes. In 2009, the year in which we saw a national Postal dispute, this figure was less than 0.5m. As anyone who works at the TUC could tell you, I am not a statistician, but even I feel safe in suggesting that 1979 and 2009 look very, very different.
The second graph shows the actual number of stoppages resulting from strike action between 1975-and 2009. There’s a pretty clear trend in this graph, and its not one that suggests that industrial action is becoming the choice of ‘first resort’ for unions or their members.
So what conclusions can we draw from these figures?I think there are 3 key points we can draw out. First of all, that far from entering a new ‘Spring of Discontent’, the figures suggest that levels of industrial action are at near-historical lows. The reasons for this vary. In some cases it will be because employers and unions are able to resolve their differences without unions having to resort to industrial action. In some cases workers will be worried about their employer’s reaction to industrial action and will have taken the decision to keep their heads below the parapet – a sad indictment of how much the legal balance in industrial disputes has tipped toward the employer. In some cases it will be because union members always see strike action as a last resort, and that this is even more the case when the economy is so fragile and people are worried and insecure at work. But whatever the reason, claims that Britain has gone strike-crazy are well-off the mark.
My second point is that within an overall picture of low levels of industrial action, there are clearly some real flash-points in the system, as illustrated by BA et al. Why should this be the case? While its important to recognise that each of the current headline disputes are driven by very different factors I would suggest the common issue underpinning each of these disputes relates to job cuts (actual or planned). At a time when 2.5m people are on the dole and unemployment looks set to rise, is it any wonder that workers and their unions are worried about potential changes to redundancy arrangements or plans to bring in new starters on lower rates of pay or inferior terms and conditions?
My final point would be that its no surprise that segments of the media and right-wing politicians are singing from the same ‘Spring of Discontent’ hymn sheet. With an election just weeks away, it clearly fits some political agendas to talk up the prospect of industrial unrest rather than to encourage fair, negotiated settlements. Encouraging workers to cross picket lines may help garner headlines, but it makes a mockery of industrial democracy (as Keith Ewing has pointed out, imagine the reaction if unions encouraged members to strike even if they lost a ballot for industrial action), and risks making a settlement more difficult.
My final, final point is that surely there must come a point when even the Daily Mail tires of trotting out the ‘Winter/Autumn/Spring/Summer/lunar equinox of discontent’ headlines? Last year I forecast there wouldn’t be a ‘Summer of Discontent’ – no astonishing Mystic Meg foresight at work unfortunately, just a straight reading of the facts that one strike does not a summer make!