There has been a significant decline in union-led strikes in 21st century Britain. But with average public sector compensation up 1.5% between March and May 2022 (compared to 7.2% in the private sector) and households facing a cost of living crisis, labor disputes are picking up again. rising in the UK.
Strikes have already resumed in recent months, especially among railway workers. Now unions in other sectors, including airlines, port workers and exam correctors, are asking their members to vote on whether or not to follow suit. Unions are legally required to hold a ballot for members to approve industrial action.
Workers who vote for could look to history to learn how to make a strike work. Some of the most successful campaigns by British trade unions took place in the 1970s. Union membership had peaked at 13.2 million in 1979, after years of steady growth. Crucially, these unions have also faced weak governments and strong public support for striking workers.
On the other hand, many of Britain’s most famous national strikes are somewhat notorious for their failure. And even victories have often been followed by greater restrictions on unions.
The successful strikes of the 1970s
In 1970, Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath secured a 30-seat parliamentary majority, but his government was plagued by problems with unemployment and inflation. In this environment, British coal miners went on strike for the first time in nearly 50 years in 1972. Polls showed 55% of the public backing miners’ wage demands and the strike ended after the publication of a government inquiry that recommended a 27% strike. salary increase.
But the action resumed in 1974 when wages did not reach this level. This resulted in a three-day week in Britain, with electricity to business premises rationed as strike activity affected fuel supplies. The Conservative government called a general election and Labor became the largest party in a hung parliament in February 1974. The miners won a 35% pay rise under the new government.
By the end of the 1970s, the large union membership strengthened their bargaining power, especially in the face of the fragile government of the time. (The narrow parliamentary majority that Labor had won in October 1974 was gone by 1976.)
But to combat economic hardship – just as Britain is experiencing high levels of inflation today – the Labor government introduced a social contract to minimize wage increases. The labor movement backed this deal until 1978, when then-Prime Minister James Callaghan tried to introduce a new set of restrictions with a 5% wage cap.
Following the Ford factory strikes of August 1978, which won a 16.5% wage increase for its workers, public sector workers went on strike in January 1979 in various industries in what became the winter of discontent. A total of 4.6 million workers took part in the strikes of 1978-79.
Callaghan’s attempts to maintain the salary cap ultimately failed, but could have worked with a more stable parliamentary majority, especially since 84% of people thought the unions were too powerful at that time.
The results of the winter of discontent were mixed. Many sectors received wage increases, but the action encouraged a public backlash against the unions. In March 1979, Callaghan’s government lost a no-confidence measure by one vote, clearing the way for the May 1979 general election. Margaret Thatcher’s subsequent victory saw significant restrictions imposed on union activity, including limitations on picketing, a ban on sympathy strikes, an end to the closed shop and a requirement for secret ballots for all unions .
Strong governments and less public support
In contrast, several well-known strikes carried out against strong and well-prepared governments, and despite little public support for the strikers, ultimately failed.
For example, Britain’s first – and so far only – general strike nearly 100 years ago saw up to 1.75 million workers in various industries strike against pay cuts for minors. The government at the time enjoyed public support, had a parliamentary majority of 209 and was prepared with alternative transport networks and volunteers to maintain services.
The Trades Union Congress called off the strike after 9 days without major concessions being given to the miners. Indeed, the main impact of the strike was a repression of trade union activity by the government. The Trades Dispute Act of 1927 prohibits general strikes, sympathy strikes and large-scale picketing.
Another well-known miners’ strike in 1984 took place under equally difficult conditions for the unions. After refusing a 5.2% wage increase in 1983 and fearing mine closures, the National Union of Miners called a strike without a vote in March 1984.
At its peak, 142,000 miners walked out, but all returned to work after a year without an agreement. At that time, the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher had won re-election by landslide in 1983, while opinion polls in 1984 indicated public sympathy was with employers.
The most recent large-scale action taken by the unions occurred during a period of similar political stability. Public sector strikes staged in 2011 in response to pension reforms involved up to 2 million workers, according to unions, and resulted in the closure of 60% of schools and the cancellation of 6,000 hospital operations. But this has not led to large-scale changes in public sector pensions and done little to stop austerity cuts in the public sector.
David Cameron’s Conservative Party had formed a stable coalition government with the Liberal Democrats a year earlier. The public also disapproved of industrial action by teachers and civil servants, even as they opposed government changes to public sector pensions that had led to the strike.
The Conservatives cracked down on such strike activity after winning the 2015 general election. The Trade Unions Act 2016 introduced a 50% turnout requirement for strike action, as well as a 40% support threshold among all workers in major utility industries.
For the strikes underway today to have a chance of success, unions must carefully balance industrial action with bargaining in order to maintain public support. And the government must seriously engage in public sector wage demands, especially during the cost of living crisis, to avoid another drop in political opinion polls.