Britain is facing a winter of strikes, as industrial action on the railways spreads to the health service and other key sectors of the economy. Such is the wave of discontent that more than 1m working days could be lost to disputes in December, the most since 1989, during Margaret Thatcher’s final years in power.
With inflation at the highest rate in 41 years amid the cost of living crisis, it’s not difficult to see why workers are pushing for better pay. Coming after the worst decade for average wage growth since the Napoleonic wars, including deep real-terms pay cuts for many in the public sector, it’s even less surprising still.
It is against this backdrop that Rishi Sunak’s government is looking at options for cracking down on striking workers. However, it’s a high-risk strategy that could come to define the prime minister’s approach to working people, at a time when there is generally widespread public support for those on strike.
Despite this, for all the headlines, Britain is not facing a carbon-copy of the 1979 winter of discontent, which contributed to the downfall of James Callaghan’s Labour government.
Strike action has so far been confined to pockets of the economy, and the public sector in particular. This largely reflects a halving of union membership from a peak of more than 13m in the decade of flared trousers and the Ford Capri, coming after years of tougher legislation to curb union power.
It might feel as though strikes are widespread this winter, with the public sector struggling to cope, but it is unlikely that Britain will experience anything of the scale of the 1970s for this reason. So far this year there have been 741,000 working days lost. With another 1m lost days possible in December, the scale of industrial action is substantial. However, it pales in comparison with the postwar high in September 1979 when more than 12m days were lost. That in turn was also a blip compared with 1926, when 162m were lost throughout the year of the general strike.
Membership of a union in the hospitality trade, IT sector and among office workers and estate agents is below 10%. However, it is higher among women, partly reflecting gender splits in areas of the economy where unionisation remains higher – such as in education and healthcare. Union leaders reckon this could make it tougher for the prime minister to paint striking workers as militants reminiscent of the 1970s.
The economic context could also make the government’s task of facing down trade union demands tougher.
As the energy shock from Russia’s war in Ukraine drives inflation above 11%, the highest rate in 41 years, British households are expected to face the biggest hit to their incomes since records began in 1956. Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts suggest eight years of progress will be wiped out, effectively returning living standards to 2013 levels. It is a crisis of pay failing to keep up for the majority of people, rather than a few unionised workers.
On top of this, public sector workers are bearing the brunt. Official figures show wage growth has fallen behind the private sector by the greatest degree on record, with pay growth of just 2.2% – significantly below 6.6% in the private sector, and inflation in double digits.
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For Sunak it will be tough to argue that a crackdown on workers’ rights, rather than higher wages, might help bring down record NHS waiting lists and ambulance waiting times, or help to meet the Conservative manifesto pledge to hire thousands more nurses, teachers and police.
In the NHS in England alone vacancies are at a record high of more than 133,000, while anecdotal evidence suggests some care workers have swapped their jobs for higher pay in an Amazon warehouse.
The government has sought to argue that bigger pay rises are unaffordable, with public borrowing close to postwar highs, historically high levels of national debt and warnings that putting more money in workers’ pockets risks stoking persistent inflationary pressures.
Though alive to these risks, many economists are doubtful, pointing instead to the contribution of soaring energy costs and food rather than workers’ pay. This includes the Bank of England rate-setter Swati Dhingra, who said Britain is far from seeing a “wage-price spiral”, whereby workers demanding higher pay leads companies to put up their prices.
Unlike during the 1970s, industrial action today is a response to higher inflation, rather than a driver of it.