Trade unions are back in the news with a vengeance. Liz Truss used her acrimonious BBC Tory leadership debate with Rishi Sunak to announce she wants to curb the ability of trade unions to take strike action in key sectors of the economy like teaching, the postal service and energy.
Her announcement got front-page treatment in the Daily Mail the next day: TRUSS VOW TO CURB MILITANT UNIONS. The paper has been her enthusiastic supporter from the start of the leadership race and is deeply hostile to trade unions, so no surprise there.
Government moves against workers’ rights
Back in June, during the three days of strikes by the RMT, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced plans to introduce legislation to make it legal for employers to bring in agency staff to replace striking workers. This was done without consultation with the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, which represents the recruitment industry. The organisation’s head Neil Carberry said many large recruitment companies had signed up to a global commitment not to replace striking workers and that agency workers would not choose ‘to cross a picket line’ because they could find work elsewhere.
The controversial change came into force on 21 July and a day later the public service union UNISON announced it would challenge the legality of the government’s action. The union has written to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng about its intention to seek a judicial review of the new regulations, which it believes are unlawful. The secretary of state now has 14 days to respond, otherwise the union says it will take the government to the High Court to try to get the measure overturned.
Sympathy for workers
UNISON general secretary Christina McAneasaid:
“Ministers have been spooked by the sympathy people are showing for workers fighting for fair wages. The government’s cynical solution is to ride a coach and horses through employment law, risking the safety of staff and the public by parachuting in agency workers who won’t know the ropes.”
The attacks on trade unionism are not accidental. With inflation now reducing the value of every pound by 9% a year, it is no surprise to see unions representing transport workers, refuse collectors, teachers and telecom engineers, among others, begin to ballot their members to strike for higher pay.
There is a clear, synchronised pattern of collusion between government ministers and the right-wing press. Tory ministers believe they have a strategy to deflect attention from their own abysmal failings over inflation, rocketing energy costs and soaring food prices. It is to replay the Thatcherite narrative of the 1970s and 1980s, blaming the unions for economic disorder. Specifically, there is a crude attempt to amplify the images and stories Margaret Thatcher and the right-wing press deployed during and after the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978–79.
Bring back the 1970s?
The only problem with this strategy is that the 1970s do not seem all that bad compared with the fractured, unequal state of Britain today. Also, the chaos we are witnessing – long queues of lorries and cars at Dover, people unable to get passports in time for holidays, long waits in A&E – is not down to trade union militancy but the government’s own ineptitude and failings. And, of course, no one can point to ‘greedy trade unions’ winning ‘excessive wage demands’ being the cause of inflation even though the Bank of England governor Michael Bailey on £575,000 a year wants workers to bear the brunt of inflation.
Alan Mardghum, secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association, told the crowd at this year’s Big Meeting:
“I remember the 1970s. I didn’t have to wait to see a doctor. I’d see a dentist if I needed one. Get an ambulance without having to wait eight or nine or ten hours. Students were leaving university without debt and people could afford housing … Well, I say bring back the ’70s!”
UK economy now in dire straits
There’s another important point about the 1970s. At a time when the trade union movement was at its strongest, income inequality was at its narrowest.
The UK economy is in dire straits and an important new report Stagnation Nation from the Resolution Foundation dramatically highlights this. Take this disturbing fact: in the UK, real wages grew by an average of 33% a decade from 1970 to 2007, but fell to below zero in the 2010s. The report points out, “Average wages simply stopped increasing, one of the strangest and most socially corrosive developments in the history of British capitalism”. The result is that by 2018, typical household incomes were 16% lower in the UK than in Germany and 9% lower than in France.
The report describes a “toxic combination” of low economic growth and high income inequality which, unless remedied, will be a “disaster for low-to-middle income Britain and the young in particular”.
Influence of the right-wing press
However, one thing hasn’t changed since the 1970s. An overwhelmingly partisan right-wing press emerged in that decade. Rupert Murdoch acquired The Sun in 1969; Victor Matthews, a committed Thatcherite acquired Express Newspapers in 1977, and Daily Mail editor David English was knighted just after the 1979 election for his ‘services to journalism’.
When the Labour government’s voluntary incomes policy collapsed in January 1979 with a series of strikes by low-paid workers, the result was apocalyptic headlines. The Sun predicted a ‘Famine Threat’ and that people would die though the closure of hospital wards. Derek Jameson, then editor of the Daily Express, recalled, “We pulled every dirty trick in the book; we made it look like it was general, universal and eternal when it was in reality scattered, here and there, and no great problem”.
The so-called Winter of Discontent was a crisis created by the media, not a real one, but the lurid stories were used by Thatcher to spin an anti-trade union narrative with great effect. It also prompted the TUC to take the unusual step and produce a booklet A Cause for Concern in June 1979 analysing media coverage in January and February 1979. It observed, “For two months, trade unions and trade unionists were subjected to an unending series of attacks and abuses which exceeded the experiences and expectations of even the most seasoned media watchers”.
Vicious union bashing by the very same newspapers is happening again now. It makes our MediaNorth meeting on Trade Unions and the Media timely. It’s being held at the South Yorkshire Festival, Wortey Hall, on Sunday 14 August at 3.00pm with two expert speakers: former BBC Industrial Correspondent Nick Jones and Sarah Woolley, General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union. Further details here.
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