Thursday, 17 May 2012

The myths surrounding industrial action and public opinion

 Here are some points about "union power" and "winter of discontent" that seldom get made:

* Unions that are "too powerful" would never need to strike.  A period of lots of strikes is an indication of workers having hard times.  The media prefer to describe "union militancy".

* The media succeeded in convincing the public that unions were "too powerful" and so needed to be curbed.  Millions of people still believe this.  It was never true.  It was true that the public were fed up with the inconvenience of strikes and wanted something to be done. This was ruthlessly exploited by the Right, and continues to be milked for all it's worth to this day.

* Yes, there were masses and masses of strikes in 1979. They were very much a symptom of the economic crises of the times.  They were never the cause!  The media very cleverly painted unions as the "british disease" - the cause of economic woes.   At that time, politicians wrongly believed that collective bargaining caused inflation. Now "wage inflation" is never mentioned and is discredited by economists.  Unions in 1979 did not cause hyper-inflation or stagflation, but did respond to those desperate economic circumstances to protect people.

* The strikes were the fault of the then Labour government.  Labour put in a pay increase cap of 5% at a time when inflation was wild and out of control, sometimes as high as 29%    So yes, one group of grave diggers in one city went on strike - something that makes people feel sick. But what were they to do?  Many were struggling to feed their children.  It was Labour's incomes policy - and that alone, that caused the strikes - strikes that usually featured workers who had never taken action before.  Labour's incomes policy was a well intentioned attempt to get inflation down, but it was so unrealistic it made tens of thousands of people feel compelled to go and stand at the gates of their workplace.   Despite the reported chaos, of 14.5 million union members in 1979, more than 13 million of them took no industrial action that year whatsoever.

* It was astute and ideological of the Tories to blame the Unions.  They knew the mess - and it was a mess -
was Labour's fault. Labour had no political option but to also blame the unions.   Yes there were too many strikes.  But mostly it was weak workers whose pay was getting hammered that took a stand.   Cheered on by a poorly informed, massively manipulated public, workers rights and unions were systematically hammered by successive Tory governments.

* New Labour decided it was pointless trying to convince the public they were wrong about unions. The public had made up it's mind, so go with the script and keep all the anti-union laws.  That way less chance of negative headlines in the Tory press.

* The effects of all the Tory laws are trumpeted by the media as a triumph.  Strike action is massively reduced.  What doesn't get mentioned is that the graph above is very similar in other countries, eg Ireland, despite the fact that union laws remain largely unchanged in those countries.  In other words, the number of strikes was always going to reduce massively as the economic outlook improved.

The main effect of the Tory laws has not been to reduce conflict.  What is has done is massively reduce people's ability to resist profound cuts in occupational pensions, sickness pay, job security and many other important things.  Exploitation is rife again across the private sector. Insecure work is becoming the norm, placing huge strain upon family life.  UK union laws are so bad they breach our minimum treaty obligations under the ILO - just another fact that doesn't get printed in our press

The public have been wrong - dangerously wrong, about unions and union power.  It's time that more of us came out and said so.

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