A winter of discontent?
'But have we seen a resurgence of the trade unions?'
Oliver Hansen | 28 March 2017

Strikes were once the norm in British life. The unions, raging unchecked through the 1970s and early 1980s, played a significant role in shaping the UK at that time. Strong trade unions fought hard to protect their members, demanding wage increases, the safeguarding of jobs, and industrial action on a scale not seen since.


But have we seen a resurgence of the trade unions? Christmas in 2016 has been marred by a series of strikes; from Southern Rail, the threatened BA flight strikes, the Argos warehouse and Post Office strikes. Indeed, these strikes were planned to hit especially hard, being timed all around Christmas where they would expect to hit consumers - and thus firms - as hard as possible. Some have even gone so far as to draw a parallel with the 1978-79 winter of discontent, but is this a reasonable assumption?


Well, there is a clear distinction to be drawn. Back then, the trade unions were far more powerful, both financially and politically. Previously, union strikes had brought down governments. But now, union membership is at a great low - in 2015, there were approximately 6.5 million members; in 1979, at its peak, there were 13 million members. The reduced income from membership fees alongside their reduced political influence from lower membership has meant that the unions now have much less ability to influence the course of events.


As well as this, post-Thatcher there have been some severe legal reforms. Nowadays, impromptu strikes are hardly possible for several reasons, including the illegalisation of ‘closed shops’, where only union members can work; the much-reduced conditions required in order to fire workers; and perhaps most importantly, the breakdown of unions’ power in their ability to negotiate wages or even represent workers. Yet that is not to undermine the fact that strikes have still caused significant problems in Britain.


For a start, many believe there are clear issues with Theresa May’s government. She is an unelected Prime Minister, with clear dissent in the ranks between her hardline and softer eurosceptics. She leads with a small majority, with some of the electorate left angry in one of the most divisive times in recent memory. She has to walk a tightrope with the unions - too fervent a disapproval could alienate workers, a demographic she has appealed to, and yet her supporters among big business would undoubtedly want a clampdown. Many other everyday voters simply want an end to all this disruption.


But what are the economic implications of another ‘winter of discontent’? The last time, it brought down a government, though this is unlikely to happen now. What it could do, however, is to heighten concern over uncertainty. The economic impacts of that are hard to quantify, but it is undoubtedly unhelpful for the economy. It is highly likely to deter foreign direct investment, adversely affecting GDP; in addition to this, if an election were to be called soon, there would be a radical economic shift if voters were to elect either the Liberal Democrats or Labour - something that would cause either a decisively pro-European or pro-Socialist shift in the government’s actions, and there is little that we can do in order to predict what would happen. But, to be sure, it would mark a sea change.


Original Illustration by Alex Nutman

James Routledge 2016