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Britain’s new winter of discontent

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Parallels between today’s UK strikes and the 1978-79 “winter of discontent” can be overdone. Nurses, ambulance workers, tube staff, railway workers, postal staff, driving examiners and border officials are all staging walkouts. But the 1mn working days set to be lost to strikes this month are a fraction of the record 11.7mn in September 1979. UK unions long ago lost the power to shut down industry.

But today’s strikes are still causing disruption and harming an economy still convalescing post-Covid. The unrest has been catalysed by a cost of living shock following a decade of austerity under Conservative governments that has eaten away at real public sector pay, creating hardship and making it difficult to fill some essential jobs. Strike action is being driven less by 1970s-style union militancy — though that is still a factor — than by workers deciding they’ve had enough.

The government is now constrained by a vicious squeeze on public finances and a need to avoid entrenching inflation. It cannot cave in to unions’ headline demands. Yet toughing it out and hoping the public mood turns against the strikers is not a sustainable strategy. Especially in a tight labour market, it is unlikely people can be made to do vital jobs if the terms are intolerable. Beyond nurses’ decision to strike for the first time ever, the 47,000 unfilled nursing vacancies are a powerful market signal.

Downing Street is talking of “tough” new laws to curb essential workers’ ability to strike. Unions should not be deprived of the right to collective action but the government should have a right to limit the spillover damage. It should accelerate its bill providing for transport employers and unions, as in some EU countries, to negotiate minimum service levels — ensuring some trains or buses still run on strike days — and extend it to other key sectors.

Such measures will come too late to affect today’s strikes. The disputes will be defused only through compromise and creativity on both sides. The government should treat each pay deal on merit, identifying which occupations face the most acute recruitment and retention problems and doing the most to improve their terms. Though pay review bodies — which recommend public-sector pay awards — are supposed to weigh such factors, they operate within parameters set by government. The approach to settlements must differentiate between cases of real pay unfairness, and unions trying to protect outdated practices.

Unions, for their part, must recognise that it is unrealistic to correct years of lagging pay in one go when families across the land face spiralling bills, due in part to war in Europe. Getting employees back to work, and attracting new ones, will require a visible path to reasonable pay over the medium term.

At one end of the spectrum is the strike by rail workers. There may be some scope to improve the latest 8 per cent two-year pay offer, but the Rail, Maritime and Transport union needs to make concessions on productivity that will, sadly, entail job losses. At the other end are health workers and nurses. The nursing union’s demand for a pay rise 5 per cent above inflation is unrealistic and unaffordable. But the negotiating gap could be narrowed by pledges to improve conditions, from ensuring nurses never have to pay for hospital parking to helping with student debt and building affordable homes for them.

Workers striking around Christmas will not endear themselves to the public. But this new winter of protest will not be fixed by a government anti-union campaign, and nor will the Conservatives’ position be improved. Ensuring Britain has enough people ready to work as nurses and teachers should be seen as what it is: a challenge for policy.

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