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The International Writers Magazine:Politics UK

The British & the Unions
• Tom Kilcourse


The removal of Michael Gove from his education job, and the cheers from the teachers’ unions in response, indicates that nothing has been learned by British governments about handling trade unions. The contrasting response to union activists of two Prime Ministers, Cameron and Thatcher, draws attention to Britain’s schizophrenic attitude to trade unions. Thatcher smashed the National Union of Mineworkers, while Cameron has genuflected to the wishes of the National Union of Teachers. Both acted for electoral advantage, and both acted cynically. No doubt, Cameron will be criticised for weakness, while Thatcher will continue to be admired for her strength.

There is little doubt that Thatcher was decisive and ruthless in her handling of the NUM, but if she were to be judged on that confrontation alone, her reputation for toughness would be ill deserved. Rather we should recognise her shrewdness and cynicism. She, and her advisers, chose their opponent well. An industrial union already in decline, confined to an industry also destined to shrink. Furthermore, that union was led by an unpopular egotist who could be guaranteed to rise to the bait and lead his members over the cliff.  As someone who has worked down the pit I believed, when Scargill was first elected, that the miners would be too wise to follow him into the abyss. I was wrong, though some Nottinghamshire miners did defy Scargill, the rest went like sheep to the slaughter. Thatcher was a better judge than I.

So, was the ‘Iron Lady’ showing her mettle when she stuffed the miners? Yes, she was, but it was not of a quality that would justify her nom de guerre. In tackling the NUM she was choosing to ignore another union in an industry of much greater importance to Britain’s future than coal: coincidentally, the same union that Cameron has also backed off from, the National Union of Teachers. Education is unquestionably more important to the country than almost any other industry one can think of, yet Thatcher failed to tackle its unions, and Cameron has removed the man who was prepared to take them on.

When Thatcher came to power in 1979 the country was swamped in anti-union rhetoric and mythology. Britain was the ‘sick man of Europe’, we were told, suffering the worst industrial relations in the developed world. Sadly, some unions appeared eager to provide the right-wing press with attention grabbing headlines that presented us with images of ‘unburied dead’ and worse. Armageddon approached we believed, and so the stage for ‘Maggie’ was set to play the role of the nation’s saviour, and Scargill provided the perfect pantomime villain, and it was a pantomime.

Let us look at some inconvenient figures. The image that some presented of miners ready to strike at the drop of a hat does not quite fit with the industry’s industrial relations record. Before the strike of 1984-5 that made Thatcher so popular, there had been a decade of peace in the industry. Miners went on strike twice in the seventies, 1972 and 1974, the first time they had come out since the general strike of 1926.

So, if the miners were not as bad as the press liked to paint them, what about other industries? How sick was the ‘sick man of Europe’?  Again, the figures barely justify the headlines. Let us look at the period immediately before Thatcher came to power.

Comparing strike days per 1,000 workers 1969-’78 in different countries we find:

Italy 1,625    Canada 927   Ireland 731    Australia 638    USA 533   UK 472     NZ 293    Belgium 255   France 205     Japan 133    W. Germany 53      Netherlands 36

If we look at the average number of strikes annually over the same period we find:

USA 5,348         Italy 3,935         France 3,479           UK 2,701         Japan 2,694         Australia 2,364

So, the situation in America, on both measures was worse than in Britain. According to the second set of figures Britain was only marginally worse than Japan, considered at the time to be the new ‘workshop of the world’.

Following that period, in the year that Thatcher was elected, 1979, Britain’s strike days per thousand (1,276) were exceeded by Ireland (1,752), Italy (1,602) and Spain (1,598). So, if Britain was the ‘sick man of Europe, there were others with a better claim to the title. In 1981, three years before the clash with the miners, Britain’s strike record in days lost per thousand workers (197) was better than Denmark (315), Finland (294), Ireland 509), Italy (589) and Spain (472). So what was the press on about?

Well, the British press had a track record of playing Cassandra. In a slightly earlier period, another label appeared in our newspapers: ‘The British Disease’. So, let us look at some British figures that were supposed to merit that description in the late sixties and early seventies. Between 1966 and 1973 98% of manufacturing plants were strike free.  Yes, 98% is not a typo. Furthermore, the same nine unions were involved in 90% of all stoppages, a quarter of which were confined to the same five industries. The unions were hammered in a press that rarely mentioned management’s contribution to industrial conflict.

These are official figures, but when published in the past they have been quietly ignored because they do not support the myths. It is much easier and more comfortable to see trade unions as the principal cause of Britain’s woes. They make wonderful hate figures that distract attention from other roots to our difficulties. Of course, strikes often impact directly on the public, so it is understandable that people get upset when they are personally inconvenienced. Consequently, any politician looking for a cheap point has a ready target, even when their suggestion would be seen as unacceptable in any other context. It has been suggested, for example, that strikes be outlawed if they are not supported in a ballot by a majority of the union’s membership, not simply by a majority of those voting. If such a rule applied to the election of politicians, nationally or locally, many of our political chambers would be much emptier than they are.

Yet, for all the rhetoric and angst, the British attitude to trade unions remains confused. While we rant against the industrial unions we pretty well ignore unions that are far more powerful than the blue collar lot, and powerful in places considerably more important to our welfare than the London underground. They may not go on strike, but their grip on power renders striking unnecessary. They wander the corridors of power, or represent those people that do, yet are rarely mentioned in the press.

The actions of these unions may not impact on our lives in any way that we notice, though those of one union certainly do. The great majority of people depend on the NHS for their care, and many find the organisation lacking, yet when criticising NHS inadequacies the power and vested interests of the British Medical Association is never mentioned. The BMA has power over the employer that an industrial union could only dream of. People may lose a day’s pay because transport workers strike, but they could lose their lives when the BMA resists reform.
© Tom Kilcourse July 2014

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