Gregor Gall: Winter of discontent in sight

National Union of Public Employees members march up Lothian Road in Edinburgh in January 1979. Picture: Jack Crombie
National Union of Public Employees members march up Lothian Road in Edinburgh in January 1979. Picture: Jack Crombie
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Firefighters’ industrial action could be the start of a real headache for both Labour and the coalition, writes Gregor Gall

The firefighters’ strike against revisions to their pensions may prove to be the beginning of an “autumn” or “winter of discontent” which will affect not just the current coalition government but politics in Britain in general.

The last time firefighters went on strike nationally was a decade ago and over pay. For them, the strike was not a great success and led to their general secretary being replaced by a critic. This time round, the then critic and now current general secretary of the Fire Brigades’ Union, Matt Wrack, is playing a more canny game and on more certain ground.

Then, by the middle of next month, the CWU communications union will announce what has long been seen as inevitable – the vote for both strikes and industrial action short of striking (a boycott of competitors’ mail) at Royal Mail.

This is a thoroughly modern but militant action. Ostensibly, the dispute is over pay and protections for future terms and conditions of employment under privatisation. But it is also about torpedoing the privatisation itself.

By creating such industrial relations instability, the CWU knows – like before in 2009 when it did this successfully – that investors abhor doubt and uncertainty. So far, the tactic is working and will strengthen further upon the outcome of the ballot and the taking of the action itself. It is highly unlikely that Royal Mail management will try to buy off CWU opposition by increasing the 8.6 per cent over three years pay rise.

And before the summer, the NASUWT and NUT teacher unions began a series of regional strikes over pay, pensions and working conditions. These will move up a gear as further regions take part, culminating in a one-day national strike before the end of the year.

Like Scotland in regard of the firefighters’ action, teachers in Wales will not be taking part at this stage because the devolved government there has agreed to meaningful talks. It is as yet unclear whether the main teachers’ union in Scotland, the EIS, will accept a two-year pay deal of 1 per cent followed by another 1 per cent.

Notwithstanding this, the PCS civil servants’ union is likely to re-enter the fray as it has existing mandates for strikes and industrial action over pay, pensions and working conditions too. It took various forms of action before the summer but has taken a pause in order to wait for some other unions to catch it up.

In universities, there is the prospect of a “porters to professors” strike as all the three main higher education unions (UCU, Unison and Unite) are balloting on strike, and industrial action after rejecting a 1 per cent pay offer. As with many other public sector workers, the real value of their pay has fallen by 13 per cent since 2009.

Absent from this catalogue are the local government workers in Scotland, England and Wales. In Scotland, a vote for strike action against a 1 per cent pay rise was lost by the smallest of margins a few months ago. In England and Wales, the fight never even got that far, despite Unison’s leader, Dave Prentis, promising to “smash” the effective pay freeze this year.

If all these actions come together – especially in the form of co-ordination strikes – then there will be something of a headache for David Cameron and the coalition. But much will depend upon the response of Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Labour.

Striking public sector workers expect support from Labour – or certainly not to be condemned by it. This has not been the case since Miliband became Labour leader in 2010, as the two million public sector strikers on 30 November, 2011, found in their action against pension reform.

Yet, as the tempo of the campaign for the May 2015 Westminster general election picks up, it may be that Miliband will depart from the script. The cutting edge of his “one nation” ideology is that the working “middle” is being squeezed and it is only the rich that are benefiting from the current economic growth. Hence, he may be more predisposed – because of this and in the run-up to the election – to genuflect in the direction of the public servants.

Yet, against this he and Balls have made clear that they will stick to most of the coalition’s spending cuts and that many cuts will not be reversed. Quite where this leaves Labour’s ability to meaningfully support the public servants is anyone’s guess – especially when the party will be pressed by the Tories and the unions to explain where and when the money will come from to make good on their genuflection.

To foresee that it is Labour that will be caused more problems by an “autumn” or “winter of discontent” is not merely to remember the winter of 1978-79 that helped usher in Margaret Thatcher. Given the shedding of the “cuddly” image by the Conservatives, and with Ukip causing the party problems in its own backyard, Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne will look upon any public sector strikes as another occasion to attack Labour, the unions and their relationship. To boot, they’ll all be accused of putting the recovery in danger as well.

The key variable in all this is the electorate. If public sector workers are seen as being unnecessarily harshly treated and if private sector workers start to contest their deflated wages – as there are some signs of at the moment – so that some common cause can be made, then the Tory attacks will not have their normal purchase. It could even backfire against the Tories, confirming popular discontent with their millionaire, posh boy status.

This again puts the spotlight back on Labour. What is it prepared to do to either create this backlash or at least vent this discontent? Pressure from the big unions like Unite, Unison and the GMB will be vital to persuading Miliband that there is mileage in doing so. The problem is he will be continuing to clash with them over his reform of the party-union link at the very time they could be making hay together.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford