TRADE UNIONS are back in the news with a vengeance. Liz Truss used her acrimonious BBC Tory leadership debate with Rishi Sunak to announce she wants to curb the ability of trade unions to take strike action in key sectors of the economy like teaching, the postal service and energy.
Back in June, during the three days of strikes by the RMT, transport secretary Grant Shapps announced plans to introduce legislation to make it legal for employers to bring in agency staff to replace striking workers.
The controversial change came into force on July 21 and a day later the public service union Unison announced it would challenge the legality of the government’s action.
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Ministers have been spooked by the sympathy people are showing for workers fighting for fair wages. The government’s cynical solution is to ride a coach and horses through employment law, risking the safety of staff and the public by parachuting in workers agency who won’t know the ropes.”
These attacks on trade unionism are not accidental.
There is an open, synchronised pattern of collusion between government ministers and the right-wing press. Tory ministers believe they have a strategy to deflect attention from their own abysmal failings over inflation, rocketing energy costs and soaring food prices. It is an attempt to replay the Thatcherite narrative of the 1970s, blaming the unions for economic disorder.
Specifically, there is a crude attempt to amplify the images and stories Thatcher and the right-wing press deployed during and after the “winter of discontent” of 1978-79.
The only problem with this strategy is that the 1970s do not seem all that bad compared with the fractured, unequal state of Britain today.
Also, the chaos we are witnessing — queues of lorries and cars at Dover, flight cancellations and long delays at airports, people unable to get passports in time for holidays, long waits in A&E — are not down to trade union militancy but the government’s own ineptitude and failings.
And, of course, no-one can point to “greedy trade unions” winning “excessive wage demands” being the cause of inflation even though the Bank of England governor Michael Bailey on £575,000 a year wants workers to bear the brunt of inflation.
Alan Mardghum, secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association, told the crowd at this year’s Big Meeting: “I remember the 1970s. I didn’t have to wait to see a doctor. I’d see a dentist if I needed one. Get an ambulance without having to wait eight or nine or 10 hours. Students were leaving university without debt and people could afford housing… Well, I say bring back the 1970s!”
There’s another important point about the 1970s. At a time when the trade union movement was at its strongest, income inequality was at its narrowest.
The economy is now in dire straits, as an important new report, Stagnation Nation, from the Resolution Foundation dramatically highlights.
In Britain real wages grew by an average of 33 per cent a decade from 1970 to 2007, but fell to below zero in the 2010s. The report points out, “Average wages simply stopped increasing, one of the strangest and most socially corrosive developments in the history of British capitalism.”
The result is that by 2018 typical household incomes were 16 per cent lower in Britain than in Germany and nine per cent lower than in France.
It describes a “toxic combination” of low economic growth and high-income inequality which, unless remedied, will be a “disaster for low to middle income Britain and the young in particular.”
However, one thing hasn’t changed since the 1970s. An overwhelmingly partisan right-wing press emerged in that decade, and is still with us. Rupert Murdoch acquired the Sun in 1969 and its editor Larry Lamb held regular meetings with Margaret Thatcher at her Chelsea home.
Victor Matthews, a committed Thatcherite, acquired Express Newspapers in 1977 and Daily Mail editor David English, another ardent Thatcherite, was knighted just after the 1979 election for his “services to journalism.”
When the Labour government’s voluntary incomes policy collapsed in January 1979 with a series of strikes by low-paid workers the result was apocalyptic headlines. The Sun predicted a “famine threat” and that people would die though the closure of hospital wards.
Derek Jameson, then editor of the Daily Express, recalled: “We pulled every dirty trick in the book; we made it look like it was general, universal and eternal when it was in reality scattered, here and there, and no great problem. “
Despite the right-wing media’s dire predictions, the only death it was possible to link to industrial action was that of a picket who died under the wheels of a lorry.
The so-called winter of discontent was a crisis created by the media, not a real one. Few people had direct experience of the strikes and their lives continued unaffected — but the lurid stories and images in the right-wing press were used by Thatcher to spin an anti-trade union narrative with great effect.
This prompted the TUC to take the unusual step and publish A Cause for Concern in June 1979 analysing media coverage in January and February 1979.
It observed, “For two months, trade unions and trade unionists were subjected to an unending series of attacks and abuses which exceeded the experiences and expectations of even the most seasoned media watchers.”
Vicious union bashing by the very same newspapers is happening again now. It makes our Media North meeting on trade unions and the media timely. It is being held at the South Yorkshire Festival, Wortley Hall, on Sunday August 14 at 3pm with two expert speakers : former BBC industrial correspondent Nick Jones and Sarah Woolley, general secretary of the Bakers’ Union.
Granville Williams edits Media North — www.medianorth.org.uk.