Many of the workers who are currently striking – or warning of industrial action – are those who were identified as key workers during the pandemic. As in the 1970s, they are demanding that their pay keeps up with the rising cost of living, but they are bargaining from a position of weakness.
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) strike over pay, job cuts and working conditions has been joined by tens of thousands of workers from National Rail and 13 train operators. Unions representing NHS staff and teachers have also warned of industrial action to demand wages that keep up with rising prices.
The events of recent weeks have led to comparisons with the 1970s when the country saw nationwide strikes that resulted in millions of lost working days (Office for National Statistics, ONS). But is this an accurate parallel to draw?
Current disputes draw on comparable problems – high prices and stagnant wages – to the strikes in the 1970s and similar groups of workers are involved. False narratives of the 1970s, articulated by current critics of trade unions, distort understanding of the present problems. Unions then and now are wrongly portrayed as greedily advancing selfish pay claims that cause inflation.
The current disputes
The current industrial action mainly involves trade union members employed in delivering public services. They work for councils and publicly owned bodies, for example, in healthcare. Others are in private companies that provide services that are not open to market competition, such as the railways.
These workers operate within the ‘foundational economy’, which is responsible for maintaining the vital infrastructure and operational elements of everyday life. Without their work, the economic and social wheels of the country grind to a halt.
The gender, ethnic and age diversity of these workers varies from some existing stereotypes of strikers as relatively privileged older, white men. This socially diverse profile is reinforced when we consider that most employees in the foundational economy were identified as key workers during the pandemic. The recognition of these jobs has perhaps strengthened expectations of future reward that have not been fulfilled.
The immediate cause of the current disputes is the rising cost of living, particularly related to increasing food and energy prices. The doubling of domestic gas and electricity prices since the start of 2022 was accompanied by an increase in petrol prices of over 25% from January to late June. Further price escalation is almost certain. Inflation in the UK, at 9.1%, is at its highest rate for 40 years. Analysis of household expenditure estimates by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) indicates that household bills now exceed income in 60% of UK homes.
As a result, it can be argued that strikes in pursuit of wage claims are not the drivers of inflation, as some UK government ministers have claimed. But rather that they are a collective response to the broken relationship between employment and economic security.
In-work poverty – defined as when an individual’s income, after housing costs, is less than 60% of the national average – has grown incrementally since the 1980s. In the UK, this already affected one in eight workers before the recent cost of living crisis emerged (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2022). The New Labour government tried to alleviate this with tax credits and other wage subsidies after 1997. The Conservative-led coalition government scaled these back radically from 2010, while reducing support for low-income family housing costs.
The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), reporting in May 2021, saw these two factors as driving the general increase of in-work poverty. Double-earner households, one full-time and the other part-time, were twice as likely to be in poverty in 2019/20 (12%) than in 1996/97 (6%) (IPPR, 2021). This is likely to have contributed to the rapid escalation of food bank usage by wage-earning households reported in the press.
Two important structural forces shape this in-work poverty. First, the loss of around four million jobs in manufacturing, metals and mining, which resulted from the anti-inflationary policies adopted by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government after its election in 1979.
Second, trade unions were politically marginalised. Thatcher’s governments and their Conservative successors made it progressively easier for employers to ‘derecognise’ unions. Trade union density – the portion of the workforce represented by unions – fell from around 50% in 1979 to around 30% in 1997. In 2021, the figure stood at around 23%, although in the public sector, it remained at around 50% of workers. The strikers in 2022, drawn from this unionised minority, are operating from a position of weakness rather than strength. They have limited alternatives when seeking to have their voices heard. The government’s reluctance to support workers has been further underlined by the apparent abandonment of the Conservative Party’s 2019 commitment to produce an employment bill that would protect workplace rights lost as a result of Brexit.
Disputes in the 1970s
Strike activity measured in working days lost was higher in the UK in the 1970s than in any other decade in the period after the Second World War (Office for National Statistics, ONS). In 1972, the first of two peak years, 23.9 million working days were lost. This was mainly driven by a seven-weeks long national strike of 280,000 coal miners, followed by a further three-weeks long strike in 1974, which contributed to the electoral defeat of Edward Heath’s Conservative government.
This established the narrative of privileged male trade unionists exerting illegitimate political influence through relentless industrial action. Most coal was bound for electricity generation in power stations, so the miners were central protagonists in the UK’s foundational economy of the 1970s.
Strikers in the second half of the decade were likewise mainly drawn from this segment, with national strikes of healthcare and council workers, firefighters, dockers and lorry drivers, among others. Strikes of manufacturing workers tended, by comparison, to be either localised or short-lived.
Foundational economy strikers in the 1970s, as in the 2020s, were diverse in ethnic, gender and generational terms. Union density among women workers rose from 31% in 1970 to 40% in 1980. Workers of African and South Asian heritage were prominent in strike movements in manufacturing industry, notably the famous campaign for union recognition among photo-processing employees at Grunwick in London in 1976-77, and with healthcare, council services and transport, especially during what became known as the winter of discontent of 1978-79.
The winter of discontent dominates political memories of the 1970s. 1979 was the second and largest peak year of days lost to strikes in that decade, at 29.5 million. Only around half of these days, about 15 million, were actually lost in the pay bargaining year of 1978/79. The other half were in the following pay bargaining year of 1979/80 when 31 million days were lost, driven by a national strike in the steel industry. This is an important detail. Many reflections on the winter of discontent consciously or unwittingly double its economic significance by repeating the error that it cost around 30 million lost working days.
Strikes in the 1970s were mainly shaped, as in the 2020s, by economic insecurities that stimulated workforce demands for increased wages. Coal miners in the 1970s were seeking to arrest a declining relative position. In the 1960s, the workforce had been cut by more than half, as the UK accelerated towards a mixed-fuel economy.
The national coal strikes of 1972 and 1974 were prefigured by lengthy and large unofficial work stoppages in 1969 and 1970. The sudden fuel shock of 1973-74, when oil prices quadrupled, strengthened the bargaining position of miners, but also intensified inflationary pressures that were already rising rapidly. The peak rate of inflation approached 25% in 1975, compared with 9.1% today.
It was the Labour government’s attempt to control inflation after 1975 that underpinned many of the strikes that followed. Wage rises were controlled by annual fixed percentage increases. Total cash increases therefore grew more slowly for lower-paid workers. They viewed the downward squeeze on their wages as unjust, especially when set against less restrictive measures on dividends and profits.
The Labour government was, of course, sympathetic to unions. It strengthened statutory provision against workplace inequalities of gender and ethnicity, and established the Health and Safety Executive. It also attempted to transform authority in workplaces with an agenda for industrial democracy. This would have included worker-directors in companies with more than 1,000 employees.
Business opposition blocked this, in league with the Conservative Party and the anti-union national press. Strikes therefore remained the only meaningful expression of workers’ voice in the 1970s, as in the 2020s, a signal of collective weakness rather than strength.
Strikes are expensive expressions of workforce voice and acts of last resort. This discussion of current and historic strikes shows that they tend to be a sign of weakness, arising where workers are not being listened to, as much as they are a sign of strength.
The current strikes are clustered in the unionised parts of the workforce. Those involved are occupationally diverse and of varied ethnic, gender and generational backgrounds. They are mainly providing vital services and can be understood as operating within what is termed the foundational economy.
Critics of these striking workers seek to misrepresent and delegitimise them through mobilising a stereotyped view of the past, focusing on the 1970s, the peak decade of industrial action in post-Second World War Britain.
But the 1970s to which these critics return did not exist much beyond the front pages of anti-trade union newspapers. Then, as now, strikers were diverse in their background, attempting to protect precarious living standards in a period of rising economic insecurity.
Where can I find out more?
- No longer managing: the rise of working poverty and fixing Britain’s broken social settlement: Report by Clare McNeil, Henry Parkes, Kayleigh Garthwaite and Ruth Patrick for the Institute for Public Policy Research.
- Government's solutions don't go far enough: TUC article by Suha Abdul.
- Mick Lynch media mania – the appeal of workers’ power: article by Ewan Gibbs.
Who are experts on this question?
- Jim Phillips
- Alan Manning
- Alex Bryson