Old headlines have suddenly reappeared over the last few weeks. They refer to the “craziness” of workers going on strike. Sometimes, as with the prison officers, there are suggestions that the workers may have a case, but they are ruining it by “heedless action”.
More usually, as with the tube strikes, there are denunciations of “causing unnecessary inconvenience to millions of people”.
Less publicised has been other industrial action – the one-day strikes by civil service workers, the series of strikes and “rolling action” by postal workers, an indefinite strike by Glasgow social care workers and a whole series of smaller strikes in the private sector.
But the strike has certainly returned as a feature of British political life.
This comes after a long period in which the conventional wisdom of the right, and parts of the left, has been that the unions have been irredeemably weakened – and that class struggle will never return in its old form.
So what is happening and what are the prospects for the period ahead?
The last two decades did see a massive fall in the number of strikes and strikers. The defeat of the miners after their year-long strike in 1984-5 was followed by the defeat of the newspaper unions after another year-long strike at Rupert Murdoch’s Wapping works, and then by the defeat of seafarers and dockers.
Although greater solidarity and militancy could have led to victory in these struggles, the defeats created the feeling among very many workers that the government and the employers were all powerful.
Some union leaders used this argument to leave other important struggles isolated, like that of the Liverpool dockers in the 1990s.
Union leaders convinced many activists that it was impossible to break the anti-union laws.
There has also been a massive contraction in the number of jobs in manufacturing.
Workers in this sector had developed a tradition of short, sharp, highly effective and usually unofficial strikes in the 1960s and early 1970s. Along with this went a very high level of union membership.
Since then the number of jobs in manufacturing has fallen from over seven million to around three million – the lowest figure since the Industrial Revolution – even though the level of output has remained about the same.
Fewer jobs meant fewer union members. For those who remained, fear of losing their jobs held them back from taking industrial action in the old way.
Union membership has fallen from around 12 million in 1979 back to the figure of the early 1960s – about eight million. Some 6.5 million of these are in unions affiliated to the TUC.
So claims that the unions were finished have never fitted the facts on the ground. Even in manufacturing industry, managers were never able to translate falling jobs levels into cuts in real wages.
There may not have been many strikes, but there were many threats of industrial action followed by agreement to grant a 1 or 2 percent wage increase. And the unions became stronger in many white collar jobs where they had been weak historically.
Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that alongside the eight million people still in unions and staff associations, there are an equal number who think unions are a good thing and would join one if they got a real chance to do so.
It is a remarkable fact about the Tory governments of 1979-97 that they never succeeded in cutting real wages – something that had happened under Labour between 1975 and 1978.
Attacks on employed workers took the form of using the fear of redundancy and “market testing” to make them work harder, an increase in managerial bullying, erosion of pension rights, and growing pressure on white collar workers to do unpaid overtime.
This is also the pattern New Labour followed until this year.
Now Gordon Brown is deliberately setting out to cut the real wages of public sector workers by imposing a limit on increases to 2 percent while the Retail Price Index (which measures the impact of price increases) is rising by around 4 percent.
And important items of expenditure – housing, heating, transport and childcare costs – are rising much faster than this.
In trying to impose a pay norm Brown is going back to a form of attack on workers that was common in the 1960 and 1970s, but then abandoned by even the most stridently capitalist governments in the 1980s and 1990s.
So there had been attempts at such pay control under the Tory government of the early 1960s, Harold Wilson’s Labour government of the late 1960s, Edward Heath’s Tories in the early 1970s, and Labour again in the late 1970s. The last full blooded attempt was under Margaret Thatcher’s government in the early 1980s.
Governments learnt a hard lesson. Pay norms could sometimes work for a period of months, or even for a couple of years, particularly as the union bureaucracies were often ready to acquiesce to them.
But eventually they built up such a feeling of resentment that the union leaders could no longer hold the line.
Not only did the success of one group of workers in breaking the pay norm lead to others following suit, but the generalised attack created a much wider growth of class consciousness.
So the controls of the Wilson and Heath governments of the late 1960s and early 1970s ended up producing the biggest strike waves since the 1920s – and the spread of trade unionism to groups previously barely touched by it.
The control of the Labour governments of the second half of the 1970s ended in the “winter of discontent”, when car workers, local authority workers, hospital workers and lorry drivers all took action.
Thatcher’s attempt at a pay norm in 1982 led to secondary action in support of hospital workers that involved half a million workers.
It was this pattern that led governments to turn away from attempting to impose norms across the whole public sector and to turn to other methods of intimidating working class people.
So Brown is in danger of stirring up a hornets’ nest, but he feels that he has little choice. New Labour’s economic policy has always depended on keeping big business happy by giving a veto on economic policy to the Bank of England through its power to set interest rates.
This arrangement in turn depends on keeping any increase in public spending below the growth rate of the economy – and the precondition for that is cutting real take-home pay for public sector workers.
Brown’s move has had the effect of providing an important single focus for much of the discontent that has been accumulating in workplaces over two decades.
In order to hold down pay, Brown is relying on the amazing loyalty of major union leaders to a government that has done nothing for their members.
He hopes to make it easier for them by wrapping bad packages up in fancy paper – giving slightly more to the very badly paid than to the less badly paid, even though neither will keep up with prices.
But such is Brown’s intransigence that it is straining relations with even the most loyal union leaders.
The bitterness of their members forces them to at least verbally reflect anger against the government over pay, privatisation, workers’ rights and council housing.
But many of them are limited by the continuing belief that Labour is the only game in town.
The recent strikes show that things many not be easy for Brown.
For many workers, the bitterness they feel extends to a whole raft of New Labour policies – the attacks on single parents and disability benefits, the unleashing of the market in the NHS, the regime of continual inspections and testing in schools, the raising of the pension age.
And in every workplace there are people who have been involved in the great anti-war demonstrations.
Few would regard prison officers as the vanguard of the working class. But people have seen them go on strike without giving notice, in a clear defiance of anti-union laws.
People have also seen that the government did not feel powerful enough to use legal action to punish them – an important lesson for other workers.
One aspect of the bitterness among workers is a return to angry picket lines. It shouldn’t be overstated, but there have been large pickets at a number of disputes over pay in recent months, notably at Coca-Cola and Westland helicopters.
Similarly, the strikes over the victimisation of health union activist Karen Reissmann in Manchester have seen some of the liveliest and angriest picket lines seen in the NHS for many years.
There is still a problem in many unions in that political timidity at the top puts off people who need to be drawn into the struggle.
People are right to expect their union to join Stop the War demonstrations and to have a view on climate change. They also want a union to win them decent pay and pensions.
There is no point speculating as to whether Brown will succeed in holding the line on pay this autumn.
What matters is that he cannot do so without provoking struggle and further increasing bitterness among the working class.
And when union leaders attempt to hold back action in order not to cause problems for New Labour, this provokes both anger and political questions among union members.
Anger and bitterness can, of course, be channelled in different directions. Whether it translates into effective action is a question of politics and political organisation.
Chris Harman edits the International Socialism journal (» www.isj.org.uk). His books include Explaining The Crisis and Revolution In The 21st Century. They are available from Bookmarks, » www.bookmarks.uk.com