Tories draw on 1980s playbook to demonise unions

Paul Nowak says the UK’s cost-of-living crisis is really a crisis of depressed wages, and we need to get behind unions taking action for a better deal

Something is stirring in Britain’s workplaces. For those who lived through the disputes of the late 70s and early 80s, it’s an opportunity to dust off references to a summer/autumn/season-of-your-choice of discontent. For the TikTok generation, it’s #hotstrikesummer. Whatever label you put on it, it’s clear we are seeing an upsurge in industrial action across both the public and private sector.

In many ways, this is not surprising. Our cost-of-living crisis is, in large part, a wages crisis. If wages in the UK had grown in line with the OECD average since 2007, the typical worker’s pay packet would be worth an extra £4,000 today. Instead, the average real wage has fallen by £950 in that same period. Year after year of public sector pay restraint, the rise of insecure and precarious employment, and a government intent on attacking trade unions have taken their toll on people’s pay packets. Set that continued squeeze on wages against the rising cost of everything from fuel to food, and it helps explain why many workers are deciding they have no alternative but to take action.

As I write, RMT, TSSA and ASLEF are in the midst of national action on our railways. Over a hundred thousand CWU members in BT & Royal Mail have taken, or are about to take, strike action. UCU is balloting its members in higher education, and unions in health, education, the civil service and beyond are weighing up their industrial response to yet another real-terms pay cut. Amazon workers in the GMB have spontaneously walked out in response to a derisory offer to up their pay by 35p an hour.

It goes without saying that no union member decides to take strike action lightly. People lose pay. They aren’t able to deliver the services they are proud of. And of course, strike action is not an end in itself. It’s a means to get an employer to listen to the concerns of their staff, to get movement at the bargaining table and to get a fair deal at work. That’s why each and every group of workers who have taken that difficult decision to take strike action have had the wholehearted support of the TUC. And that support has not just been about standing on picket lines. Our campaigns team have been helping unions meet the ballot thresholds. Our regional teams have organised support and solidarity from across the trade union movement. And we’ve helped unions to win the public arguments as well – securing a legal opinion, for example, that rubbished Grant Shapps’s claim that industrial relations in the rail industry weren’t any of his responsibility. The TUC’s new solidarity hub will take this support to the next level, creating a ‘one stop’ gateway for support for unions taking action. 

All of this hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Government. The politicians who a year ago were talking up the need to make Britain a high-wage economy, and who expressed outrage when P&O sacked 800 staff with no notice and replaced them with agency workers, are now threatening to hit workers and their unions with even more stringent restrictions on the right to strike. This comes on top of the Government’s divisive decision to allow employers to use agency workers to replace those on strike, a move condemned by both the TUC and the industry body representing employment agencies.

Of course, Conservative leaders under pressure and out of ideas have often indulged in a spot of union-bashing to give their backbenchers something to cheer about. But there is no evidence yet that their efforts to demonise unions have resonated with the public. Dusting off Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s playbook is unlikely to win hearts and minds in the so-called ‘red wall’. While most people won’t welcome the inconvenience a strike can bring, they also know that, in the face of rising prices, it’s not unreasonable for workers to want a fair deal on pay.

The wave of industrial action we have seen has also raised wider questions about who pays the price when the going gets tough. It’s hard to argue that rail workers shouldn’t get a real-terms pay increase when the train operating companies paid out £500m in dividends during the pandemic, or that our posties shouldn’t get a fair deal when Royal Mail has just handed out £400m to its shareholders.

As we go into the party conference season, the TUC will continue to make the argument that Britain’s workers need a pay rise. We also need a renewal of collective bargaining and new machinery in sectors like social care to boost pay – something Labour has promised as part of its new deal for workers.

A stronger trade union movement can play its part as well. Unionised workplaces are better, more productive and fairer. We challenge employers to take the high road on skills. We boost wages. We tackle discrimination and harassment. And we keep people safe at work. That’s a record and a role to be proud of, and one we need to take to more workers and more workplaces.

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