40 years ago trade union power ensured that the nation’s politics and economics revolved around wage demands. Now the weakness of unions is being held responsible for the strange characteristics of the recession from which we are emerging. The fact that unemployment didn’t rise much above 2.5m during the worst slump since the thirties is attributed to workers concluding that accepting flat wages was better than losing a job after an heroic strike. People have seen the cost of living go up while earnings have stagnated, and yet there has been little evidence of industrial action. The government is felt to be in charge with a clear direction whether we like it or not.
It is incredible to compare the country now with forty years ago. Ted Heath was in the last months of his premiership. In the face of an overtime ban by the National Union of Mineworkers, British industry began 1974 under a State of Emergency and drastic measures to protect dwindling coal stocks. Rota power cuts meant that factories, homes and offices would only get power three days a week. Floodlit football was banned and TV went off early.
How had it come to this? For decades the UK’s economic performance was declining just as union power was rising. The Labour Government in the late sixties had attempted to improve a truly off strike record with proposals entitled “In Place of Strife”. The unions wouldn’t have it and by the time the Conservatives returned to power in 1970 people were seriously asking if the government or the Trades Union Congress were running the country.
Ted Heath was determined to answer that question in his favour and set up the Industrial Relations Court in 1971. It had the power to grant injunctions to stop strikes. It was an utter failure. Unions were fined and faced having their funds seized. Dockers were jailed for defying the court and a possible General Strike was only averted by the intervention of the Official Solicitor that no one had heard of before to free the men. So instead of settling industrial relations, Heath’s measures had exacerbated them. The question loomed larger and larger, Who Governs Britain?
As January turned into February the miners showed no signs of yielding, Heath decided on a General Election on that question. He expected that people plunged into gloom and candlelight would turn on the workers. That was certainly the view of many in the Labour Party. However voters were not yet ready to face down the unions and soon Labour’s Harold Wilson was back. People wanted Wilson to settle with the unions and give everyone a quiet life.
Short term fixes didn’t work and five years later gave their backing to Margaret Thatcher who decimated the power of the unions and forced Labour to change from being the party of the workers to a more ambiguous role in the centre of politics. That’s how the current government have been able to impose massive public spending cuts and hold down wages.
But how long will this passivity in the workforce continue? This year could see people demanding higher pay as the economy turns, particularly if employers start to find a shortage of skilled workers.