In the UK, how unions rediscovered their bargaining power

Rail depot in Ely, Cambridgeshire (UK), on Thursday January 5, 2023.

The British had not known this for three decades. Since last summer, major strikes have regularly rocked the country, particularly in the public services. To help users find their way around, the media have had to set up strike calendars.

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This week, from January 3 to 7, two unions took turns to bring the trains to a standstill, with some days practically without traffic; on Friday, the highway agents also walked out, as well as the driving license inspectors; Tuesday, January 10, it will be the turn of teachers in Scotland, then, the next day, paramedics in England. The following week, the nurses resumed their historic movement: in December 2022, they had carried out their first strike since the creation of their union in 1906, and they planned two new days of action.

The unions do not hide the fact that they coordinate so that the strikes follow one another. “The goal is to achieve maximum disruption”explains a trade unionist, on condition of anonymity.

Trend reversal

The multiple conflicts even tend to harden. “Our members have never been so determined”, says Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, which represents train drivers. He speaks of a conflict that could continue until May, when the first strikes began in June 2022. “The unions are preparing to hold out until spring, at least”adds Kevin Rowan, of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the main trade union confederation.

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For British trade unions, this is a major trend reversal. Between 1979 and 1990, Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, fought violently to bring them to their knees, giving rise to giant strikes (more than a year for the miners in 1984, more than a year for the book workers in 1986). It had achieved this, in particular by imposing two laws, among the most restrictive in Europe. From now on, a strike can only be organized after a secret ballot of the employees, which can take months to organize in a large company. In addition, secondary strikes, ie in solidarity with another company, are prohibited. Postal workers cannot disengage to support railway workers, for example.

In this context, trade unions have experienced a deep decline. The number of trade unionists has been halved, from 13.2 million in 1979 to 6.5 million in 2021. As for strikes, their number has been halved.

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