A winter of malcontents?


Looking back, it seems very strange that in the early 1980s the genteel town of
Eastbourne witnessed marches of hundreds of people chanting ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie....Out, Out, Out’.

Of course, by the standards of the time, these political activities were relatively innocuous. But the subsequent year-long miners’ strike, which began in 1984, brought a new viciousness to industrial disputes. The violence in many Nottinghamshire pit villages, along with the quasi mediaeval riots at Orgreave, will be long remembered.

With large public sector job losses now almost certain, union militancy is likely to reappear this winter - with a vengeance.

Public sector unions are already anticipating industrial action, with local government, education and the NHS being obvious target areas. Aside from large job losses, wage cuts and less favourable pension scheme terms will be at the heart of many disputes. Union discontent is not limited to the public sector. The futile dispute at British Airways continues – to the undoubted benefit of other carriers, such as Ryanair and EasyJet.

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) will shortly be holding a ballot amongst its 50,000 staff at British Telecom. The Royal Mail, too, may well face action from the CWU. Given the unions’ fractious relationship with Network Rail, strikes are also expected on the railways during the coming holiday months. At least, a widespread miners’ strike will be avoided. There are now only a handful of underground pits operational in the UK compared with more than a 1,000 in the early 1920s, when close to one million miners were employed.

As the sun sets on the summer of 2010, the likelihood is that the following few months will be very challenging. The Coalition Government will come face to face with a wide range of malcontents.

How tough will it need to be to ensure that its policies prevail?