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Summer of Discontent – Is it back to the 70s?

“Here we go, here we go, here we go!”. It’s back to the Seventies, with key energy workers on strike, a Labour government collapsing, an oil price crisis, growing inflation and a banking crisis. For the miners in the 70s, read oil workers at Grangemouth, who have a stranglehold on the nation’s power supplies.

For Yom Kippur read the Iraq war, which has also led to a quadrupling of oil prices. We even have a re-run of the secondary banking crisis that hit the City of London in the 1970s and helped lead the Tory PM Edward Heath to condemn the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. And of course we have a fag-end Labour goverment collapsing under a Prime Minister who cancels elections.

History doesn’t repeat itself, of course; it only rhymes. There are many differences in the industrial climate today which make a “Summer of Discontent” on the scale of the 1979 “Winter of Discontent” most unlikely. Nearly thirty years of Thatcherite policies, pursued as enthusiastically by New Labour as by the Conservatives, for a start. Only about half as many workers are in trades unions now as in the 70s. Britain’s tradition of industrial militancy has been destroyed by New Labour’s flexible market policies and by mass immigration, which has eroded the bargaining power of British workers.

Nevertheless, I think we could witnessing a turning point in public attitudes to industrial relations. It would be wrong for politicians to underestimate the determination of what we now call middle class people to defend their living standards. The employees at Grangemouth have been right royally ridiculed in soaraway tabloids for having gold-plated pensions and earnings in excess of £30,000 a year. Actually, after inflation, that’s not much more than the miners were earning in their heyday. But the media has attacked them as greedy and irresponsible. “Why should they have decent pensions when the rest of us don’t” – is the line in most red-top editorials.

Speaking as one of those who has been ripped off by private pensions myself for over twenty years I can’t help looking a little enviously at people with final salary schemes. However, that doesn’t mean I’m going to leap into bed with reclusive billionaire, Jim Ratcliffe of INEOS, a private equity capitalist whose business model is to buy companies, load them with debt and then raid their pension funds. He has been dubbed “Dr No” for his refusal to negotiate with his employees. This is a very different kettle of capitalism from BP, with its corporate responsibility budgets and its agonising over the environment.

What tends to happen in times of economic turmoil – when capital seeks to secure profit and employees to save their salaries – is that groups of key workers assume a leadership role, like the miners in the 70s, and fight key battles which the others follow. There are always two sides to a dispute, but I suspect a lot of ordinary employees across the country would be happy to see a group of workers succeed for once in defending pension rights, if only because it might their employers think twice about raiding theirs.

Now, the Grangemouth workers are not , of course, the miners, who fielded huge battallions of militant workers on the industrial confrontations. Remember the Saltley Coke depot; the flying pickets; the battle of Orgreave. You won’t find Grangemouth men fighting police on horseback. Nevertheless, there may be lessons learned here about how these conflicts are going to be conducted in future, as the economy sinks into recession. The first is that in a highly integrated economy like ours, small groups of workers can have disproportionate clout.

It has come as a rude shock to the government to discover, not only that the country can be plunged into a fuel crisis within days, but also that North Sea Oil production can be shut down in short order. In the Seventies, thousands of miners and car workers could down tools for months without anyone really noticing. A complex economy like ours creates choke points which can hand bargaining power to groups of workers which Red Robbo could only have dreamed of.

Will they use this powers responsibly? Well, that remains to be seen. We live in a very different moral climate to that of the 1970s, when groups of workers saw themselves as leaders of an entire industrial class. The eternal conflict of capital and labour continues of course, but the waters they fight in are very much more muddy. I doubt if the Grangemouth workers see themselves as agents of social reform and champions of the dispossessed in the way the miners did in the 70s.

To an extent we are all thatcherites now. In the 70s most workers lived in council houses; now most of
them have mortgages and many will have been keeping theri living standards raised through equity withdrawal. Now that this has evaporated, they are discovering that their earnings are not as high as they thought. They can also see that their pensions are going to be hit hard in future as inflation increases following cuts in interest rates.

Grangemouth is a highly sophisticated, post-modern dispute, which is not about pay as such, but about deferred reward – a middle class concept. Industrial workers like miners didn’t fight over pensions because many knew they would not live long enough to collect them. If pensions are the new battleground of industrial struggle, the conflcit is going to be fought with very different tools – accountancy and actuarial tables rather than wage bargaining.

My own view is that we are going to see very much more of this kind of dispute in future. Workers in IT, media, financial services, energy, pharmaceuticals who probably don’t even think of themselves as workers are finding their living standards squeezed by inflation, mortgage rate, energy costs and petrol. Moreover, they are increasingly facing anonymous and intransigent bosses, many of whom don’t actually live here.

Much of the British economy – from airports to shipping lines, from gas pipelines to banks – has been sold to foreign companies, or to hedge funds and private equity capitalists like Jim Ratcliffe. This changes the character of workplace disputes. The old game of the 1970s, of big unions facing big corporations with the government trying to hold the ring has gone. Notice how both the Scottish and UK governments have stepped aside from Grangemouth.

In some ways we are seeing a return to capitalism of old, to owners who don’t pretend to be part of civil society. The world has changed and the industrial dynamics of this latest economic crisis will be different. But don’t expect that working people won’t fight just because they don’t hold factory gate meetings anymore.

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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