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Will the UK See a Summer of Discontent?

Thursday, 19 May 2011 | 12:25 AM ET

The shadow of the Winter of Discontent is looming over the UK again. Increasing unemployment, belt-tightening in the public sector, and a harder line from unions are ringing alarm bells for businesses.

Angry demonstrators clashed with police in a student protest outside parliament as the coalition government faced its biggest test yet in a vote on proposals to triple university tuition fees.
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Angry demonstrators clashed with police in a student protest outside parliament as the coalition government faced its biggest test yet in a vote on proposals to triple university tuition fees.

The austerity agenda pursued by the British Conservative-led government is under attack from unions across the economy, and strikes by public servants are threatening to paralyse the country on June 30.

There have recently been strikes at Jobcentre Plus, the government agency which helps the unemployed find work and is ironically facing job cuts itself.

Conservative politicians have started calling for tougher laws against industrial action, bringing back memories of Margaret Thatcher’s crushing attack on unions during the 1980s.

“Strikes disrupt the public and are bad news for the economy, so we hope unions will work constructively with employers to avoid industrial action,” Jim Bligh, principal policy adviser at the CBI, the business body, told CNBC.com.

“We are calling for the law to be changed make sure no strike can go ahead unless it has clear support. We want strikes to have the backing of at least 40% of the balloted workforce, as well as a majority of those voting."

The first national rail strike in the UK for 16 years was only averted after the intervention of the High Court last year, and strikes by British Airways cabin crew hit the well-known airline hard. Management at the airline came to an agreement with members of the Unite union last week after a dispute over pay which cost the company £150 million and lasted for almost two years.

The bombastic Bob Crow, leader of the RMT transport workers union, is often cited as a figurehead for an increasingly strident union movement. His union argues that the country’s rail system should be renationalised, which would be a radical departure.

“There’s certainly scope for strike action,” Justin Fisher, professor of political science at Brunel University and director of the Magna Carta Institute, told CNBC.com.

“The interesting thing is the extent to which the strike is observed, which depends on how many people are in unions.”

Union membership has declined in the UK along with the manufacturing industries which had large-scale union membership during Thatcher’s years in power. Unions have failed to make the same inroads into white-collar jobs. They are competing with each other for job sectors, with teachers, for example, having to choose between three different unions.

“As manufacturing activity declined, so did union penetration in the workforce. Unions failed to keep up with changes in the economy,” Fisher said.

“The scale of the 1970s isn’t there any more.”

Contact Europe: Economy

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