40 years After The Winter Of Discontent, Is History About To Repeat Itself?

Could a spike in industrial action this winter turn the tide on austerity and neoliberalism? Alex Stuart discusses.

By Alex Stuart

The Winter of Discontent is often used as a warning to the possibility of a left-wing Labour government. Margaret Thatcher capitalised on public dissatisfaction, ushering in extreme economic reforms which we still feel today. But could a spike in industrial action this winter turn the tide on austerity and neoliberalism?

The Winter of Discontent refers to the period from late 1978 to early 1979, characterised by mass strikes in protest against the increasingly neoliberal policies of the Callaghan government. This chapter in history is often misrepresented. The vivid descriptions of uncollected bins and unburied bodies are gross exaggerations.

However, this narrative was peddled by Thatcher very effectively leading to her victory in the 1979 general election. Her main targets were the trade unions, passing several pieces of legislation that restricted the ability of workers to organise. This struggle culminated in The Miners’ Strike, which inflicted a massive defeat on the working-class.

These anti-trade union laws are still on the statute book, despite the New Labour government having thirteen years to repeal them. The latest shackle on workers was the 2016 Trade Union Act. The key part of this legislation was the requirement for 50% of members balloted to cast their ballot, on top of winning a majority for strike action, in order for industrial action to be legal.

We have seen the first cases of this legislation preventing unions from taking action. In the summer of 2018, the civil service union PCS won an overwhelming majority for strike action but only 41% of members turned out. Furthermore, only seven UCU branches across the country met the threshold in the latest national pay ballot.

This legislation is a clear attack on the right of workers to withdraw their labour. It is heartening to hear the Labour leadership commit to repealing the 2016 Act within a hundred days of a Labour government. However, policy passed at the 2017 Labour Party Conference committed to repaling all of the anti-trade union laws stretching back to Thatcher. It is vital that Constituency Labour Parties and trade union branches put pressure on the leadership to publicly commit to repealing these laws.

Meanwhile, both the PCS and UCU are preparing to re-ballot their members. They can learn well from the tactics of the newer ‘independent unions’ such as the IWGB. They are the model of a union led by the rank-and-file, unafraid to confront employers with direct action and exploiting the power of social media. Furthermore, students across the country should show solidarity with their lecturers by helping to get out the vote. If these ballots are successful, alongside the continued Driver Only Operation disputes on the railways, we could see some big wins for workers at the national level and possibly hasten the collapse of the government!

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