Britain has suddenly been hit by a wave of strikes the like of which we haven’t seen for twenty years. What started as a dispute over the use of foreign workers at an oil refinery in Lincolnshire has, in the course of two days, turned into a nationwide protest.
Interestingly, the stoppages and protests are unofficial. They have not been organised by the unions and seem to have broken out spontaneously around the country. They also seem to be drawing support from those outside the industries immediately effected. Some of those joining the picketing workers are local sympathisers including those who have recently lost their jobs. These demonstrations are more than just classic industrial disputes. They have already taken on some of the characteristics of a mass protest movement.
Various political groups are choosing to see the protest as support for their view of the world. For socialists, it’s workers fighting back, for anarchists, it’s the rejection of a union bureaucracies in favour of grass-roots action, for the BNP it’s a reaction against immigrant labour and for the anti-EU obsessives, it’s a long awaited backlash against the single labour market.
In truth, it could be any or all of these things at the same time. Each of the protesters will have his or her own reasons for coming out onto the streets.
Of course, the things that the workers are protesting against have been going on for some time. The outsourcing of contracts and the use of foreign workers have been increasingly common in the UK over the last ten-to-fifteen years.
But during that period, while the economy was growing, most people who wanted a job had one. Wages were relatively high, goods were cheap, credit was easily available and living standards were high, or at least they felt as if they were. In such circumstances, it is difficult to get people interested in trade unionism or political activity, let alone abstract concepts like globalisation and the single labour market.
Now, though, when some people are losing their jobs and many more believe that they might, the awarding of a contract in the UK to a foreign firm which uses foreign workers is inevitably seen as a threat. The mood is not necessarily against the foreign workers. More likely, it is against anything that people see as a threat to their precarious financial security.
It would be unreasonable to expect that an economic downturn as severe as this one would not be accompanied by political and industrial unrest. There will probably be a lot more of this sort of thing over the next couple of years.
But most worrying for those in authority is the unofficial nature of these disputes. Strikes and protests organised by unions and the mainstream Labour movement always have some form of organisation and leaders with whom politicians or business executives can negotiate. By contrast, wildcat strikes appear disorganised and leaderless. There usually are organisers but they keep a low profile and have little formal authority, which means that, even if you negotiate with them, they may not be able to deliver on the deal.
Dealing with disputes of this nature requires a special set of skills. In anticipation of the millennium bug, companies brought thousands of COBOL programmers out of retirement. Perhaps it’s now time to start calling all those old Industrial Relations managers back to their desks.