The spring and summer of 2022 have been seasons of discontent in the United Kingdom. Not only was Prime Minister Boris Johnson toppled after a cascade of all-too-public scandals eroded confidence in his government, but the economy has also been hit by a slew of major industrial actions.
A series of rolling strikes have brought the country’s rail network and London’s underground rail system to a standstill on several days over the past months, with the prospect of more strikes through August. Ten thousand underground system workers struck over efforts by Transport for London, the body that oversees the city’s transport, to cut more than 500 jobs and to “review” the pensions package negotiated by the unions. Railway workers are striking over pay: The union claims railway companies froze pay several years ago, and in the current round of negotiations they are proposing small increases that don’t even begin to match the near-10 percent inflation the U.K. economy is currently experiencing. They are also striking over efforts by owners to cut the number of maintenance crews on the lines.
Strikes aren’t limited to the transit sector. Pay increases in most industries are failing to come close to cost of living increases: The Office of National Statistics reports that this year real wages have declined by 2.8 percent, the largest such decline since records on this began being kept 21 years ago. As a result, unions have gotten more assertive. Moreover, while the public’s support for striking workers is uneven, sympathies have shifted towards the unions in recent months, and large numbers of Brits polled do support strike actions — if not across the board, then by workers in particular industries, such as firefighters, nurses and doctors.
The National Health Service, Britain’s beleaguered publicly funded health care system, is facing the threat of strikes, but not only by nurses. Doctors are dismayed by a new contract that would force them to offer primary care appointments to patients on evenings and weekends, presumably as a way to clear backlogs in access to care built up during the pandemic.
Firefighters are also threatening to walk off the job, as are teachers, civil servants, postal workers, telecommunications engineers and even some lawyers. Arguably not since the late 1970s have so many sectors of the U.K. economy faced industrial action simultaneously.
The Conservative government is as hostile to trade union rights as the GOP in the United States, viewing these strikes as something akin to an existential threat. The U.K. transport secretary has attempted to discredit the striking railway workers by claiming they are being led by “Marxists.”
Nearly 40 years ago, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used the miners’ strike as a way to break the most militant of Britain’s unions and usher in neoliberalism. Today, the government has rushed through legislation essentially greenlighting the hiring of scab workers, via temp agencies, to fill labor shortfalls created by workers going on strike.
Seven years ago, the Conservative Party tried to enact a similar reform. But the change ran into a barrage of criticism from the Regulatory Policy Committee, a governmental watchdog agency that looks at the credibility of proposed legislation, which concluded that the benefits to employers would actually be negligible, not least because of the difficulty of finding large numbers of skilled temp workers to stand in at short notice for strikers. Ultimately, because of the committee’s findings, and its damning conclusion that the proposal wouldn’t actually save employers any money, the law change wasn’t enacted.
Now, with the country mired in industrial strife, and with the government in shambles, the outgoing Johnson and his colleagues have decided that the time is right to resurrect this scab-labor charter.
The law, which kicked in on July 21, allows businesses to rapidly access pools of temporary workers from employment agencies to, in the words of the government press release on the change, “plug essential positions.” This undoes nearly 50 years of labor law in the U.K., since unions pressured a beleaguered Conservative government in 1973 to ban the practice of temp hires being used as strikebreakers; since then, it has been against the law in the U.K. for employment agencies from farming out workers to break strikes. The law was updated in 2003, but essentially remained as it had been since the 1970s.
The new legislation, which was rushed through parliament in the last weeks of the session, after members of parliament dispatched Johnson but before they went on their summer recess, also quadruples the penalties that courts can assess against unions deemed to be involved in illegal strikes, raising the fine from £250,000 to £1 million.
The language of the law change is unambiguous in its anti-union ambitions. It states that:
The Government is committed to ensuring strikes only happen as the result of a clear, democratic decision and commits to tackling the disproportionate impact of strikes on important public services. In addition, there are sectors in which industrial action has a wider impact on members of the public that is disproportionate and unfair. Strikes can prevent people from getting to work and prevent businesses from managing their workforces effectively.
In other words, if a strike is actually effective, and thus inconveniences people — which is literally the aim of such actions — it becomes illegitimate and ought to be broken.
The bill continued that, “Once this instrument comes into force, employment businesses will be permitted to supply temporary workers (agency workers) to employers facing industrial action. The workers supplied by employment businesses will be permitted to perform the work normally carried out by those workers taking part in industrial action.”
This is a fiercely anti-union position, and in response UNISON, the largest union in the country, has already announced that it plans to take the government to court to try to block the new law from taking effect. Yet, despite the ominous timbre of the new law, it’s not at all clear that, ultimately, it will end up being anything much more than right-wing, populist symbolism.
Like the U.S., Britain is facing huge labor shortages (there are more than 1.3 million job vacancies at the moment), a crisis that has been worsened by Brexit having led to hundreds of thousands of workers from the continent leaving the U.K. and returning to European Union countries. Given this, the idea that temp agencies could quickly provide thousands of skilled firefighters, teachers, nurses or train drivers at short notice is little more than a fiction. But it’s a convenient fantasy for a Conservative Party mired in a messy leadership contest in which the candidates have vied with each other to prove their hardline, Thatcherite credentials. The party and its standard-bearers are desperate to prove to the Conservatives’ political base that it is only they who are able to get “tough” on workers whose strike actions are causing inconveniences to Brits right at the start of the summer holiday season.
This isn’t a serious industrial policy, nor is it even an effective anti-union policy. Rather, it’s the floundering and the posturing of a party increasingly at the mercy of events beyond its control. It won’t end Britain’s summer of discontent. It probably won’t make much of a difference to the Conservative Party’s downward spiral in public opinion polls. It certainly won’t solve the underlying problem that soaring inflation is rapidly corroding the real wages of workers in the U.K., thus triggering a huge upswing in the number of strikes. But it might allow the new leaders of the party to at least pretend that they’re wielding a sharp sword against political and economic menaces that, seemingly, are now lurking around every corner.
Meanwhile, Britain’s unions are embracing more militant strike tactics than they have since the Thatcher years, and much of the public is supporting them despite the inconveniences that result. Far from weakening Britain’s union movement, the new laws regarding temp workers seem likely to harden union stances and trigger even more strike action over the coming months.