My favourite episode in the satirical TV programme The Day Today was when the Chris Morris presenter – styled loosely on Jeremy Paxman – goads various politicians into declaring a world war.
I was reminded of the clip this morning when I saw the Times’ splash predicting a campaign of strikes for the Easter: “Unions plot campaign of strikes for Easter.”
Are parts of the media itching for a confrontation between Britain’s unions and government a la 1970s? (Kevin Maguire at the Mirror suggests the Times is obsessed with strike stories as a legacy of the 1980s Wapping dispute.)
This isn’t the first time that mass strikes have been predicted since the general election. Last summer the Times reported that:
“A campaign of national strikes over cuts to spending, pay and pensions involving millions of public sector workers is being drawn up by trade union leaders for the autumn.”
This blog was sceptical, noting that a meeting of union leaders only the previous week had agreed to delay any action until the spring. As it transpired, no major strikes came to pass outside of specific confrontations at BA and the London Underground.
The brothers are as much to blame for the strident headlines as the press given their love of loose language. At the TUC conference in September it was hard to work out whether their vivid threats were genuine or merely rhetoric, as I wrote here.
Moderates in the movement know they need to have public support for any such action, which is not yet strongly evident. Union leaders also need to have an achievable aim; stopping the coalition from cutting the deficit does not seem to fall into that category at present. Plus any action means a loss of income to those workers – already suffering pay freezes and other cuts - who do not turn up to work.
I’m now told that at the last meeting of the TUC executive – made up of general secretaries from the big unions – the language was indeed much more strident, with several figures pushing for big strikes. They were unnerved by their lack of a major role in the headline-grabbing tuition fees protests of November and December and want to make sure they are at the helm of any new anti-cuts groundswell.
A general strike is illegal but synchronised action over various issues on the same day is not. It’s “a possibility” this could take place, as Brendan Barber – pictured, head of the TUC – said on BBC Radio 5 this morning.
Then again, Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union may have made a slip of the tongue when he told the Times that: “Unless you look like you want a fight they won’t negotiate. The government has to see we are serious.”
It is still not clear whether this spring will just see a few walk-outs from the radical PCS, a few localised transport disputes and a huge one-off TUC rally – or something much more widespread and damaging.
If it’s the former the public may come to the conclusion that the unions these days – with far fewer members than 30 years ago – are more bark than bite, akin to the boy who cried wolf.