As the government machine to discredit and defeat next Wednesday’s public sector pension strike hits full tilt, it’s worth considering the real significance of the upcoming strike in context.
A balanced assessment shows that next week’s action is not the villainous act of national sabotage that David Cameron would have us believe, nor a sign that the British working class are approaching a new height of industrial activity.
This graph shows the level of industrial action since the 1945 in the form of workdays lost.
You can see from this that 1979 was by far and away the greatest period of industrial unrest, and that 1984-85 was the most prolonged period of action, with workdays lost hovering at around 2,500,000 per quarter.
What is striking is how few workdays have been lost since 1990.
By my rough estimation, next Wednesday’s activity will amount to in the region of 1.5 and 2 million workdays lost. It will therefore represent the greatest ‘spike’ in the last twenty years. It is obvious that this makes it important and this in part explains the viciousness of the Coalition propaganda attacks.
The media’s lazy and inaccurate knee-jerk inclination to invoke the ‘winter of discontent’ has been critiqued from all quarters. EEF, the manufacturers’ lobby, pointed out earlier this year that:
historically speaking, we’d need to see a 1300% increase in the number of days lost to public sector strikes and a 2800% increase in the number of stoppages before we got to ‘autumn/winter of discontent’ levels.
So we’re not witnessing a dramatic escalation of class struggle, as some fringe elements of the far left would have you believe. At the same time, this action is no small fry. The government can’t seem to work out if they should say that the strikers are irrelevant and isolated, or if they are powerful and dangerous. Let’s hope it turns out to be the latter, and the government can be brought to heel on public sector pensions either in part or in full.
Lastly, it is worth considering Ed Miliband’s response. His line is similar to his position on the 30 June strike action this summer – though not quite as gaffe-laden. He opposes the strikes but wants to make clear that the government have a role to play in preventing industrial action and that they should be reasonable.
Fair enough, some say. Andy Newman at Socialist Unity argues that Labour leaders don’t tend to back strikes, and he is correct. But there is a tone of resignation here that is not only short-sighted but politically harmful. Newman’s observation doesn’t mean there isn’t a more progressive line that Miliband can take, as Ken Livingstone has demonstrated today.