Suddenly it's a summer of discontent

In industry after industry, strike ballots are being called - and the workers are voting `yes'. The country is threatened with a rash of industrial action. But why?

A mild but debilitating form of "the British Disease" - in remission for much of the past decade - is breaking out again. Kept in check by large doses of legislative and recessionary medicine, the malaise of industrial action seems to be re-emerging in both the public and private sectors.

While few workers are racing to the barricades - the legendary Winter of Discontent in 1979 involved most of the working population in disruption of one kind or another - there are signs that people feel distinctly restive over a whole series of perceived injustices.

The most immediate and painful sign of growing industrial militancy will come a week on Friday, when train drivers stage the first of six 24-hour stoppages in protest at a 3 per cent pay offer. Subsequently they look set to be joined by 50,000 other workers at British Rail and the employees of the London Underground, who have been offered 2.75 per cent.

Elsewhere in the public sector, leaders of 600,000 health staff are planning ballots on industrial action in response to the imposition of local pay bargaining, while the biggest civil service union is expected to order an overtime ban in protest at job cuts.

The threat of action is not confined to the public sector. The National Union of Mineworkers is determined to defend its right to an annual pay review and establish full union recognition by RJB Mining, the company which took over most of the privatised pits. The annual conference of the NUM last weekend ordered a fresh strike vote after the first was declared null and void by the high court. Miners are furious that management is attempting to follow the Chancellor's suggestion that employees should not expect an automatic annual pay increase and that all rises should be earned through improved productivity.

The present discontent is not simply prompted by parsimonious pay increases or a lack of them. While wages inevitably form one of the primary concerns of workers, there are other important considerations such as the length of time they are obliged to spend at work.

The engineering unions, responding to a post-recessionary mood, have ordered the resurrection of their fight to bring the working week down to 35 hours. They interrupted their campaign of industrial action in 1990 as the economic downturn began to grip manufacturing. Their strategy of picking off the big companies one by one will restart in the autumn with the Ford motor company.

The fashionable pursuit of decentralised pay bargaining - which has angered health workers - is also behind the threat of disruption at British Airways. At the company's annual general meeting next Tuesday more than 1,500 employees are expected to demonstrate over management's intention to devolve negotiations to 22 "business units". The Transport and General Workers' Union is understood to be planning a ballot on industrial action among its 20,000 members at the company - including cabin crew and baggage handlers - which could hit August holiday flights.

The mood of belligerence has affected the most conservative of employees' organisations. In the finance sector the traditionally moderate staff association at Barclays Bank only abandoned a second 24-hour stoppage, planned for Tuesday, when management threatened to sack strikers. What was significant about the action was that the association had wagged its collective finger at management on many previous occasions but never taken nationwide industrial action.

The new attitude, however ,was best illustrated by the nine-to-one vote by members of the Royal College of Nursing to abandon its strict policy banning industrial action. That came as something of a surprise to ministers who regarded the college as a "responsible" organisation. It also came as a considerable shock to the college leadership. At the RCN annual conference in May, delegates often sounded more like wild-eyed Trotskyists than members of "the Royal College". The gathering took on the atmosphere of some of the more trenchant TUC-affiliated unions.

Clearly there is no single cause for the growing industrial unease. Each set of workers has its own of grievances, but there are grounds for positing more general reasons for the shift in mood.

The ritual humiliation of "fat cat" directors of privatised businesses by the Commons employment committee, publicised with relish by the media, has no doubt contributed to the disquiet. The chief executive of PowerGen referring to three of his extra-curricular occupations as "just little jobs", but yielding twice average earnings, did not go down well with his workforce.

The "feel-bad" factor - which once prompted circumspection and subservience - also seems to be contributing to a growing impatience as companies seek to keep wages down and sack their employees. The euphemism for the latter has changed from "down-sizing" to "right-sizing" without any measurable impact on the morale of those made redundant, or indeed their colleagues. Workers have seen the value of their houses remain static or decline, a factor which has made wages a more important form of remuneration.

But wage settlements are at present not keeping pace with inflation. According to Industrial Relations Services, pay deals have now stood at an average of 3 per cent for the past six months. For the four months to the end of April - the busiest in the wage round - pay settlements have been below the inflation rate. That is a highly unusual state of affairs and one which is unlikely to last. Leaders of both British Rail and London Underground workers have expressed their determination to secure pay rises in excess of the 3.4 per cent inflation rate.

There is also a new political mood which must be entered into the equation. One senior management source at the Post Office yesterday said that his director colleagues in other businesses, both public and private, had detected a "definite swagger" about their employees, many of whom believe that the Government's days are numbered. Mrs Thatcher has long gone and her successor is not seen as a figure of authority.

The bout of industrial muscle-flexing has serious implications for the Labour Party. A greater propensity to take industrial action will lead to a greater propensity by Conservatives to make political capital out of it. If the atmosphere continues to deteriorate, Tony Blair could find himself beset by industrial disputes if he enters No 10.

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