Unrest is not yet a return to militant days

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The Independent Online
The sudden spate of strikes is more of an irritating rash than a return of the British Disease. Compared with the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1979, when about one-quarter of the working population were employed in industries hit by industrial action, the postal workers' and London Underground strikes are small beer.

Even the possibility of disruption on the rail network, the stoppages by Derbyshire firefighters and the threat of an all-out strike by pilots at British Airways hardly constitute a reawakening of militant labour.

Working days lost through industrial action remain at an all-time low. In 1979 strikes cost 1,272 days per 1,000 employees. Last year the figure was down to 19 per 1,000. The present unrest is unlikely to change the total much.

The two most damaging disputes at Royal Mail and London Underground have important factors in common. Each entails resistance to new working practices by employees in state-owned enterprises. At Royal Mail, management is seeking to improve efficiency by "team-working", a system that relies on colleagues co-operating informally and that members of the Communication Workers' Union believe may force them to work harder for little extra reward.

At London Underground, unions are demanding a one-hour cut in the working week for drivers and the company is insisting on fresh efficiency measures to pay for it.

Despite legislation outlawing the closed shop, the workforce in both cases is highly unionised. A more important element is management's inability to dismiss workers and hire replacements from the dole queues. There is no alternative army of substitute Tube drivers and the Royal Mail would find it extremely hard to employ even a small number of the 130,000 striking staff.