For all the claims that the wave of public sector strikes taking place today represents the greatest mass stoppage in decades, and possibly since the General Strike of 1926, the brutal truth is that for most people they will be only a mild inconvenience, and many will not notice they have taken place at all.
In the past, miners, power workers, merchant seamen, postal and car workers were among those who had the capacity to inflict severe damage on the national economy over many weeks and months. This cannot be argued today. Those without children at state schools, those not using the NHS that day, and those without a house on fire will certainly not feel the difference. The modern trend for a 24-hour stoppage, with at least a week’s statutory notice, means most employers and users of public services can plan ahead and make contingency plans. Such pain as there is soon passes.
Whether there is sympathy for strikes or not – and they are a perfectly legitimate and lawful industrial action – the extent of the disruption is easily exaggerated. Even the longer strikes undertaken by the RMT on public transport in London recently were only patchily effective, and left no lasting damage. That they are annoying, but not economically significant, is one good reason why the sorts of additional thresholds in strike ballots being proposed by some Conservatives are unnecessary. As Tony Blair once remarked, we have some of the toughest labour laws in Europe already.
In fact it is surprising that the strikes have not come sooner, and been much more extensive. The Government’s austerity programme has undoubtedly hit public services and poorly paid public sector staff badly. The NHS in particular is feeling the effects of frozen real-terms budgets while the demands on it grow ever more intense. Nor are the cuts, and their effects, confined to the services represented by the strikers today; the armed forces and police have also borne their share of hardship. Such civil disorder as we have seen, as in the summer of 2011, was not organised by the likes of the NUT or Unison.
A further inconvenient truth for the unions, therefore, may be that the population as a whole has been more convinced by the arguments in favour of cuts and austerity than we might care to admit. Voters have shown that they accept that taxes have had to rise and public spending be restrained because of the budget deficit, whoever they blame for that – Gordon Brown, the bankers, mysterious “world economic forces”, and so on. To recycle a phrase from an older episode of retrenchment, they believe that there is no alternative to the current policies. That, as well as the comparatively tokenistic nature of the strikes, accounts for the mixture of sympathy and apathy much of the public is likely to display.
The strikers have a point. Public services have been damaged by cuts, and some of the poorest-paid workers are in those services. True, they have the benefit of pensions linked to their salaries in a way that is virtually extinct in the private sector, but no one would call a health care assistant a fat cat. There will be no let-up in the cuts in the next parliament, whoever wins the election, and indeed they may intensify. How the parties will protect the most vital services and provide a fair deal to those who labour in them is one of the most important questions as the 2015 general election approaches.