Today's strikes show the effect of our restrictive labour laws

It is surprising that they have not come sooner


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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits