Leading Article: Striking differences

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The Independent Online
A SPECTRE has recently been sighted by the Government. At the moment it is no bigger than a man's hand or the front-page of a tabloid newspaper, but it threatens by the summer to haunt (and disrupt) us all. Or so some ministers would have us believe, because spectres can be useful allies of governments, particularly when governments are in trouble. Spectres point shrouded fingers back to the past: how awful it was, how awful it could be again. Few of us would care to relive the winter of 1978-79 - the winter of discontent, more rubbish than usual in the streets, the dead infamously unburied - and that is the spectre. Last week it could be glimpsed at its most spectral - hood up like Mr Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal - in a report in the Times, which spoke of ministerial fears of a 'hidden dimension' to the pressure now being applied on the Government by teachers and railway workers and their trade unions. Ministers see the unions 'flexing their muscles' and fear a wave of public sector disruption in the summer.

It could happen. But if it does, the question will be why. The anonymous ministers imply that anonymous subversives are at play among the trade unions, a 'hidden dimension' which is particularly helpful to John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, in his so far unconvincing attempts to portray his antagonists in the classroom as revolutionaries rather than troubled professionals who do not think his plans can work. There is no evidence to support this idea (but then, as Mr Patten and the Un-American Activities Committee would point out, there wouldn't be, would there?). True, Arthur Scargill, a revolutionary, still leads the miners and the miners threaten more strikes, but nobody can doubt that these threats are really cries for public support and sympathy from a greatly diminished and beleaguered workforce. Our lights will not go off. Coal is piled up across the country and more can easily be imported.

Which brings us to industrial muscle, the flexing of. Is this fear at all realistic? Consider what has happened to trade unions since that winter of discontent. In 1979 they had nearly 14 million members. Today they have slightly more than eight million. Entire industries have disappeared, others have new kinds of workers, de-skilled, casual, part- time. The closed shop has been proscribed. Strikes, given the laws on balloting and picketing introduced in the 1980s, are a far, far feebler weapon than 20 years ago when they brought beneficial results for printers, car-makers and coal-miners, if not for the nation and the industries that employed them.

These are all effective constraints on industrial action, but the biggest constraint today is surely the one which exists ominously in the mind of the would-be striker. Sure, I can strike, but will I have a job to go back to? Non-unionised labour from the dole queue may replace me; my work may be switched abroad; my company may close.

It is in this unpromising context, then, that railway workers have struck once and promise this week to strike again; in this context that schoolteachers say they will boycott a central plank of Mr Patten's educational reforms. Return to the question why and a different answer becomes obvious enough: not because these groups and others want to overturn the Government or cash in at the beginning of the promised economic upturn, but because they are desperate. They see the Government pushing ahead with deeply unpopular programmes, which no criticism, reasoning, nor loud complaint seem able to stop. They see arrogance. Nobody outside a minister or two and the Adam Smith Institute wants the dismemberment of the railway system. No matter, it will happen. Few people apart from Mr Patten believe that the new school tests need to be introduced without refinement this summer. No matter, they will happen.

Boycotts and strikes are not good ways to temper a government's intransigence. Aside from anything else, they tend to draw public displeasure on the striker and boycotter. Today, however, the winner of the battle for public sympathy may not be the Government.