Today’s Daily Mail has a rather sensationalist take on the news that about 850,000 council workers are going on strike.* However, even if you hate the laziness of journalists who talk about a ‘spring of discontent’ followed by a ‘summer of discontent’ and so on (as Kevin Maguire says in this week’s Tribune), you can’t deny that strikes are in the air.
It’s not just the local government workers in the union Unison – although that covers a very wide variety of people, from social workers to dinner ladies, sorry, catering staff. This autumn sees a strike ballot by civil servants in the PCS union, which could see 280,000 people on strike.
And one union – the GMB – told me yesterday that they want to revise the NHS pay deal for 1.3 million staff – which was only agreed last week.
The reason for all this is, of course, inflation and the rising cost of food, fuel and energy in particular. It is those costs, and not pay rises, which are responsible for the sharp increase in the rate of inflation this year, according to Bank of England governor Mervyn King. He said last week that inflation measured accoriding to the CPI – the government way – will hit 4 per cent this year. Council workers were being offered 2.45 per cent.
The real issue is not, I think, the effect that those strike days will have on local services or the economy, but whether the government’s belt-tightening pay policy will still hold in the face of over 2 million refuseniks. Ideally they would like to see 2 per cent pay rises all round, which – they say – will help bring inflation under control. And it’s true that Mervyn King says inflation will come back under control if only we don’t spend too much or pay ourselves too much.
But the unions won’t stand for that. Unison, which is also party to the NHS pay deal, isn’t threatening to reopen talks just yet, but from what I’m learning they will probably do so in a few months – just as the PCS union starts balloting for strike action.
Be in no doubt – Brown and Darling are being tested, and tested hard. David Cameron is already cheerfully talking about how Labour is in a “stranglehold” because of union funding. We may not be about to witness a winter of discontent like 1978-79, it could bring down the Government all the same.
*Update, 12 July: Actually, only about 600,000 workers are due to go on strike, since only the English, Welsh and Northern Irish Unison members were balloted. Scottish members – who make up the remaining 250,000 – are being balloted seperately.