The threat of a general strike is starting to rear its head. Whilst the union movement has a lot to offer its members and the country, they must be extremely careful in this time of economic fragility. A general strike wouldn’t be justifiable and would end up doing a lot more harm than good for the unions, their members and the country.
The unions need to recognise that there is no ‘easy’ solution to the problems of the economy. Union leaders often turn to ill-conceived ideas, such as a unilateral financial transaction tax (incongruously entitled by some: ‘The Robin Hood Tax’), as the solution to the UK’s budgetary problems. There is also the laughable idea proposed by Bob Crow of an email tax. Similarly, even the most optimistic proponents of a financial transaction tax cannot believe it will solve the UK’s budget deficit; even if it was coordinated internationally.
Thus the unions must accept that there will be spending cuts and public sector workers will be made redundant. Whilst each job loss is a tragedy that no politician relishes, there is no alternative. If there was an easy route the coalition and Labour would be following it to avoid unpopularity.
One often hears the protestation that the public sector didn’t cause the financial crisis, so why should they lose their jobs and suffer pay restrictions as a result? However, a similar point can be made about private sector workers who have suffered job losses and pay restrictions because of a crisis most didn’t cause. It may not be fair that the mass of the population has to pay for the financial mismanagement of politicians and bankers, but that doesn’t change the situation or provide the measures necessary to fix it.
A general strike wouldn’t help the unions stop job losses or pay restrictions. Union leaders have forgotten the result of the Winter of Discontent. It didn’t lead to the unions getting their way. Rather they made the lives of the rest of the public so insufferable that they became hugely unpopular. A Labour lead in the polls evaporated and was replaced by a landslide Conservative victory which allowed Thatcher to crush the unions. A general strike today would be similar. The public would hate the unions, and rightly so. How could the NUT possibly portray a strike that would severely damage the prospects of their students as protecting the future of the country? How could the RMT possibly portray the immobilisation of the UK’s infrastructure as being in the interest of the UK’s economy? How could Unison possibly portray serious disruption to the NHS as protecting the weak and in need?
The government wouldn’t be brought down, and even if it was Labour is committed to a similar deficit reduction plan. All that significant strike action would achieve would be more economic damage. It would call into question the government’s ability to deal with the UK’s fiscal problems and cause concern amongst the bond markets, which ultimately control how much the UK pays for its debt. If it reduced revenues and forced temporarily greater spending then it would just necessitate even greater spending cuts later on.
All of these things would make the pressure on the government to toughen union legislation overwhelming, regardless of who was in power. Whilst it is understandable that the unions wish to protect the jobs and pay of their members, they must be reasonable. A general strike would do nothing but harm.