Each threat of a one-day strike is now accompanied by dark allusions to the General Strike of 1926 and/or the Winter of Discontent of 1978-1979. And each time it becomes more ridiculous to try to make such historical claims and comparisons. The historical reasons why it’s not 1926 or 1979 all over again were examined at some length in an article I wrote on spiked at the time of the June walk-outs (see British trade unions: General Shrug now!), and there is no wish here to do a Dave Prentis by simply repeating myself this time around.
Suffice to say that this week’s token and half-hearted one-day strike bears no comparison to the nine-day General Strike of 1926, which came at the end of an era of revolution in Europe and class warfare in Britain and saw workers across many industries strike in support of the miners, in a battle against a Tory government that deployed emergency powers, troops and an army of middle-class scabs, whilst waging a fierce propaganda war (led by Winston Churchill) against the ‘Red Menace to the Nation’.
Nor does it help to compare the current action to the Winter of Discontent, when the public-sector unions went on strike against the Labour government’s policies of pay restraint. In 1979, 29million working days were lost due to industrial action. Last year, the estimated figure was 365,000 days - not much more than one per cent of the 1979 record. Indeed, there have been fewer strike days in the past 20 years added together than in 1979 alone. So, claiming ‘the biggest strike in decades’ does not take much – and means even less.
However, there is really no need to harp on these points. Because behind the headlines, the leaders on both sides of this dispute know that the historical allusions are part of a phoney war, and that they are engaged in a bit of PR sparring rather than a class struggle.
In the past, some of us might have caused outrage in trade-union circles by arguing that such a one-day strike, however large, was little more than a gesture. Now, however, trade union officials themselves admit the same thing. Their explanations for this week’s action talk about how it allows their members to ‘express their anger’ at the proposed changes to public-sector pensions or, in the words of Trades Union Congress (TUC) chief Brendan Barber, to show ‘the power of the sense of grievance that people feel’.