Stephen Bevan of The Work Foundation: A return to industrial strife?

Guest blog: professor Stephen Bevan, Director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at The Work Foundation and honourary professor at Lancaster University gives his view on the public sector strike on 30 November 2011 and the inclusion of a regional pay review for the public sector in the Autumn Statement.

Did last week’s public sector strike herald a return to the bad old days of industrial strife? Listening to the ever more heated and bitter exchanges between Ministers, opposition spokespeople and Union leaders it would be easy to conclude that the answer was ‘yes’.

However, viewed with just a little perspective it’s important to remember that, during the original ‘winter of discontent’ in 1979 almost 30 million working days were lost to strike action. By contrast, during 2009 – as the recession was biting hard – the comparable figures were 456,000.

In the Seventies, with higher levels of union membership, it was common for industrial disputes to go on for weeks. These days the ‘day of action’ is the preferred way of demonstrating the strength of feeling among union members and exerting industrial ‘muscle’.

However, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the depth of feeling at the root of modern day strike action is any less intense. The political stakes are certainly very high.

The Coalition Government has, for example, created the impression the strikes will be a fatal blow to economic recovery despite – earlier this year – sanctioning an extra Bank Holiday for the Royal Wedding which had a far bigger impact on national productivity.

There is also a real worry among Union leaders that the Government will try to exact revenge on Unions as a result of the current dispute. Talk of reforming union legislation on strike ballots was regarded by many in the union movement as provocative posturing.

More seriously, however, and tucked away in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement on Tuesday last week (29 November) was an apparently uncontroversial commitment to review the case for Regional Pay in the public sector – undermining the national pay bargaining agreements which most Unions value so highly and allowing NHS and local authority workers doing the same job to be paid very differently in different Regions – a pay postcode lottery.

This was clearly a ‘shot across the bows’ in a longer-term battle for dominance, although previous attempts at dismantling national bargaining – most recently by Gordon Brown – ran into the sand because local pay has proven unworkable and costly.

But, taken together with the extension of a pay cap of 1 per cent among public sector workers until 2015, the Government’s approach to industrial relations runs the risk of being seen by many as both vindictive and punitive, just at a time when what we need least is a return to the tribalism and conflict of 30 years ago.

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