Britain Prepares for a “Christmas of Discontent”

winter of discontent

Commuters on Southern Rail are facing their third day of strikes, and some Crown Post Office workers are proceeding with their plans for a series of walk-outs this Christmas.

Not to be outdone, Airport staff, British Airways cabin crew and Virgin Atlantic pilots have also announced their plans for strike action over the holidays. About 1,500 check-in staff, baggage handlers and cargo crew at several UK airports have also called for a 48-hour strike from the 23rd of December over pay.

BA said it was “appalled” that approximately 4,500 cabin crew who are represented by the union Unite would go on strike, but vowed that they would ensure passengers reach their destinations.

A spokesman for BA said, “This action is unprecedented, and we will not allow it to succeed in disrupting our business. It is a cold and callous action aimed directly at the travelling public to ruin their holidays. It is completely unacceptable.”

The number of strikes has dropped sharply since the 1970’s winter of discontent and the Miners’ Strike in 1984-85. Then, a mass of crippling strikes and civil unrest spread across the country which ultimately led to the fall of the then-Labour government and the election of Margaret Thatcher.

Before the Thatcher administration, trade unions were more powerful with leaders such as Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Mineworkers setting out to bring down the government. In those days, the railways, British Airways and Royal Mail were all state-owned, and strike action was generally on a national level. Rather than a strike being limited to Southern Rail as it is now, industrial action would have covered the whole of the network and crippled the country.

“The level of action now pales into insignificance compared to the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79,” says Professor Gregor Gall from the University of Bradford.

The Prime Minister is being pressured to impose emergency laws to prevent the strikes over the holiday season with at least two senior members of the Conservative party backed by dozens of MPs calling for a tougher approach to unions.

They want the Prime Minister to bolster strike legislation, so that “critical” industries and services are protected.

So what has brought about this new wave of strike activity? It’s hard to be sure, but as Jacqueline Woodward, a USDAW union member, says, “Years of austerity and falling living standards have taken their toll on hard-working people and it has to stop. No union members want to strike, but if we can’t see an improvement in our standard of living and take-home pay, this is just the beginning. There is unrest, and with wages stagnant and no hope of improvement, workers need to take action.”

“People are feeling the pinch,” she continued. “Average workers are not being paid in line with profits and the wages of the fat cat bosses – it’s like the economy and social structure is returning to the 50s. We want greater parity and fairer conditions.”

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