Flares and mullets aren’t the only 1970s trends that are enjoying a comeback. Across the Western world, disputes between workers and bosses are leading to increased unionisation and industrial action. Beginning today, 40,000 UK railway workers will down tools in the biggest strike of its kind in more than 30 years. The most immediate cause of this is rising inflation and the lack of any significant attendant pay rises. But it also reflects a shift in the power of collective bargaining.
As a result of deindustrialisation and globalisation, memberships of unions representing manual workers plummeted after the 1970s. But when the pandemic struck, the importance of people such as health workers and delivery drivers was thrown into sharper relief. At the time, many posited that an increased awareness of those doing what was dubbed “essential” work might lead to a reappraisal of their pay and status. Unfortunately for those hoping for such an outcome, the pandemic has been followed by inflation. The splashing of public cash in Europe and North America, combined with supply-chain disruptions, has fed the crisis – and panicked exchequers have moved to tighten purse strings as a result.
Relative public support for unions (a poll by Ipsos Mori found that 77 per cent agree that they are essential to protecting workers’ interests) stems from a general belief that work in “essential professions” should be more rewarding and secure. The pandemic has also once again whetted electorates’ appetites for a fairer, more regulated labour market; in the US and UK, union membership has risen for the fourth year in a row. But it’s worth remembering that it was union intransigence in the 1970s that portended a decline in collective bargaining. Whatever the result of this week’s strikes, the public support for resurgent unions offers an opportunity – if they avoid the pitfalls of the past.
Alexis Self is Monocle’s associate editor.