The calendar for January is already pock-marked with strike dates for railway workers, ambulance staff, postal workers and others. But does the current situation really deserve to be compared with the Winter of Discontent in 1979, when the rubbish piled high in Leicester Square and dead went unburied (as the gravediggers went on strike)? The answer is surely no – or at least not yet. So long as the government holds firm against wage demands, Rishi Sunak should have no fear of being humiliated as Jim Callaghan was then.
As was the case 44 years ago, the unions are engaged in a raw exercise of power. Yet they are struggling a lot more now to bring the government to the table. Their power has diminished partly because of changes to trade union law, which, for example, have outlawed flying pickets. There are now more rules for ballots which make it much harder for well-remunerated union leaders to sustain strikes when their hungry members want to return to work.
But more to the point, the economy has changed. Workforces are smaller and more dissipated than they were in 1979.Then, mineworkers or train drivers still had the power to turn out the lights in Britain: most electricity was generated from British collieries and transported to power stations by train. Now, our energy supply is more diverse. Rail unions are struggling to inflict the havoc they could even four years ago. Covid lockdowns forced employers to seek ways of working remotely; it is easy for office-based workers to slip back into working from home for a few days: many welcome the chance to do so.
The other big difference from 1979 is that, for now at least, the government, as well as private employers, have refused to budge in the face of wage demands.