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Trade unions braced for ‘Winter of Discontent’ headlines

As we approach polling day, expect Boris Johnson and his press supporters to turn up the heat over the impact of Corbyn’s pledge to repeal restraints on trade union organisation, says NICHOLAS JONES

ANY pre-election threat of industrial action presents an immediate target for Conservative politicians and their media allies.

Add to the mix a pledge by the Labour Party to row back on ever-tightening legal restrictions on trade union activity, and within an instant Conservative-supporting newspapers are warning of an imminent repeat of the 1979 Winter of Discontent — the year that 29.4 million days were lost due to strikes.

An image of Jeremy Corbyn’s face superimposed on a 1979 photograph of heaps of rotting garbage piled up in Leicester Square appeared in the Sun just after his election as Labour leader in the summer of 2015.

The message then was that such was Corbyn’s “total loathing for Britain” that he would “not be leading New Labour … or Old Labour, just … Dead Labour (Sun, 23.8.2015). 

Not to be outdone, on day two of the 2019 general election campaign the Sun had another two-page spread that reprinted the same photograph — this time with Corbyn looking apparently in despair, holding his head in hands. “Jez plan for 70s-style union chaos: Winters of Discontent” (Sun, 7.11.2019).

News of possible pre-Christmas strikes in long-running disputes affecting rail and postal services commanded front-page banner headlines throughout the opening week of the election campaign.

“Post union “plotting to wreck election” (Daily Telegraph, 5.11.2019); “Rail union’s Xmas misery for millions” (Daily Mail, 6.11.2019); “The nightmare before Christmas” (City AM, 6.11.2019).

This followed the RMT’s warning of 27 days of strike action on South Western trains, starting on December 2, because of SWR’s refusal to give assurances on the future operational role of guards.

The two sides have been called together by the conciliation service Acas in an attempt to resolve the dispute.

In response to the threat of postal strikes in the run-up to polling day and Christmas, Royal Mail successfully challenged the CWU in the High Court on the grounds that the union might have breached the Trade Union and Labour Regulations Act when balloting its members.

But the CWU has launched an appeal against an injunction forbidding strike action before the general election on December 12.

There was a turnout of 76 per cent in the CWU ballot of 110,000 members, across 1,400 workplaces, and a 97.1 per cent Yes vote.

However, the management alleged there were “potential irregularities” due to interference by union officials when members were said to have been bullied into voting at workplaces after ballot papers were intercepted before arriving at members’ homes.

Most newspapers and broadcasters have simply said that the postal dispute is about a “disagreement” with management on implementing last year’s deal, without going into any background or detail.

There has been little or no explanation of the CWU’s complaint that commitments on pay, working hours and pensions have not been met by Royal Mail, which was privatised in 2013.

Rather than devote space to interviews with postal workers, press coverage has followed an all too familiar path, with the Daily Telegraph wheeling out a demolition job on the credibility of the CWU’s general secretary, Dave Ward: “Corbynista who affiliated union with hard-Left Momentum” (Daily Telegraph 5.11.2019).

Without any resolution to either of the disputes, the closer it gets to polling day and Christmas, the greater will be the attempt by Boris Johnson and his press supporters to turn up the heat with alarmist predictions about the impact of Corbyn’s pledge to repeal at least some of the most recent restraints on trade-union organisation.

Nick Jones was a BBC industrial and political correspondent for 30 years until retiring in 2002. His books include The Lost Tribe: Whatever Happened to Fleet Street’s Industrial Correspondents?


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