[Column] Summer of discontent: Industrial unrest in the UK and elsewhere

Posted on : 2022-08-01 09:37 KST Modified on : 2022-08-01 09:37 KST
The scorching temperatures aren’t the only thing riling up the UK and the rest of the world
London shoppers use self-checkouts at a local supermarket on July 20. (EPA/Yonhap News)
London shoppers use self-checkouts at a local supermarket on July 20. (EPA/Yonhap News)

Timo Fleckenstein
Timo Fleckenstein
By Timo Fleckenstein, associate professor of social policy at the London School of Econom-ics

The costs of living keep spiraling up — certainly putting the weakest in society under enormous pressure but also increasingly reaching the middle classes. Unprecedented hikes in the cost of energy have increased the numbers of those in fuel poverty; and with the so-called energy price cap in the UK set to experience another significant increase in October, fuel poverty is certain to continue growing.

At the same time, rising food prices put the household finances of working people under additional pressure. The UK’s inflation rate is approaching 10 percent, and the Bank of England expects it will cross that threshold in the autumn. Some analysts even fear that 14 percent might be a prospect. To control inflation, interest rates can be expected to go up further, which will translate into higher mortgage payments — another pressure point that will contribute to the spiral of higher living costs.

Obviously, not only record temperatures in the UK have heated up the country — people are concerned about their future. Having said this, they might not be able to expect much support from the Conservative government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has finally lost the confidence of his party, which has started the competition for the party leadership and the top job in government. Whilst the new prime minister is expected to be in place in early September, the current political vacuum is a cause for major concern, and it remains questionable as to whether a new government has the political will to tackle the cost-of-living crisis in a meaningful manner.

Trade unions are not waiting for the government — they are calling for significant wage increases to protect the living standards of working people. Industrial action by rail workers has already caused major disruption across the entire country, and even criminal barristers — not the usual suspects for strike action — have walked out over legal aid funding, which they argue fails to sustain their profession and indeed the criminal court system more generally.

But it does not stop here: in the public sector, teachers, doctors and nurses among others are threatening strike action too; and in the private sector, conflict is also brewing in the airline industry and the post office, to name two industries. University teachers have already been on strike multiple times this year. Observers have suggested a “summer of discontent,” with reference to the infamous “winter of discontent” in 1978-79 when the UK saw large-scale industrial action.

Though triggered by the current socioeconomic crisis, the industrial unrest across different sectors of the economy points to deeper problems. Wage restraint for many years has already effectively eroded the living standards of large parts of the working population — not only has this increased social inequality but also in-work poverty. This situation is by no means unique to the UK, and un-surprisingly elsewhere in Europe industrial conflict over wages is building up too.

Whilst social policy as a means of redistribution is critical for fairer societies, its effectiveness is limited in increasingly polarized labor markets. Dualization thus points to the necessity of labor market institutions that allow for a more egalitarian wage structure that enables for full participation of all in society. Organized labor has an important role to play here, as only collective interest representation can be expected to change the current power balance between employers and workers. However, this also involves a huge responsibility for unions: Only if they truly recognize the imperative to represent the interests of labor market outsiders as well, will they become a progressive force for social change, whilst the preoccupation with insider interests will undermine their legitimacy.

The current and looming industrial disputes will provide important insights into labor’s capacity to become a more inclusive force, and they might provide important international lessons for the modernization of unions for greater social inclusiveness.

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