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FORTY-FOUR years ago this week, Britain began its descent into a three-month long nightmare as workers across multiple industries downed tools and walked out in coordinated strikes.
Over the following four decades, we fooled ourselves into thinking that the militant unions had been defeated and we would never suffer similar national paralysis again.
We are still a long way from the miseries of the Winter of Discontent in terms of the number of days lost to strikes[/caption]
Many of the public services being affected now were already dysfunctional before the strikes[/caption]
But we were wrong: union militancy wasn’t dead, only sleeping.
We are still a long way from the miseries of the Winter of Discontent in terms of the number of days lost to strikes, yet there is a strong whiff of the 1970s in the air.
Yet again, rail workers have been walking out.
National Rail is telling passengers not to bother travelling until January 8 if they can possibly help it.
Border Agency staff, too, will be on strike for most of this week.
In January, we face more disruption from ambulance drivers, nurses, driving examiners and others.
In some ways, things are worse than they were in early 1979.
Many of the public services being affected now were already dysfunctional before the strikes.
The railways and the NHS never properly recovered from Covid lockdowns.
People have been left waiting two weeks for a GP appointment, some have had to cancel holidays because their passport has not arrived in time, or cannot drive because they can’t get their licence renewed.
There is a deep malaise across much of the public sector.
Large numbers of employees don’t seem to want to work any more, or they only want to work four days a week, or they expect to be able to work from home all the time.
And yet the unions still seem to expect fat, inflation-busting pay rises — and without any changes in working practices to improve productivity.
Sorry, but it just doesn’t add up.
You can’t have an economy where productivity is static yet where everyone helps themselves to a big pay rise each year.
Inflation is nature’s way of making sure that we can’t get something for nothing.
The railways are a prime example of the unrealistic demands of the unions.
Rail staff already enjoy bumper salaries.
The median salary for a rail worker is currently £43,747 — some £10,000 a year more than the average UK worker.
Train drivers, in particular, have enjoyed bumper pay increases of 39 per cent over the past decade.
During Covid, they continued to receive their full salaries, in spite of few trains running.
But they certainly haven’t earned their pay rises through greater productivity.
On the contrary, the rail industry is failing.
In the year to March, the railways took £5.8billion in ticket revenue — but swallowed £13.3billion in public subsidy.
If the railways were a normal industry, not propped up by the taxpayer, they would be bankrupt.
Either that or rail companies would desperately be trying to survive by slashing jobs and other costs.
Yet the RMT refuses even to discuss one of the obvious ways in which it could bring revenues and costs a little more into line: by introducing more driver-only operated trains.
Driver-only trains have been running perfectly safely on Britain’s railways since 1982, when BR successfully introduced them in the face of protesting unions.
They already account for 30 per cent of trains.
Many trains could be run without drivers, too.
There are dozens of metro systems around the world which operate without a driver in sight.
Yet in Britain, railways continue to employ far more staff than they need, merely because the unions have blocked reform and the government has been too scared to take them on.
Union militancy might have won rail workers fat pay rises for now, but the industry simply cannot go on as it is.
UK households last year paid an average of £400 in subsidies to prop up the railways — whether they ever use trains or not.
Even before the pandemic, 40 per cent of people hadn’t taken a train for at least a year — and usage has fallen sharply since then.
Between April and June this year, the number of passengers was only 76 per cent of what it was before the pandemic.
Thanks to the strikes, even more passengers will be deserting the railways for good. In pursuing short-term gains, the unions are destroying their industry.
It is the same as what happened four decades ago.
The union leaders who brought about the Winter of Discontent were no doubt pleased with their handiwork at the time.
They helped bring down the Callaghan government, after all.
But look what happened after that.
The National Union of Mineworkers helped speed up the demise of the coal industry.
Nationalised car-maker British Leyland stumbled on for a few more years before going down, taking with it every single job at Birmingham’s notoriously militant Longbridge plant.
UK steel-making is a shadow of its former self.
Britain can have union militancy or it can have economic success. It cannot have both.
That was a lesson we had to learn the hard way back in the 1970s.
It is sad that we are going to have to learn it all over again.
We haven’t learned from the 70s: We can have unions or success, not both
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