In 1984 we had the start of the Miners strike, for those who remember that period it began with the three day week and threats of blackouts and ten years later the news was filled with flying pickets and pitched battles between the miners and the police. The National Union of Mineworkers took to the picket lines in response to the closure of a number of mines and at its peak 170,000 or so miners were involved.
But with changes in the demand for coal and the privatisation of coal mines they have vanished, to be replaced by imported coal or by North Sea gas. The last deep coal mine in the UK closed last year and the NUM, as of 2014 listed little more than a 1,000 members.
The powerful union that made governments tremble was gone.
Look back to the point where British Steel was a massive industry, before cheap overseas imports, high energy costs and automation and you would have seen over 300,000 people directly working in the industry. This was the 1970s.
By 1990 this had dropped below 50,000 as smaller plants closed and many jobs were lost to streamlining and technological progress. Now it’s 18,000 people.
In 1990 British Steel was a massive 0.5% of the UKs entire GDP. Now it’s under 0.1% and doesn’t even show on most charts. The high quality British steel made up a smaller and smaller part of the economy and imports from both other EU countries and from China pushed it aside. UK production was simply more expensive when you factored in energy costs, the various pollution charges and the fact that most customers were happy to buy cheaper, lower quality steel.
The Steelworkers Union has had to merge with other manufacturing unions and a wide range of other industries to survive, it is now called Community and is simply one of dozens of trades that Union represents.
If Tata closes down the steel plants there are reports that as many as 15,00 direct job losses and another 25,000 jobs in the many support industries will go leaving the once mighty British Steel workers about as powerful a union as the NUM.
The junior Doctors have, for many months, been complaining about the way they have been treated by the Government but this is just one part of the overall damage the NHS is suffering. In a handful of years hospital trusts that were breaking even of making a small profit suddenly found themselves making loss after loss, staff numbers fell forcing them to use more expensive agency staff, targets were missed which led to fines which made the losses higher. There are constant rumours and reports of steady privatisation of the NHS and the struggle of the Junior doctors has become an integral part of that.
Between them the BMA and the RCN represent most of the NHS staff in the UK and by speaking with a single voice (mostly) they are able to put their case and push for a better deal because they are significant power blocks. The public certainly seem to be supporting the junior doctors and the NHS, I doubt there are many families in the UK who haven’t had a family member treated by the NHS and the only place they are being criticised is the generally right wing / pro Tory media.
But as more and more hospitals become privately run and the staff have no choice but to sign up to contracts with a multitude of employers the unity they once had will be gone, there will be no single contract to negotiate and no single employer to deal with. Instead they will be faced with hundreds of separate contracts, thousands of different terms and conditions and the BMA will find itself torn apart.
A once powerful union will be chopped into little bits as the NHS is chopped into little bits and after that the government will have nothing to fear from them.
Schools that become Academies will no longer be responsible to local councils or any government central body. Instead they will be owned and run by a whole series of private sector companies running as charities (but there are plenty of ways to make money like that, look at Perry Beeches or Parklands High School), the teachers will be negotiating contracts and terms with the company / charity that runs each individual school.
The teachers unions will be unable to represent all of their members except by dealing with every single local situation since there is no one body they can go to try and make deals with. Instead they will find themselves chopped into many little, local groups who will invariably end up standing alone against whatever contract their new employers force on them.
Which isn’t to say all academies will be bad, some will, I’m sure, be beacons of good education and fair deals but given my cynicism I’m sure that more than a few will toss education away in pursuit of profit and we will have nothing but our current government to keep them in check.
So another of the big, militant unions will be gone.
Miners, Steelworkers, BMA, NUT. There aren’t that many of the big, powerful unions from Maggie’s day left once they are gone, and when you throw in the attacks on the trade unions in total with new legislation, well, it’s probably time to remember those little details like the weekend, contracts, working hours restrictions and the like.
I don’t see the steel workers being saved unless a private sector company steps in, it will be retraining and some half hearted promises from the government but to me British Steel is going the way of British coal and then it will be turn of the NHS and education.
The last of the once or currently nationalised public sector will be gone the way of the railways and electricity. Will that herald a better world of companies competing with each other to produce the highest quality services and the lowest prices to attract customers or will it lead to maximum profit and the customers treated worse than cattle?
If you're having trouble with that question, take a train journey across the UK.