Liz Truss today becomes Prime Minister of a country shaken by strikes. It’s not just the usual suspects such as train drivers: criminal lawyers, journalists, nurses, call center workers, engineers and garbage truck drivers are among those considering voting for the strike or have already done so.

The farm has promised to make strikes harder to disrupt, saying she will “not let our country be held to ransom by militant trade unionists”. But this answer seems more relevant for the 1970s than today. Much of the current bout of unrest is driven not by powerful union “barons” but from below, the result of a confluence of economic forces that cannot be magically eliminated with new rules on strikes.

The first is the impact of high inflation on people’s wages. Context is important. The arrival of double-digit inflation comes after a long period of stagnation in real wage growth in the UK (linked to the terrible productivity growth since the financial crisis). A pay cut in real terms is painful at the best of times, but harder to bear after a decade without a raise.

Unions say the result has been an explosion of workers. “Obviously we are going through a wave of fairly spontaneous wage activism,” says Martin Smith, organizing manager at the GMB union, who has never seen anything like it since he started working in unions in the 1990s.

“It explodes all around us. . . it really drives the union, rather than the other way around,” says Smith. Amazon warehouse workers, for example, staged unofficial canteen sit-ins in a series of locations to demand higher pay.

The diversity of those on strike is also telling, Smith says. “It indicates there is something deeper, it’s not just the garbage collectors in Littlehampton, it’s people from all walks of life who feel the same way.”

The unions that vote to strike have accomplished feats that are not normally possible. When staff at telecommunications company BT voted in June to strike for the first time in 35 years, what was most remarkable was the fact that many of them were call center workers who worked at home – generally an unstable and atomized workforce that is difficult for unions. reach.

The other economic factor is the tightness of the labor market. With an unemployment rate of just 3.8% and more than a million vacancies, workers are more confident to challenge their employers because they know they are in demand. Drivers in particular, from HGVs to garbage trucks, have benefited from labor shortages since Brexit and the pandemic. Last week, some garbage workers in Windsor won a 17% pay rise from Serco after a day-long strike.

Many investors in listed companies are taking a more pragmatic approach to industrial relations, says Tom Powdrill of shareholder advisory firm PIRC. “In the past, it would have been: ‘The unions are terrible, their demands are always outrageous’. Now there is a little more acceptance that there is going to be a battle and that some ground will have to be given.

In the public sector, where the government has offered an average 5% pay rise to 2.5 million workers, qualified staff, from teachers to nurses, also know they are in short supply. In the latest NHS staff survey, which received more than 600,000 responses, only 27% said there were enough workers in their organization to do their jobs properly. In education, a survey by the Head Teachers’ Union found that 95% of respondents reported recruitment difficulties in July, with almost half saying the problem was “serious”.

New rules to make it harder for unions to call strikes would do nothing to solve the public sector’s fundamental recruitment and retention problems. It is also unclear whether the general public would support a union crackdown. An internal TUC poll suggests public support for strikes this year has been stronger than usual, particularly for essential staff who have worked during the pandemic.

The focus of these strikes on wages is easier to convey: anyone can understand why someone would want a pay rise when inflation is over 10%. Strikes for layoffs or changes to work patterns often elicit less sympathy. On the other hand, the public may well turn against strikes if they begin to disrupt such vital things as education and health care.

Either way, it’s time for Truss to put the 1970s aside and look at what’s really happening in 2022. Love unions or hate them, social unrest in the UK this year is the symptom , rather than the cause, of the economy’s problems.

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