Britain: Striking Unionism With a Political Cutting Edge
Compared with the wave of general strikes that have swept across Europe since 2009, the response of UK trade unions to the global financial crisis and government austerity measures has been rather more muted. However, in March 2011 there was the largest ever trade union protest demonstration in Britain’s history involving half a million workers, which was followed in November by a one-day public sector general strike of 2.5 million workers which represented the biggest industrial confrontation since the miners’ strike in 1984–5 and the biggest single day of strike action in Britain since the 1926 General Strike. Although nowhere nearly as extensive or prolonged as Greek, Spanish or French-style union organised resistance, the rising levels of strike activity against austerity have led to an upsurge in membership levels for a number of unions combined with renewed levels of engagement and collective organisation (Labour Research, February 2012).
Of course this recent spate of union militancy in Britain has occurred against a backcloth of many years of union decline and retreat on a much greater scale than elsewhere in Europe, the broad contours of which include: a decline in strike activity to its lowest ever historical levels; the steepest ever sustained decline in union membership and density levels, with union presence narrowly confined overwhelmingly in the public sector; a substantial fall in the coverage of collective bargaining and number of workplace union reps; and the hangover from the defeat of the miners’ strike...
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