We are now entering into a new phase of the wave of industrial disputes that started in the summer, national public sector strikes are now an impending reality. Their main significance is that they directly challenge the government and force it to engage with the reality of industrial action. Equally, these public sector disputes are, in some ways, more straightforward than many of the private sector disputes as many of them are effectively pay disputes with a government that can be electorally punished as opposed to a dispute over the future of a pension scheme or attempting to extract concessions from a trans-national employer. 

The likely extent of the upcoming disruption is not yet clear. Although the Royal College of Nursing and Chartered Society of Physiotherapy have a live strike mandate at over 100 hospitals in England, much of the ambulance service (between GMB and UNISON) will be on strike, and PCS has a mandate in several civil service departments, unions have had mixed success in balloting. For instance, UNISON only passed the balloting threshold at 8 trusts (out of 262) in England. Equally, PCS were disappointed not to pass the threshold in some departments (such as HMRC) and will be re-balloting. As well as this, both the NEU and the BMA may not pass their nationally aggregated ballots, as has happened with the Royal College of Midwives, (the FBU are likely to pass theirs), which end in January and February respectively, Thus, the public sector action could fizzle out in the new year, once the RCN, the union which currently possess the greatest challenge to the government, secures some concessions. Alternatively, it could rapidly escalate.

Either way, the prospect of disputes appears to have taken the government by surprise and it is evidently concerned about the possibility. For all its bluster, it currently appears to have no plan to deal with the strikes and it evidently lacks the institutional memory of the Conservative Party from the 1970s to the 90s that was seasoned in industrial conflict. The current crop of politicians charged with responding to the industrial action look more like the result of a ‘bring your kid to work’ day than a serious anti-union outfit. 

Now, let us assume that the public sector unions enjoy success in their ballots, or at least the craft based ones do while the general ones still struggle. Currently the government wants to be seen to be doing something but is doing practically nothing. The state is weak and many of the government threats appear empty. The government says it will deploy the military to cover strikes; however, the military is not large enough to cover vast swathes of the public sector and much of the labour it will be deployed to cover is highly qualified (think the time taken to train nurses and doctors). This will not be effective and nor will it be safe. As in 2002, a government deploying the army to cover a strike can have unintended consequences if the army in question isn’t well equipped. There is a certain karma in the Conservative’s pursuit of austerity now reducing the state’s capacity to respond to large industrial action by force.

There is no doubt that the government is worried about its inability to beat the strikes, hence why it has talked up the prospect of new anti-union legislation to make striking as difficult as possible in the form of minimum service levels. This will be no panacea for the government though, at the very earliest this legislation will not arrive until after winter, and even then trying to operate at minimum service levels will be difficult for the public sector. It is not clear that the rest of Grant Shapps’ 16-point masterplan will prevent effective industrial action, as many of its provisions are tackling problems that do not exist, such as its focus on picket lines. Running through the plan is the implicit assumption that unions are misleading and manipulating workers, demonstrating that the government does not comprehend what it is actually faced with. Rather than prevent disputes, this legislation will elongate and embitter them as it encourages longer periods of unbroken strike action and a harsher response from workers.

Most cowardly of all, the government has recently taken to hiding behind pay review bodies, claiming that they independently set public sector pay, even though the treasury and relevant government department (Department of Health and Social Care for the NHS) set the parameters within which these bodies operate and even then, they only make recommendations to the government such as those about Nurses’ pay in 2014 that Jeremy Hunt ignored as health secretary. Just as on the railways (where the government has insisted on modernisation reliant on job cuts and refuses to grant additional funding) the government provokes industrial action but then, pathetically, does not have the decency to engage with it. 

Should public sector trade unions succeed in securing strong ballot turnouts (at which point non-union members covered by the same trade dispute can also legally engage in industrial action) the government will have to negotiate with them as nothing can adequately replace the labour that members will withdraw. This is something that employers in the private sector have also had to contend with, as demonstrated by CWU’s endorsed deal with BT Group and the possible solution to the rail strikes that the government keeps blocking. 

The main obstacles to trade unions in forcing the government to come to the table are securing these balloting turnouts and maintaining members’ commitments to strikes. Both are hard, and as inflation continues, striking becomes more expensive (and unions’ capacity to fund all members engaged in national action is limited) trade union members will have their resolve greatly tested. However, one cannot help but think it is not the most sensible thing for the government to engage in this staring contest while the public sector continues to deteriorate.