I know very little about modern labour relations beyond what I’ve learned over the past few weeks as a lecturer on strike. However, I do know a fair bit about labour relations between about 1550 and 1750.
In my previous post, I talked about the vital role played by a wider ‘strike culture’ of objects and actions in enhancing the power of labour action, both then and now. Yet focusing exclusively on ‘culture’ risks underestimating the hard structural barriers that worker mobilisation regularly bumps up against.
Although undoubtedly there is ‘power in a union’, there is also a great deal of coercive power held by our employers and the state.
British law is, as far as I can tell, unusually hostile to trade union action, another unhappy inheritance from the Thatcher years. This means that employers can threat – and implement – all sorts of nasty things that seem like they ought to be illegal but are actually within the bounds of the law.
The biggest shock for me was discovering that many universities were threatening to dock some or all of their staff’s wages for ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS) a.k.a. working to contract. There has been a strong push from the strikers and their allies to get these universities to reverse these policies, with much success. But at the time of writing, eight institutions (Bristol, City, Heriot-Watt, Leeds, Liverpool, Royal Holloway, Salford, and Surrey) were still threatening this.
Poster by Ken Spague, 1971: V&A
Even more thorny is the problem of the pensions themselves. Suffice to say the issue is complex, but it is clear enough that the Pensions Regulator and various official rules have made it more difficult to get a clear sense of how much room for negotiation is actually available. As has been expertly discussed by Josephine Cumbo and Michael Otsuka, while these formal structures are not entirely rigid or immovable, they still impose very real boundaries on the options available.
Three or four hundred years ago, workers taking action encountered some similar problems. The economy was of course very different, with very few large-scale employers and many more household-sized economic units. Nonetheless, as I noted in my previous post, there were still ‘strikes’ and other labour disputes. And in most of these conflicts, the broader legal context favoured ‘masters’ (employers) over their workers. Continue reading