Skip navigation

Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

Articles and Briefings

Welcome to the smart strike

By Mark Leonard. Source: New Statesman

Unions get a bad press if they hurt the public. The wiser ones are exploring new ways to get what they want.

Imagine a world where strikes are popular. Not just tolerated, but actually popular. Imagine a situation where the end of a Tube or bus strike is lamented on the streets. Belgian transport workers achieved this unlikely feat last year, when members of the Centrale Generale des Services Publics went on a spree of industrial action. Instead of ruining the lives of commuters through a general shutdown, striking workers in Brussels closed the ticket offices and allowed a grateful public on to trains and buses for free.

Maybe, as they prepare to extend Britain's summer of discontent on the railways, RMT bosses should hop on the Eurostar and take a few lessons from their Belgian counterparts. For that matter, they could even learn a few lessons closer to home.

There has been a revolution in attitudes towards strikes among British unions. Not only are strikes now hedged around with all sorts of legal restrictions, but also unions find it increasingly difficult to persuade their members to take action. Nigel Stanley, the head of campaigns and communications at the TUC, says: "Union members do not want to lose the income. They have mortgages and foreign holidays to pay for."

Above all, there has been an ideological shift from "social conflict" to "social partnership". Under John Monks's leadership, the TUC has moved from collective bargaining for union members' rights to campaigning for statutory rights. And the number of stoppages fell in 1998 to just 166, the lowest figure since records began in 1891. Phone a union press office nowadays and they'll expertly fend off questions about strikes and instead talk about how unions are changing. Log on to the TUC website and you are more likely to find proud boasts about a sterling performance in this year's PR Week awards than tales of success on the picket lines.

The unions have realised that the all-out strikes of the 1970s and 1980s caused immeasurable damage, still feeding tabloid depictions of the trade union movement. The winter of discontent and the miners' strike pitted the interests of the public against those of the strikers - and forced us to choose between our identity as consumers and our identity as class warriors. Unsurprisingly, they found we were consumers first, second and third. As the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has argued: "Militant trade unionism antagonised the people not involved in it to such an extent that it gave Thatcherite Toryism its most convincing argument - and the justification for turning the traditional 'one-nation' Tory party into a force for waging militant 'class war'." It took 20 years for unions to recover their position in the public eye, according to John Knell of the Industrial Society: "There is an almost direct correlation between the unpopularity of trade unions and the number of days lost in strikes."

There are parallels between the debate about strikes and that other 1970s weapon of the progressive left - sanctions. Sanctions were enthusiastically embraced as a pain-free way of answering the cry that "something must be done", but they are now seriously discredited. Though they had a dramatic effect on South Africa, they often harm the people they are trying to help. In response to the growing unease over the human toll of all-out sanctions, policy-makers are investigating "smart sanctions" that can target members of the ruling elite while sparing the population. Pioneered by Nato during the Kosovo campaign, such sanctions froze the bank accounts of the Milosevic clan and prevented its members from leaving the country. Could Belgian transport workers be pointing to the birth of the "smart strike"?

British public sector unions are getting the idea, walking the fine line between expressing protest and keeping the public on board. During the 1980s, a year of industrial action by the National Union of Teachers resulted in terrible headlines as children were sent home and after-school activities were cancelled. The chastened unions adopted new tactics to fight the imposition of over-bureaucratic and excessive tests. Exam scripts were marked and returned to pupils - so parents were kept happy - but the government's plans for feeding the data into national league tables were boycotted. The action succeeded: the government was forced to hire external markers the following year. This ingenuity echoes past innovations such as "open-air classes", which mark protest without harming children. More recently, Unison campaigns for a "living wage" have abandoned the angry demo in favour of the carnival, with a pantheon of pop stars to take the message to the people.

Smart strikes in the private sector are about targeting companies' reputations, calculating the damage they can inflict on brand value rather than on production targets. "Hitting a company's reputation and share price may well be much more damaging than hitting a day's activities in some part of the organisation," says Nigel Stanley. "There is more suspicion about big corporations than in the past as the fuss about GM food demonstrated."

Unions now understand that, if they do mount strikes, the action must move seamlessly from the picket line to the photo opportunity. The British Airways cabin crew strike - which began the sharp decline in the company's share price - is cited with awe by many union apparatchiks. The Transport and General Workers' Union promoted air stewardesses, photographed in their uniforms, as the least likely militants in industrial iconography. "People naturally thought that these friendly, charming people must have a real grievance," says Stanley. Not to be outdone, Rolls-Royce workers in Coventry, represented by the MSF, thumbed their noses at management by turning up to work in their gardening clothes, and saw their cause splashed across the tabloids.

Andrew Pakes, the director of communications at the Association of University Teachers, predicts that the fragility of public support means we are unlikely to see the drawn-out disputes of the past again. "Demonstrative action has replaced all-out strikes. With a one-day strike, it is easy to demonstrate to the public that you have a cause rather than are trying to cause misery. And it is also easier to win a ballot of members."

Robert Taylor, the labour editor of the Financial Times, argues that the old techniques can still be the most effective. He points out that, on the London Tube, the RMT has just managed to get an old-style deal with jobs for life. Yet even this unreconstructed remnant from the 1970s ran its campaign with one eye on public opinion. Precious little was heard about overtime and job security. Instead, with high-minded talk of "public safety", the union tried to align its members' interests with the interests of the public.

In any case, the rail unions know that this is the moment to act, because anything they do pales into insignificance against the management-induced chaos on the railways. When Railtrack and the operating companies are so inept at showing that they care about the public, the unions can do their worst. Perhaps Railtrack needs a Belgian trade unionist to run its PR department.

Mark Leonard is director of the Foreign Policy Centre