Strikes help Putin? What a terrible excuse for refusing nurses the rise they deserve | Zoe Williams

The Guardian
The Guardian
Striking ambulance workers marching to the House of Commons in January 1979. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

I have my doubts that Vladimir Putin cares very much about the pay disputes of British nurses. He is probably the richest man in the world, and you don’t get there by taking a granular interest in other people’s living standards. He likely has very little concept of the difference between £31,000 a year and £310,000. Besides, he has his own problems.

Nevertheless, I can see how Nadhim Zahawi ended up telling nurses that they were playing into Putin’s hands with their demand for a pay rise, because Zahawi is out of road. He cannot reasonably tell them they don’t deserve more money: the average public sector worker has earned less in terms of gross pay than private sector workers every year since 2014. Nurses toughed out the pandemic on non-fungible claps, and emerge from it into a cost of living crisis. All the usual arguments for pay restraint – you don’t deserve it, we can’t afford it, do your worst, there are plenty more where you came from – have evaporated, leaving only: “Do your patriotic duty, because of the bad man.” Granted, he may have phrased it with more aplomb.

Tory MPs and pundits love the phrase “winter of discontent”; it soothes them like a mantra. Here they are, back in their happy place: 1979. Bins are overflowing, power cuts in and out, everyone blames the unions and the new dawn of Thatcherism is right round the corner. There is no industrial dispute so 21st century that it can’t be yanked nostalgically into that misty time, when strikes were universally hated and pay rises were for the dinosaurs of the left – idiots, most likely with beards, who had failed to keep up with the pace of change.

In fact, our situation is radically, even diametrically, different from that of the late 70s. This is the playbook for discrediting strikes: first, indicate that were any given sector to get a pay increase, the economy overall would get worse because of inflation. There is absolutely no chance of wage growth accelerating inflation: wages have been stagnant for years, and in the first half of this year went into negative territory in advanced G20 economies, declining by 2.2% in real terms. The other problem with that – let’s set aside nuts-and-bolts issues such as, “Can you afford sunflower oil?” – is that everyone is feeling it. Nobody looks at railway workers, or teachers, or nurses, or staff at the Met Office, and thinks: “Well, times are really tight for me but you guys are probably doing fine.”

The second strategy is to suggest that ordinary workers are being manipulated by self-interested and pugilistic union “barons”; good luck sticking that on Pat Cullen , the head of the nurses’ union. If anyone bothered to measure Mick Lynch ’s approval rating, an entire political class would be trying to bottle it and spray it all over themselves. The TUC came closest, noting the “Mick Lynch effect”: Google searches for “join a union” were up by 184%.

Third, really amp up the inconvenience of a strike, how much nicer things are for everyone when workers go to work: there’s a hole, here, where “reliable status quo” used to be. Trains don’t work even when there isn’t a strike; NHS waiting lists breached seven million before the nurses even went to the ballot; people are having to wait 40 hours for ambulances and that’s business as normal. If, as a government, you want to paint unions as the destructive element, it helps a whole lot if you haven’t destroyed everything beforehand.

It’s the winter of something, all right, but “discontent”, with all its comfy overtones, doesn’t cover it. It’s the winter of “go screw yourself, government”, and the sentiment is pretty universal.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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