The summer of discontent
1978 to 1979 was a remarkable period in the history of labour relations in Britain. During this period, many public service workers went on strike, demanding pay rises to cushion the impact of inflation on the purchasing power of their wages. It was during this period that there emerged the term “The Winter of Discontent.”
The expression, which was popularised by the British media, specifically alluded to the winter of 1978–79, during which there were widespread strikes by local authority trade unions demanding larger pay rises for their members, while the government sought to hold a pay freeze to control inflation.
Coincidentally, the weather turned very cold in the early months of 1979, with blizzards and deep snow. This compounded the misery of both workers and members of the public who had to do without many public services, including the services of health workers, refuse collectors and municipal gravediggers.
In some ways, the wave of strikes that has hit the Malawian public sector in the past few weeks is akin to that which the British experienced during their Winter of Discontent. Of course, instead of blizzards and snow, it is the scorching sun and dry taps that will consummate the misery for workers and the public. The former face a long, hot summer of wages that cannot catch up with consumer prices, while the latter face the daunting prospect of a hot season with interruptions in public services, including the provision of water and power. Adjusting for local context, we could adapt the expression and call this our “Summer of Discontent.”
For the record, it is important to put things in perspective. While the current spate of labour unrest is significant in scale and scope, it is worth noting that we have had similar, if not worse, situations in the past. For example, it is worth noting, as Professor Lewis Dzimbiri reminds us, in his 2008 book titled Industrial Relations in a Developing Society:The Case of Colonial, Independent, One-Party and Multiparty Malawi, that between 1992 and 1994, the country experienced – are you ready for this?... 194 strikes; yes, 194!
In some ways, though, that we had 194 strikes in the early 1990s is besides the point for workers who see their wages melt away in the solar glare of inflation in this Summer of Discontent. What really matters is what does our Summer of Discontent mean for us in the here and now? A whole PhD thesis could be weaved around this question. Suffice it for us in this column to simply mention a couple of direct impacts on key stakeholders.
The first impact of the flurry of industrial action will be on workers. Such times test trade unions and their leaders. Unions are tested with respect to their ability to not only fight for a living wage with resolve, but also to do so while respecting the rights of union members to hold different opinions and to demand accountability and transparency from their leaders. These were the questions that challenged the labour movement in the British Winter of Discontent and in 1992-94 Malawi. They will also loom large in the Summer of Discontent.
The other impact of the slew of strikes is to expose the tendency of many parts of the public to want to have their cake and eat it too. On the one hand, the public will say it agrees with workers that the real value of wages has declined and that life has become too expensive. Yet, the same public will often complain of the inconveniences that industrial action visits upon them and even demonise union leaders who champion strikes as being inconsiderate militants.
When all is said and done, however, it is the State which comes into the spotlight when the floodgates of industrial action are thrown wide open. Thus, this Summer of Discontent gives us an opportunity to gain insights into the government’s approach to industrial action.
Will the government borrow a leaf from the Bingu administration’s condescending, confrontational and combative approach to protestors and dissenters and meet striking workers with teargas, bullets and jackboots? Or will reason prevail to make the government approach striking workers with the respect they deserve as the people whose sweat, blood, tears and toil fuels the economy?
Finally, in all this, will the state be empathetic and undertake measures to demonstrate that government officials and functionaries also feel the pain of austerity? Will we see reductions in the size of the Cabinet? a cutting down on internal and external travel?
Empathy with workers in this Summer of Discontent is not only good economics. It is also good politics.