Archives par étiquette : industrial action

CFP “From 1984 to 2024: industrial disputes and social movements in the United Kingdom since the Great Miners’ Strike”

Call for papers

This CFP concerns submissions: 

  • For a one-day conference entitled “From 1984 to 2024: industrial disputes and social movements in the UK since the Great Miners’ Strike” which will take place in Sciences Po Lille (France) on March 6th, 2024
  • For an issue of the French journal of British Studies / Revue française de civilisation britannique (RFCB) on the same theme, to be published in late 2024

Please see below for the submission guidelines for the one-day conference and the journal issue. 

The one-day conference and journal issue focus on the past four decades of industrial disputes and social movements in the UK. The year 2024 is indeed the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-1985. As such, it provides an opportunity to study social protest in the UK since 1984. 

This fortieth anniversary allows for several reflexive operations. First, one can look at the 1984-2024 period as a whole, and identify dynamics of social protest in the UK since the Great Miners’ Strike. Then, taking as a starting point the strike wave that began in the Winter of 2022 and comparing the early 2020s with the early 1980s, one may survey the transformations undergone by the UK over the past four decades. Finally, the 2024 anniversary calls for a reflection on the commemorations of the Great Miners’ Strike. It has become one of the main sites of memory [lieux de mémoire] (Nora, 1989) of the British trade-union movement, but has also become a point of reference for other social movements. 

This anniversary therefore serves both as the driver of a series of questions on the recent history of social struggle in the UK, and as a heuristic device for observers of contemporary British society. The journal issue intends to encourage retrospective, bird-eye views on the variegated forms of social protest since the watershed of the Great Miners’ Strike, as well as to shed light on the current conjuncture, by identifying parallels and differences between now and 1984.

The outline that follows offers to contributors a series of reflections, whose aim is to spark discussion rather than foreclose it. It does not intend to exhaust the possible interrogations and objects of study relating to these forty years of strife in the UK. While some hypotheses are offered, contributions tackling this field of inquiry from perspectives omitted in this CFP will be welcome.

Contributions may focus on the following questions or more:

  • The 1984-2024 period as a whole
  • Specific protest events
  • Specific social movements: trade-unionism, ecological struggles, feminism, etc
  • Specific organisations and/or actors
  • Forms of collective action
  • Modalities, moments or places of articulation/convergence between various struggles/movements
  • Historicity of struggles and movements

Submission guidelines

This is a two-step project:

  • 500-word abstracts should be set by October 31st 2023: they will be reviewed by the Scientific Committee of the March 6th 2024 conference “40 years of Strife: industrial disputes and social movements in the UK since the Great Miners’ Strike”. The conference will allow for discussion of in-progress articles and/or fully-written articles. 
  • Full articles submitted for the French Journal of British Studies/RFCB issue will be expected for May 15th 2024: they will be reviewed by the Scientific Committee

Taking part in the March 6th conference is neither a condition for nor a guarantee of publication in the French Journal of British Studies/RFCB journal issue. Both abstracts and subsequent articles should be sent to Clémence Fourton (Sciences Po Lille, CECILLE: clemence.fourton@sciencespo-lille.eu) and Marc Lenormand (Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, EMMA: Marc.Lenormand@univ-montp3.fr) 

Scientific Committee

  • Emmanuelle Avril, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, CREW
  • David Bailey, University of Birmingham
  • Emma Bell, Université Savoie Mont-Blanc, LLSETI
  • Oscar Berglund, University of Bristol
  • Mathilde Bertrand, Université Bordeaux Montaigne, CLIMAS
  • Bernd Bonfert, Aarhus Universitet
  • Charles Devellennes, Kent University
  • Thierry Labica, Université Paris Nanterre, CREA
  • Marie-Violaine Louvet, Université Toulouse Jean-Jaurès, CAS
  • Claire Mansour, Université Toulouse Jean-Jaurès, CAS
  • Jacob Mukherjee, Goldsmiths’ College
  • John Mullen, Université de Rouen, ERIAC

Detailed project presentation

1. The Great Miners’ Strike, the anti-union consensus and the neutralisation of collective action

The 1984-1985 Great Miners’ Strike was a key moment in the deployment of the anti-union arsenal which had been patiently crafted by the Conservatives after the defeats of the Heath Government in the face of national miners’ strikes in 1972 and 1974, and implemented by the Thatcher government from her election in 1979. Passing anti-union laws, reorganising the police and placing an anti-union chairman at the head of the National Coal Board: much was done to break the union which was rightly perceived as the most militant, and the most able to combat the imposition of the neoliberal restructuring of the British economy (Beynon, 1985). After the landslide victory of the Conservative in 1983 and the miners’ defeat in 1984-1985, Margaret Thatcher’s second term was marked by the rollout of a radical neoliberal agenda (Holmes, 1989).

a. New perspectives on the Great Miners’ Strike

Along with the 1926 general strike, the Great Miners’ Strike is the industrial conflict of British history which has been the most extensively discussed (in print or otherwise), be it in academic publications, militant histories or fictional productions (Bertrand et al, 2016). This vast production, which started during the strike and has expanded with each of its anniversaries, now constitutes an object of inquiry of itself: how have militant and academic readings of the Great Miners’ Strike evolved since 1984?

This large body of work notwithstanding, there is still ample room for new research on the Great Miners’ Strike, in particular since government archives of the period were released less than a decade ago, and since academic fields such as labour history and industrial relations have experienced a renewal over the past twenty years. These fields have particularly benefited from new perspectives offered by gender studies and critical race studies. In short, this journal issue and conference do not regard the Great Miners’ Strike and its anniversary as a pretext, quite to the contrary. Original contributions on this foundational moment are most welcome. 

b. The neutralisation of collective action and the development of an anti-union consensus

The Great Miners’ Strike is to be understood within the historical development of an anti-union consensus, in the sense that collective action by workers has been delegitimised and that a wide array of devices have been developed to neutralise it, altogether legal, institutional, financial and managerial (Christoph et al, 2019; Howell, 2005). This dynamic started the decade before the strike, with early attempts at curtailing industrial action such as Harold Wilson’s Labour government’s White Paper In Place of Strife (1969) and the Industrial relations Act (1971) being passed by the Conservatives. These two initiatives were met with strong trade-union resistance. They also paved the way for the anti-union rhetoric and agenda articulated by the new Thatcherite leadership of the Conservative party and its media allies in the second half of the 1970s (Hay, 1996). This anti-union dynamic reached full steam in the 1980s, when the Conservatives pushed for legislation limiting trade-union action and supported the reassertion of management control (Taylor, 1993). The Great Miners’ Strike was followed by the Wapping dispute (1986), which succeeded in crushing unions in the print industry (Bain, 1998). Most importantly, the Conservative victories against the trade-unions in the mid-1980s heralded a new era of anti-union consensus, which the following Labour governments (1997-2010) were not able or willing to bring to an end (Daniels & McIlroy, 2009; Dixon, 2000; Mullen, 2009). As a result, the anti-union arsenal which had been developed by the Thatcher governments, rather than being reduced, has been further expanded by the Conservatives since 2010 (Scott & Williams 2014). 

This chronology raises a series of questions: what was the role of the Great Miners’ Strike in the development of an anti-union consensus in the UK? Is it relevant to regard the mid-1980s as a watershed in the anti-union consensus era? How did the anti-union consensus stabilise after this decisive battle with the most militant components of the British industrial movement? Who or what have been the drivers, the causes, the motivations and the effects of this consensus (Labica, 2015)?

Conversely, should we be wary of overstating this anti-union consensus and the neutralisation of collective action? How significant are divergences within mainstream discourse (in government, executive boardrooms, newsrooms), as well as the existence of counter-discourses and counter-narratives, such as the rallying effect, in the British left and in some working-class communities, of a deep-seated hatred for M. Thatcher and her policies? 

2. The transformations of social movements between 1984 and 2024 

The 1984-1985 Great Miners’ Strike points at two paradoxical dynamics. On the one hand, as the moment when the militant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was broken, it stands as an important step in the gradual decrease of trade-union membership figures, after their peak in the late 1970s, and in the concomitant marginalisation of trade-unions in culture, politics, economic policy and industrial relations. On the other hand, when the Great Miners’ Strike took place, a series of non-industrial protest movement had been growing in numbers and strength since the beginning of the 1970s, in particular the women’s liberation movement and the lesbian and gay liberation movement, whose participation in and support for the Miners’ Strike is now well documented (Cabadi, 2023; Stead, 1987). The paradox of the Great Miners’ Strike is therefore that, as the industrial conflict par excellence, it also reminds us that trade-union action is one aspect of social protest. Studying the 1984-2024 period therefore implies considering the evolution of the British trade-union movement relative to other, non-industrial protest movements, and the logics of displacement, substitution, convergence or divergence between them.

a. From trade-union marginalisation to social protest displacement?

The British trade-union movement’s ability to act as a counterweight to government and company management was reduced. It was diminished as a vehicle for obtaining better living conditions and transforming the social and political order. In this context, one can wonder whether the emergence of the anti-union consensus and of the neutralisation of collective industrial action have produced transformations of social protest. Has the centre of gravity of protest moved away from trade-union action into other spaces of collective action, and if so, which ones? 

Can the riots which have taken place in the UK (and elsewhere) from the 1980s onwards be regarded as a product and a manifestation of the transformation of social protest, bearing in mind that interpreting their politics is both difficult and potentially reductive (Žižek, 2011)? Should riots be regarded differently when they are associated with explicit demands, such as the Poll Tax Riot (1990), when they take the form of predominantly White working-class hooliganism, or when they express, as in some English cities in 2011, a “generalised feeling of injustice” on the part of marginalised populations, relating to poverty, police brutality and racism, and government policy all at once (Lewis et al, 2011)?

What about the development, from 2010 onwards, of an anti-austerity citizens’ movement, in a broader context of “movements of the crisis” (Della Porta & Mattoni, 2014) after the 2008 financial crisis and the public spending reduction policies that followed it in numerous countries (Bailey et al, 2022)? In the UK, this multifarious anti-austerity movement brought together new campaign groups and pre-existing organisations (Fourton, 2018). It marked a significant increase of social conflict levels, and was characterised as marking a new cycle of protest (Bailey 2018). Is there, then, insofar as they all responded to a “crisis of care” (Brown et al, 2013: 79), a form of continuity and/or convergence between, on the one hand, this anti-austerity movement, the students’ movement and the Occupy protests, and, on the other hand, the trade-union movement? With trade-union membership levels relatively low, should the anti-austerity movement instead be regarded as a form of substitute for trade-union action taken up by campaigners faced with critical assaults on social rights? Has trade-union action, reliant on majority support at workplace or industry level, been replaced by extra-institutional collective action, which can be undertaken by minority groups while aspiring to precipitate change in a prefigurative logic (Ribera-Almandoz et al, 2020)? Cammaerts (2018) considers that it is the anti-austerity movement which has most clearly articulated a counter-hegemony in the face of the neoliberal consensus in the period opened by the Great financial crisis. This suggests that trade-union action is no longer regarded as the prime tool to challenge the economic and social order, and that opposition to neoliberalism is now taking place elsewhere. 

If this reading of social protest as having changed actors, spaces and modalities is correct, does it signal a deep reconfiguration of struggles in a repressive neoliberal context? Is it rather the sign of a welcome rebalancing away from the attention received by industrial action? Or, conversely, is it simply that spectacular forms of actions attract more media and academic attention?

b. The space of social movements and its reconfigurations between 1984 and 2024

Building on Mathieu’s (2007) concept, social movements can be regarded as being part of a relatively autonomous space of social movements. The specific configuration of the space of social movements we are concerned with depends on the social movements which emerged and/or remained active during the 1984-2024 period. The list is manifold and open-ended. To give only a few examples, this includes the peace and nuclear disarmament movement, the environmental movement, the feminist movement, the LGBT+ movement, the disabled people’s movements, the anti-austerity movement, the pro- and anti-European union movements, the nationalist and pro-independence movements.

Besides, any analysis of social movements in the UK over the 1984-2024 period needs to take into account the territorial specificities of this multi-national space and its many dividing lines. Such an analysis should also account for constitutional and identity issues, which have polarised public debate and affected people’s daily lives, sometimes dramatically so. The 1984-2024 period indeed spans the end of the military phase of the Northern Irish conflict and the Peace process, the devolution process and its redistribution of power and institutional weight away from the English centre towards minority nations, and the constitutional decade of the 2010s dominated by the Scottish and EU referendums. All these processes, although institutional and constitutional, are not separate from the space of social movements, where they continue or indeed sometimes commence, and as such raise, once again, the question of how movements have appeared and evolved in the UK since 1984. How has the space of social movements been affected by the emergence of new constitutional or identity questions, and the institutional evolutions they have provoked? 

Part of the ambition of this project is to draw up panoramas, cartographies and chronologies of social protest in the UK and of some specific movements over the past 40 years. Beyond the identification and the analysis of such movements and their (relatively) autonomous trajectories, contributions aiming at discerning parallel and intertwining chronologies will be especially welcome: have these different movements met, politically, materially or otherwise? If so, under which conditions did such junctions happen? Did the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corby (2015-2020) play such a role as a meeting ground (Labica, 2019)? Has such convergence relied on negative common denominators, such as anti-Thatcherism, or on common, positive ground such as demands for social, economic or ecological justice? Materially, as well as ideologically, is social protest structured in networks, around individual or organisational nodes? In other words, what does the dynamic space of social movements look like in the UK, and within which inter- or transnational protest spaces should it be considered, if any? 

3. Discussing the strike wave of the early 2020s: are trade-unions back?

Studying the contemporary period in light of the mid-1980s highlights parallels (between actors, repertoires of contention, discourses) as well as divergences. Against the idea of a progressive disappearance of trade-union action, the strike wave which started in the UK in the Winter of 2022 can indeed be seen as a comeback of industrial struggles, the latter having not just lost in intensity after the mid-1980s but even continuously decreased, all the way down to a historical low point in the mid-2010s (Lenormand, 2022). With strikes multiplying, “the working-class is back”, to quote Mick Lynch, the General Secretary of the RMT union.

This being said, the forms taken by trade-union action in the current strike wave clearly speak to the new social, political and economic configuration of the UK in the early 2020s: there is and will be no going back to 1984. The strike wave which has been sweeping both private companies and public services has had no match in extent and duration since the 1970s. It is, above all, the largest and most significant outburst of strike action since the anti-union consensus was imposed and stabilised in the 1980 and 1990. It therefore calls for an interrogation of the forms that industrial action takes in this anti-union context, and for an analysis of the organisational and ideological transformations that the trade-union movement has undergone over the past four decades.

a. Industrial action in an adverse environment

The strike wave which started in the UK in the Winter of 2021-2022 has enthused activists, put bread and butter issues and industrial relations back on the public agenda and triggered much commentary from journalists and academics alike. These strikes display, however, a number of limits. First, they actually consist in a large number of local or sectorial disputes. These are grounded in and curtailed to specific companies or industries, because of the anti-union legal framework which limits strike action to unionised workers and to pay and conditions issues (Fourton, 2023). British trade-unions, although they have been very critical of the legal straitjacket imposed to industrial action, abide by it in order not to face legal action. What is industrial action like in such an adverse environment? Have trade-unions durably modernised after taking stock of the demise of strike action, or is the current strike wave merely a response to the current economic conjuncture? To what extent do these strikes result from a transformation of the job market? Which limits of trade-union action do they testify to, in a liberalised, flexibilised and uberised economy in which waged labour has largely been replaced by outsourcing and zero-hour contracts (Beynon, 2019; Carter, 2020; Lucio, 2018)? Are they actually not that surprising, given the struggles which have continued to be waged in the UK for the past 20 years over jobs, pay and conditions (Jenkins, 2017; Moore & Taylor, 2020, Upchurch, 2020)?

Finally, British trade-union identity requires new examination when even the most militant of trade-union leaderships seem to have fully accepted that the age of victorious and confident trade-union action is no more. How has this identity been transformed by four decades of neoliberalism? What image of themselves do trade-unions cultivate in an adverse media environment? Does social movement unionism (Lenormand, 2018; Parker, 2008), as promoted by the CWU and the RMT in the form of the Enough is Enough coalition, point to a broader transformation of the trade-union movement and of its relations with other social movement organisations?

b. Evolution of trade-union discourse and repertoires and transformations of the trade-union movement

The recent strike wave cannot, however, be reduced to its obvious limits or to what it lacks compared to the great national strikes which, from the end of the 1960s until the mid-1980s, contributed to making the British trade-union movement a key political player, that could make or break Conservative and Labour governments alike (McIlroy & Campbell, 1999). What makes this wave distinctive is also the evolutions of trade-union discourse and repertoires it exhibits, along with deep changes in workplaces and trade union organisation. 

First of all, the 2022-23 strikes have been characterised by a number of strategies aiming at circumventing the legal and institutional framework which limits trade-union action to pay and conditions. Strike dates, for instance, have been chosen so as to politicise the disputes at stake – such was the case when rail workers struck during the Conservative party conference, thereby symbolically identifying the government as their real adversary, or when civil servants struck on Budget Day. Similarly, the 2022 TUC Congress adopted the principle of coordinated strike action by different unions as a way of reinforcing the economic impact and the political weight of strike action. Are such politicising tactics proof that trade-unions are able to adapt to and innovate within a constraining legal framework, or do they rather betray the weakness of a movement which has interiorised its own limits? Do they show that trade-unions are able and willing to weigh on the public debate, or, on the contrary, that they are incapable of directly obtaining concessions from employers? Is coordination really a form of strategic intensification of strike action, or is it rather a sign that trade-union leaderships won’t fully commit to a general strike despite the poverty wages and the attacks of the Conservative government?

Secondly, the recent strike wave shows both the British trade-union movement and the contemporary workplace in a complex light, at least for those segments of the job market in which strikes have indeed taken place. Strikes began in the Winter of 2021-22 in private companies, in particular in the manufacturing sector, which, before the long de-industrialisation process inaugurated in the 1970s, used to be a trade-union stronghold. The largest strike wave since the Glorious Summer of 1972 (Darlington & Lyddon, 2001) was therefore initiated by organisations whose members are mainly male, largely unionised and in relatively well-paid jobs, with employers making substantial profits. It then spread to docks and to formerly nationalised enterprises (postal services and railway), and finally reached public services. The latter had been, for the last decades, central in the trade-union movement, both in terms of its now largely feminised membership and in terms of disputes. How should these dynamics be analysed? Is it that manufacturing sectors have returned to collective action after years of lethargy, or that striking is simply easier for groups of workers in less precarious positions? Alternatively, are we granting disproportionate clout to small groups of well-organised workers who happen to correspond to the traditional image of the white male working-class militant, when in actuality there is now a majority of women in British trade-unions and unionisation levels are highest among Black workers? What have been the consequences of organising campaigns in highly precarious industries, such as cleaning, catering and the food industry (Simms et al, 2012)? Is the sexist and racist segmentation of labour, which is nourished and reproduced by xenophobic discourse which trade-unions sometimes struggle to counter (Alberti et al, 2013; Holgate, 2005; Ince et al, 2015), at play in this strike wave, or does striking rather contribute to blurring or reducing these divisions? 

4. Understanding protest: concepts, spaces, time frames

Finally, the study of protest calls for a range of methodological and epistemological considerations, which can either be objects of inquiry in their own right or feed into approaches that are primarily ethnographical, historical or sociological. 

a. Concepts

The concepts we use to think about social protest should be interrogated: does the concept of social movement adequately describe the various forms of protest which have distinct histories, diverse organisational forms and different degrees of institutionalisation, and can it be applied equally in all instances? Taking the lead offered by French political sociology (Béroud et al, 1998), could the term social movement, singular, be used to refer to the whole field of organisations and movements collectively? What is to be made of the concept of mobilisation and its use in the field of industrial relations (Kelly, 1998)? Should one think in more localised terms, in terms of episodes of contention, and if so what should be made of the more long-term perspectives and of the evolution of aspiring or actual movements? Is it more effective to characterise social protest in terms of its practices, in what might be termed a pragmatic approach (Mathieu, 2002), or in a more institutional approach, in terms of its structures, discourses and actors (Mc Adam et al, 2001)?

b. Spaces

The delineation of the aforementioned space of social movements should also be interrogated: How permeable to one another are social movement politics and institutional politics? How do actors and ideas circulate between these spaces? What are their points of connection, and are they to be found primarily within organisations, whether trade unions or non-governmental organisations? What have been the processes of institutionalisation of social movements, as exemplified by the formation of the Green Party (1990) and of the National Health Action Party (2012), and conversely the processes of deinstitutionalisation, as has been the case for trade-unions, whose participation in political decision-making and access to government have been reduced? What are the expectations, one-way or mutual, and linkages between social movement organisations and party organisations?

c. Time frames

Finally, the temporal dimension of collective action and the ways in which this temporality is perceived and explored should also be discussed: what place should be given to events and their determinants (Gobille, 2008)? How can historical variations in the density and intensity of social protest be accounted for? What relevance for the notion of wave, used rather loosely for both trade-union struggles and feminist movements, and of that of ‘mobilisation cycle’ (Tarrow, 1993)? How do protest movements understand their own historicity? 

Ultimately, the time frame selected here, 1984-2024, should encourage and support an exploration of the recent history of and of the present period in the UK, which also means that its limitations should be acknowledged: what dynamics does the 1984-2024 time frame serve to better highlight, and which ones does it risk obscuring? What additional time frames, whether alternative or additional, should be used in order to compensate for such limitations and complement its insights?

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