The coldest winter in many years. Snow on the streets of the nation's biggest city. The sanitation employees' union embarks on a go slow. New York in December 2010? Actually, London in the winter of 1978-79. It was the high-water mark of union political power in the United Kingdom. With any luck, New York's experiences this winter will be the high-water mark for union power in the United States as well.
It was called the Winter of Discontent, after the opening line of Shakespeare's Richard III, and the discontented parties were first the unions, then the public at large. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan had a razor-thin majority in the House of Commons, and so he was making concessions wherever he could to avoid his government's collapse. He was widely viewed as a puppet of the labor unions, and rightly so. Whenever the unions had a grievance, they were invited round for "beer and sandwiches" at No. 10 Downing Street, a precursor of the Beer Summit if there ever was one. They would leave well-fed and drunk on power.
However, it couldn't go on. The inflationary pressures of conceding to union demands were proving disastrous. The government announced a limit to pay raises of 5%, which enraged the labor unions. When Ford Motors, a private company no less, announced a raise of 5% for its employees, its unionized work force went on strike and eventually forced the company to agree to a raise of no less than 17%, despite the threat of government sanctions.
As it happened, the government found itself unable to enforce sanctions and the flood gates opened. First the teamsters demanded 40% raises. As many of them delivered gasoline, the threat of a return to the long lines of the oil crisis loomed, and the oil companies compromised with raises of 15%, but the teamsters went on general strike anyway. At this point, the weather turned extremely nasty, with blizzard conditions and the lowest temperatures in almost twenty years. Gas stations closed and goods failed to reach stores.
The government threatened a state of emergency to bring in the army to deliver gas and supplies, but failed to follow through. Farmers found themselves without foodstuff for their animals in a severe winter, and dropped the dead bodies of animals outside union offices. Union officials retorted that the farmers had killed the animals themselves. An arbitration panel then awarded the teamsters a raise of 20%.
It was then the public sector unions' turn. Train drivers started striking. Nurses demanded a 25% raise. Ambulance drivers stopped working and hospitals started only accepting emergencies (remember this when people tell you how wonderful socialized medicine is). Even gravediggers in the city of Liverpool went on strike, resulting in the dead going unburied for two weeks before they accepted a raise of 14%. Worst of all, though, was the strike by sanitation workers. Garbage went uncollected for weeks, with London boroughs using famous parks like Leicester Square to pile trash. Of course, the piles attracted rats.
The public was outraged. By March, Callaghan's government had collapsed and, despite possessing a generally socialist outlook, the British people elected the Conservative Party, led by Margaret Thatcher, with a mandate to curb union power. Over the next five years, she did so, facing down even what amounted to an attempted coup d'etat by the National Union of Mineworkers.
Today's stories of the sanitation union in New York deliberately "going slow" in clearing up the snow there are clearly resonant of the British Winter of Discontent. When public sector unions become so powerful that increasing their compensation is more important to them than the public service they provide, they cannot be surprised if the public itself moves to curb their power. Margaret Thatcher famously called public sector unions "the enemy within." It is time for the American people to address its internal enemy as forthrightly as it has been addressing enemies abroad.