Socialist Alternative

The 1970s: Decade of workers struggle and leaders’ betrayal

As the so-called Summer of Discontent continues to build, with the media and politicians screaming out about ‘abuses of union power’, attention has once again focused on one of the most militant periods in British union history: the decade of the 1970s. Comparisons are being made with the present period, so Socialist Alternative has chosen to reanalyse that period, draw important lessons in the hope that we can better arm the working class as it once again goes into battle.

The first wave of struggle: 1970-74

The Tory government under Edward Heath was elected into power in 1970, following a period of Labour in power from 1964-1970. Following the Second World War, Britain had enjoyed a prolonged economic boom, assisted by the expansion and recovery of the world economy from the ravages and destruction of the war, greased by US money in the form of the Marshall Plan. 

One of the major results of this was the growth of full employment, and with it trade union membership. Workers were rightly demanding better pay and conditions, largely as a result of previous generations’ experience of grinding poverty in the 1930s. The rise of trade union membership also saw the huge growth of shop stewards’ organisations, with over 300,000 local elected workers representative across the country, along with 11 million trade union members – 50% of the workforce (trade union membership today is nearer 6 million).

This effective workplace organisation had also led to a rash of unofficial strikes in the 1960s (around 2,000 a year) largely organised and led by local shop stewards. Bosses complained to the previous Labour government and the incoming Heath government that trade union power had to be curbed to boost profitability. Labour tried to limit union power in the 1960s, bringing in a White Paper called ‘In Place of Strife’, but were beaten back by the united resistance of the unions. It never got beyond the statute book.

Heath promised a confrontational approach and vowed to take on the unions, introducing the Industrial Relations Act in 1971 as well as pay restraint. He was met with wave after wave of union strikes that would eventually topple his government in 1974. 

The 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in, against the threatened closure of the shipyard caught on like wildfire, sparking a wave of factory occupations against closures or redundancy. The following year, nearly 24 million working days were lost through strike action, the most significant of which was the all out miners strike for a significant pay rise. They drove a coach and horses through the pay controls, winning a 22% rise and chalking up an amazing show of workers solidarity.

Militant, 3 September 1971

The key to victory for the miners was halting the production and delivery of coal, especially at power stations and coal depots. Flying pickets (pickets moving from workplace to workplace) would descend on them and were largely successful in slowly strangling the British energy market, which was then hugely dependent on coal. This led to companies being forced to close, along with mass electricity blackouts. 

The turning point, however, came at Birmingham’s fuel storage depot at Saltley Gates, where a large police presence had prevented the picketing miners from closing the plant. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) put out a call to the shop stewards in the industrial plants of Birmingham for support, which was answered by 15,000 workers descending on the plant and shutting it down, forcing a police retreat. This turning point saw the government cave in despite the earlier predictions of the Daily Mirror that “the miners had more stacked against them than the Light Brigade in their famous charge.” This victory spurred many others into action, including rail, building, dock and car workers.

Within inches of a general strike

The government tried to use the Industrial Relations Act to curb local union power, resulting ultimately in the jailing of five docker shop stewards for taking ‘illegal’ unofficial action. Once again, Heath underestimated the response of the working class. Strike action spread like wildfire across the country in solidarity with the dockers, forcing the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to respond by reluctantly calling a 24 hour general strike. By that stage the government had ‘found’ an official solicitor who was able to reinterpret the law and ordered the release of the dockers before the country faced its first general strike since 1926.

The crisis for Heath did not end there. Like today (albeit with differences), imperialist war and rivalries added to British capitalism’s crisis at home. The conflict between US imperialism and Arab states saw a massive disruption to oil supplies, tipping. The world economy into its first recession for decades.

Just like today, this had an immediate impact on jobs, wages and inflation. Once again, the miners took up the cudgels, introducing an overtime ban in November 1973, immediately impacting on coal production and reserves. Heath was determined not to give way a second time, and instead took the drastic action of introducing petrol rationing, staggered power cuts, as well as hiking up interest rates to 13%. 

He then went a step further by introducing the infamous three-day working week, allegedly to save energy, but in reality to also try and divide workers from the miners. This also totally failed. Just like the rail workers today, support for the miners actually increased as the action went on.

Militant, 25 February 1972

Labour enters government

Having succeeded in exhausting coal supplies, the NUM initiated an industrial action ballot which saw 81% vote for all-out action. The miners once again went into an indefinite strike, and succeeded in halting coal production and distribution. The scene was set for a major showdown. Heath took the biggest gamble of his premiership by calling a snap general election, asking the question: “Who rules the country? The government or the miners?” 

Working class confidence and militancy had surged in that period and working class people understood where their loyalties lay. Heath was thoroughly humiliated when working class people voted for the unions in returning a Labour government. This was in spite of the usual lacklustre election campaign by the then-Labour leader, Harold Wilson.

This brought to an end the first period of heightened class militancy in the 1970s. It was to become obvious to wide sections of the class that, despite its working class membership and despite being the organised political expression of the trade union movement (in that sense giving it the status of a ‘workers’ party’), its leadership, drawn from both the middle class and a conservative layer of trade union officials, did not express the same interests. 

Although coming under pressure from the rank-and-file, they were utterly wedded to the idea of keeping the capitalist system intact. The trade union leaders meanwhile, being tied to the Labour Party in power, as a result now counselled ‘restraint’, whilst urging reforms onto the incoming Labour administration as they felt pressure from the base. This was added to by the presence of a growing revolutionary left-wing in the party. A group of workers and students active around the Militant newspaper (forerunner of Socialist Alternative) was beginning to grow and win support for its ideas. Its stated purpose was to organise in both the unions and Labour (particularly its youth wing, the Labour Party Young Socialists) to “build the Marxist left wing of the labour movement”. 

Lessons were being learnt by the Tories in opposition, licking their wounds in their attempts to restrict union power. Confrontation had seemingly failed, but others in the Party were drawing the conclusion that Heath had been too conciliatory and unprepared. In particular, one shadow cabinet minister, Nicholas Ridley, produced a secret blueprint for Tory High Command outlining how a future Conservative Government should deal with strikes in the public sector, including the miners. 

He advocated attacking workers sector by sector, starting with the ‘easier’ targets such as the steelworkers, before moving onto the miners. The Tories were out for revenge and were waiting and preparing for their time to strike back. Their approach to breaking the miners strike of 1984-5 followed Ridley’s plan to the letter. The most ‘advanced’ strategists of the ruling class hatched a plan that they were not going to give up on. 

Road to the Winter of Discontent: 1974-79

Most of the parallels being made today with union power refer back to the industrial unrest of 1978-9 which became known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’. This period had its roots in the experiences of workers throughout the second half of the 1970s. The Wilson government sought ‘peace’ with the union leaders by negotiating what became known as  the ‘Social Contract’. 

This contract sought to place a ceiling on wage rises in exchange for guarantees from unions that they would not encourage strike action against ‘their’ government. It ran in four stages, introducing a different ceiling every year, starting with a £6 a week limit to wage rises in 1975, then £4 or 4.5% in 1976, then 10% in 1997 and finally 5% from 1978-9.

These figures have to be put into the context of two major developments which marked out the Labour administration. The first was the conscious sabotage of the government by big business which undertook a ‘strike of capital’ refusing to invest in business, creating an atmosphere of chaos leading to rising unemployment and an inflation rate of nearly 25%. 

Then second, pressure on the economy pushed the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, to run cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout. Funds were offered in exchange for guarantees of cuts to public spending.

James Callaghan, to announce to an outraged Party Conference that “Keynesianism is dead” (Harold Wilson had resigned in 1976 having been overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis). These cuts totally undermined the original concept of a social contract, which was based on the idea of improved and expanding public and welfare services. 

The first government to introduce monetarist/neoliberal policies, involving cuts and privatisation was thus the Labour government of 1976-79. Workers were torn between their loyalty to the Labour Party to which there was more traditional support than today, and the reality of declining living standards and unemployment. 

Union leaders, such as Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers Union – a forerunner of Unite), and Hugh Scanlon of the AEU (Amalgamated Engineering Union) were known in the early 70s as the ‘terrible twins’ by the bosses. However, despite their reputation as fighters of the left, they used their considerable influence to help prop up the government. They had been elected in the heyday of the strike wave under Heath as left leaders and were therefore able to use their influence to try and shore up union support for Labour. 

However, the dam could not be held. First, firefighters took 10 weeks of strike action for a 30% pay increase in 1977, eventually settling for 10%. The following year, Ford workers challenged the 5% wage limit by taking all out action for nine weeks, winning significant concessions and blowing apart the Social Contract. This was then followed by bakery workers, train and then lorry drivers, all of whom broke through the 5% limit with lorry drivers securing a 21% increase!  

By this stage the Tories had elected their new leader, Margaret Thatcher, who was fulminating in parliament against ‘excessive union power’. In reality, however, the vast majority of the ‘big battalions’ which had taken action in the early 1970’s, did not join battle, still waiting out the Labour government and fearing the possibility of another Tory administration. But the Winter of Discontent could not be avoided. The strike wave of the poorest paid workers in the public sector reflected a ‘howl of protest’ from some of the most marginalised and worst paid workers in Britain. 

Militant, 3 May 1974

These sections had not been ‘strike prone’ in the early 70s, with strike levels in these sectors being below the average, but they faced the full barrage of media hysteria with headlines of uncollected rubbish in the streets and the dead not being buried for weeks. Yet 1979 saw the largest wave of industrial action that decade, numbering 30 million days lost through strike action.

The strikes became known as the ‘dirty jobs strikes’, being coordinated by the public sector unions NUPE, TGWU and GMWU. Workers’ pay in these sectors had fallen by 19% pushing millions into poverty. In January 1979, the strike wave was kicked off with a midweek demonstration of 80,000 in London, spreading like wildfire throughout the council and hospitals. Their very modest claim was for £60 a week – still two thirds of the the average industrial wage. But the Tory press and Thacher launched a barrage of attacks against the strikers. 

The Labour government likewise condemned the strikes and refused to concede the union’s demands, leaving workers angry and bitter against an uncaring government that had been elected to supposedly defend and advance workers’ interests. The dispute was settled with a 9% wage increase, although workers were disappointed and split about accepting an agreement which left them almost £20 a week short of their claim. 

Rail workers and civil servants also took strike action that year. However the chaos surrounding the government’s own refusal to take on big business led to a political crisis in parliament. Callaghan lost a vote of confidence, forcing an early general election which he lost to Thatcher and the Tories, who in turn exploited the bitterness from the decline of the strike waves to their benefit. 

The following decade saw an all-out and unprecedented assault on unions and the heavy industries they represented, in particular, targeting the mighty shop stewards movement. The period of Thatcher’s rule has turned the clock back on union organisation and workers rights for decades from which the Trade Union movement is recovering.

Lessons from the 1970s

The most common fallacy surrounding the 1970’s is the unfounded suggestion that the unions’ actions led directly to the election of the Tories. In reality, Callaghan’s slavish adherence to the monetarist doctrines of the IMF led to his government’s direct assault on workers living standards. 

Having successfully returned Labour to power in 1974 when Heath directly challenged the country to back him or the unions, workers felt they had been stabbed in the back. There was widespread disillusionment with Labour as a result, leading to mass abstentions and allowing the Tores to seize power. The direct responsibility for Thatcher was on the cowardice of the Labour government, not the rank-and-file militants of the trade unions, who were rightly standing up to wage restraint and fighting for their survival. 

Many of the union leaders of the 1970s were portrayed by the media as left-wing militants. The ruling class was terrified of the movement standing behind the overwhelming strike wave and the largest union mobilisation since the General Strike of 1926! However, the trade union leaders allowed themselves to be drawn into the attacks on workers’ living standards under the Callaghan government. Such class collusion weakened the ranks of the unions, leaving them exposed to further assaults, spearheaded by Thatcher, and allowed the decades of austerity to follow.

As the new leader of Unite, Sharon Graham, has said, the time has come to put an end to exchanging industrial power for false political promises. Union leaders cannot allow struggle to be indefinitely postponed in the interests of protecting or waiting for a Labour government. This has to be one of the most important lessons of the 1970s.

There was internal opposition in the Labour Party to the Social Contract. In fact at the Labour Party conference of 1978, a supporter of Militant, moved the resolution that voted the policy of class collaboration down. Militant had raised the alternative to the Social Contract in a general strike to deliver a mandate for a Labour government with a “socialist policy to take over the banks, insurance companies and the 250 monopolies which control the economy”. 

Militant, 27 July 1973

Yet despite the active opposition of his own party membership, Callaghan persisted with ongoing wage restraint. There were ongoing splits and debates in the Labour Party throughout the 1970s about Labour’s direction, which intensified after they lost power in 1979 and the party swung leftwards. 

The main lesson of that period is that workers will inevitably be forced to fight for decent pay as capitalist profiteering drives up inflation. However, included in this will be to: A) build a leadership that can be trusted to win victories; B) seek to coordinate and escalate action to apply maximum pressure and; C) seek to build an alternative left political party based on struggle which can articulate and advance the demands and aspirations of working people and the oppressed entering into protest.

Today the organised trade union movement is half the size of the 1970s TUC, numbering just over 6 million. The number of days lost to strike action still do not reach the million mark. From a lower base, however, the desire and willingness to fight back and organise is returning. 

The pay victories of the 1970s, involving all-out strike and solidarity action, mass picketing, and effective workplace organisation hold many lessons. But they also reveal significant differences. The movement is even more hamstrung by anti-union legislation. We have in certain unions a conservative block at the top and local workplace organisation is rebuilding from a weaker starting point. We are also saddled with a right-wing Blairite Labour leadership in the form of Starmer. 

However, the spirit of industrial militancy and the need for class solidarity is coming back onto the radar of workers. The task of reclaiming and rebuilding our unions will emerge from the coming and current strike wave, as well as the task of rebuilding a left party of struggle out of these battles will be firmly placed on the agenda. Our class is once again rising and so is our burning confidence in socialist ideas.

This is why Socialist Alternative is organising and building today. As Marxists, we learn the lessons of past struggles, victories and defeats to politically prepare movements of the working class to take on the capitalist system and fight for socialism today.