[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

“Close the Gates!”

The coming to power of the big business government of Ted Heath in June 1970 was a major challenge to the Labour movement. The result was a transformation in the industrial and political climate in Britain. Heath, who was determined to reverse the decline of British capitalism, set out to tame the trade unions and carry through a programme of deep cuts in living standards. It constituted, in reality, the abandonment of the post-war “consensus” and a declaration of war on the working class by the Heath government. It was to become the “whip of counter-revolution”, to use the words of Marx, which served to unleash the biggest class movement for more than fifty years.

British capitalism had long suffered from a relative economic decline especially since the Second World War. Trailing behind the real victors, the United States and the USSR, Britain had been reduced to a second rate power, and was now threatened with further relegation. Between 1945 and 1970, her industrial productivity grew annually on average by 1.5 per cent, compared with three per cent in the USA and Germany and almost four per cent in Japan. In the same period, Britain’s share of world manufacturing exports slumped from 25 per cent to ten per cent. While fixed assets in manufacturing industry in Japan and Germany were £30,000 and £23,000 per worker respectively, in Britain it was only £7,500. The rate of profit for British industry was also significantly lower by comparison. Between 1964 and 1970 the rate of profit of British capitalism had fallen dramatically from 12 per cent to 6.8 per cent. This decline (“the British disease”) was due to the short-sightedness of the British ruling class, which in comparison to its rivals, stubbornly refused to reinvest the profit extracted from the working class in re-equipping industry. By now the British bourgeoisie had become a largely parasitic class, which was to have serious long-term implications for the economy and society.

In the hundred-year period to 1979, the gross domestic product of the UK trebled. By comparison, the United States, Germany, and Japan it had grown by a factor of seven, ten and fifty respectively. The protected markets of the British Empire, and then the world economic upswing following the Second World War, served to mask the decline of British capitalism. Nevertheless, while Britain’s competitors developed their productive capacity, the relative decline of Britain continued unabated. The ruling class, which blamed the “lazy British worker” and the “restrictive practises” of the unions for all its ills, attempted to resolve this problem by reducing “costs” at the expense of the working class.

The Heath government started out full of confidence. However, given the strength of the workers’ organisations, this proved much more difficult than was first envisaged. The early attacks of the Tories brought the class struggle to record heights. The working class was like some sleeping giant, which once disturbed, reacted with fury. Such was the tempo of the ensuing movement, that within four years the industrial struggle succeeded for the first time in history in bringing down the elected government.

Heath was now determined to restore British profitability rates, and with it Britain’s success. As profits come from unpaid labour, wages had to decline. Robert Carr, the employment minister, set the pace by curbing wage rises for public sector workers, and other employers were encouraged to follow suit.

State of emergency

Yet the Tories were in for more than they bargained for! Within a month of coming to power they were forced to introduce a state of emergency to deal with a national dock strike – the first official one since 1926. Although the government threatened the use of troops, the Person Inquiry stepped in to recommend an improved pay offer, subsequently accepted by a conference of dockers’ representatives. The second test for the government came in September 1970 when a quarter of a million local authority workers went on strike in pursuit of a wage claim. Bernard Dix, a NUPE leader, later recalled:

“Within three days of the strike in 1970 we were called up before the Lord President of the Council, who was William Whitelaw, who said that if we didn’t put people back on sewerage work they would have to call in the troops. We told them they could call in who they liked.”

To the consternation of the government, another Committee of Inquiry awarded local authority workers most of their demands.

On the industrial front setbacks for the Tories seemed to pile up. An unofficial miners’ strike secured a £3 a week rise. Electricity supply workers gained around 15 per cent after a state of emergency was declared and the Queen in Buckingham Palace was forced to “take tea by candlelight”. In the private sector Ford workers won an £8 a week rise over two years. The only success for the government was the defeat of the seven-week old postal workers’ strike over pay, led by the extremely moderate Tom Jackson. During the dispute, he threatened to sell every brick of the union’s headquarters before giving in. But he ended up selling out the workers instead. The government was less successful in disputes affecting electricity supply, railworkers and refuse collectors.

The “Holy Grail” of the Tory strategy was, however, the new Industrial Relations Bill, which sought to curtail the power of the trade unions through legislation. Throughout this period the tendency of the trade union apparatus to entwine itself with the capitalist state had broken down. In fact, things were moving in the opposite direction, as the pressures of the union rank and file exerted themselves on the leadership. The Tory legislation, as with In Place of Strife, was aimed at forcing the union leaders to police their own “undisciplined” membership by threatening them with legal penalties. As expected, the main aspects of the legislation went much further than In Place of Strife. These included:

1) Outlaw of the closed shop.

2) Trade unions to register with a Registrar as a condition for keeping certain legal immunities. Registration would bind trade unions to a code under which strikes could be called. This would impose limits on members to avoid claims against unions for “unfair industrial practices”. Anyone who scabs, even on an official strike, which is deemed “unfair” by the Bill, could not be “expelled, disciplined or discriminated against by the organisation, notwithstanding anything in the rules.”

3) To treat all collective agreements as legally binding contracts.

4) Compulsory ballots prior to action if a dispute threatened the “life of the nation”. Any employer could apply for compensation against trade unions and unionists for a wide range of supposed offences.

5) Allow the Secretary of State the right to order the postponement of strike action (“cooling-off” period) for up to 60 days.

6) Grant trade union recognition only after investigation by the Commission on Industrial Relations. The National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) would have such powers as would leave union rulebooks and funds at their mercy.

7) Removal of legal immunity from sympathy strikes. Unregistered unions, like shop stewards committees, would have a total absence of protection at law from crippling fines.

Within the Labour movement the Industrial Relations Bill became known as “the scabs charter”. A mass campaign was organised from below, mainly by the CP-inspired Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, to defeat the Tory legislation. Both the TUC and Parliamentary Labour Party came out against the Bill. While the TUC rejected strike action against the government, on 8 December 1970 the LCDTU organised a massive unofficial protest strike of 600,000 workers. On the 12 January, half a million workers took part in a day of protest against the government. On 21 February, 300,000 trade unionists demonstrated in London to “Kill the Bill”.

The doubting Thomases on the TUC General Council, who opposed the demonstration, were utterly gob-smacked. “You know very well, Jack, people won’t take part in that sort of thing unless they’re paid to do it”, stated George Lowthian of the Bricklayers Union. But it proved to be the largest demonstration of the century. As the TUC reported at the time: “It was the biggest demonstration since the Chartists moved working men to demand the right to vote, 130 years earlier.” The left-wing engineering workers’ union, the AUEW, called a series of one-day strikes beginning on 1 March, where more than two million workers took strike action against the Tory government. These were overtly political strikes.

On the day of the TUC special conference in March, three million workers went on strike – until then, the biggest strike since the General Strike of 1926. The conference “strongly advised” a compete boycott of the Tory anti-union legislation. At the September TUC, a resolution submitted from the AUEW and TGWU, was passed instructing unions not to register with the government’s Registrar. A handful of unions hesitated, but went along with the decision, while a few small unions were expelled from the TUC for failing to comply.

Between July 1970 and July 1974, more than three million days were lost in political protest strikes against the Industrial Relations Act, more than one million against the NIRC and 1.6 million against the government’s incomes policy. It was an historic show of militancy, and the high point of working class confidence not seen for generations.

In the summer of 1971, a mass movement had taken place to save the jobs of workers at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS), which was threatened by complete closure. Set up by the Labour government in 1966, this artificial conglomerate suffered from the general decline of British shipbuilding over the previous decades. Since its inception, the UCS had staggered from one crisis to another. Instead of nationalising the industry, Labour preferred to dish out public subsidies, and reorganise the industry on a more efficient capitalist basis. Despite a 30 per cent cut in the workforce and an 85 per cent increase in productivity within the yards, within five years UCS once again faced bankruptcy and closure.

The Tories began to break up the industry and the most profitable sections were sold to Yarrow for the nominal sum of £1. In return, Yarrow received a £4.5 million loan as a “sweetener”. Eventually all the taxpayers’ money soon ran out. The Tory government turned down the bosses’ request for new subsidies, and a Committee of Inquiry recommended the closure of two out of the four UCS shipyards with loss of some 6,000 jobs.

The UCS workers – already living in areas of high unemployment – refused to accept this jobs slaughter without a fight. In response to the threatened closures, a “work-in” was organised at the yards and two one-day solidarity strikes were held across Scotland. It was an inspiration to workers everywhere. From one end of Britain to the other messages of support and finance poured in. Nevertheless, despite the heroism of the UCS workers, their leaders Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid, both members of the Communist Party, wanted to limit the protest action to a “work-in”. They fought against the idea of spreading the occupation to other yards nationally. In doing so, the opportunity was lost of safeguarding all shipbuilding jobs through a mass campaign to force the nationalisation of the industry.

The idea of nationalisation was no far-fetched dream. Under intense pressure, the Heath government had already nationalised crisis-ridden Rolls Royce, “at a stroke”, to use Heath’s famous phrase, in February 1971. They could have been forced to do the same for shipbuilding if a massive campaign had been undertaken. The occupations could have been spread to Swan Hunters, Cammell Lairds, Harland and Wolf, and throughout the shipbuilding industry. Unfortunately, the action was limited to UCS. Eventually, an agreement was struck, whereby three of the yards were incorporated into Govan shipbuilders, with a grant of £35 million and the fourth yard was sold off to Marathon with grants of £12 million. In July 1972, John Davies, Minister for Industry, was forced to guarantee Govan support “for five years or until the company is on its feet”. Nevertheless, 2,000 UCS workers still lost their jobs in the deal. Eventually Airlie ended up as a national full-time official of the AEU, while Reid shifted to the right, becoming a journalist and media personality.

The UCS struggle had, however, forced a U-turn in government policy. Up until then the Tories had pursued a policy of no subsidies for “lame duck” industries. Firstly, the Rolls Royce crisis and then the battle at UCS, as Nicholas Ridley subsequently admitted, forced the government to ditch this “lame duck” policy for fear of the social consequences.

The UCS “work-in” was an inspiration to all workers facing redundancies. Unemployment had risen sharply with the shake-out of labour during the recession of 1971. In the winter of 1971-72 unemployment was the highest since 1939 – prompting the TUC to organise a national lobby of Parliament. The response of workers facing closure was a wave of factory occupations and sit-ins across Britain. Following the initial upsurge in 1971, the following years saw no fewer than 200 occupations or “work-ins”. The most prominent were: Plessey in Dunbartonshire, Fisher Bendix, Don Steel Works, Pressed Steel Fisher in Birmingham, Briant Colour, BSA, Norton Villiers Triumph, Thorneycroft in Basingstoke, Allis Chambers, Seiko Time, Scottish Daily Express, amongst many others. This rising curve of class struggle represented an industrial upsurge not seen since possibly the “Great Unrest” of 1910-12.

1972 Miners’ Strike

The year 1972 was a decisive one for the Labour movement. At the beginning of 1972, the Heath government faced the first official national strike of mineworkers since the 1926 General Strike. It was a historic moment. A pithead ballot had returned a 58.8 per cent majority in favour of industrial action. On 9 January, given the high levels of inflation at the time, and the falling behind of miners’ pay in relation to the national wages’ league, 280,000 members of the National Union of Mineworkers took action demanding a 47 per cent wage increase. The action was preceded by a two-month over-time ban. Although the right wing still dominated the NUM national executive by 26 to 8, a layer of younger militant activists at Area level had tapped into the mood of discontent throughout the coalfields. Above all in the decisive Yorkshire coalfield, the tradition of flying pickets developed in the unofficial 1969 strike, was extended on a national scale. With trade unionists in other industries observing the TUC guidelines to respect NUM picket lines, the movement of coal was halted. The miners’ strike of January and February 1972 had a profound impact in boosting the confidence of the working class and, conversely, in undermining the confidence of the ruling class.

Prime Minister Heath recognised that “sure handling of the dispute was of critical importance in the government’s continuing success in holding down wage levels”. Heath considered the use of troops against the NUM, but feared that this would aggravate and deepen the strike. But, he insisted in Cabinet, “It is important that the government is not seen to be weakening.” Yet the government was soon to find itself completely paralysed. A top secret Cabinet report recognised the dangers confronting them: “If this sort of attitude is pressed too far, the social consequences are unpredictable.” In other words, the Tories could face a social explosion, if not another general strike.

The miners’ union marched as one. With the mines at a complete standstill, no picket lines were required at the pitheads, so attention was turned to coal stocks. Compared to the past, the use of flying pickets was made more effective by the widespread ownership of cars and other transport. Up to 300 pickets disrupted coal supplies to Scottish power stations. The story was repeated in Kent, South Wales, Derbyshire and Yorkshire. Miners hoped that electricity power workers would join them in their own pay battle, but they came to a settlement independently on 7 February.

“Driven into a corner by the magnificent struggle of the miners, with the support of the whole working class”, wrote Alan Woods, who was giving assistance to miners in South Wales at the time, “the Tory government has lashed out with blind class hatred. The panic measures of Heath and Co. are intended to bludgeon the miners back to work by turning their fellow workers against them. But the crocodile tears shed by Heath over the fate of the aged, the sick and the millions who will be laid off because of the government’s measures, will fool no-one.”

He went on: “The miners’ strike is an inspiration to the whole of the working class. Every section of the trade union and labour movement has given practical assistance to the miners. Even the Tory press has had to reflect the massive sympathy of millions of ordinary people.

“It is high time the TUC followed the lead of the rank and file! The organised strength of 10 million workers must be used to force the Tory government to back down.

“The government of big business is prepared to inflict terrible suffering on millions of people, in order to bear down on the miners and the whole Labour movement. The TUC alone has the strength to stay its hand. Already, sections of workers have staged sympathy strikes in solidarity with the miners. Let the TUC call a one-day strike in support of the miners!”[1]

Solidarity action from below began to spread. On the 1 February some 150 men took spontaneous strike action at a British Leyland subsidiary, the S.U. Carburettors in Birmingham. They felt that giving £1 a week out of their pay was insufficient. As Brother Iredale (who was on the TGWU Regional Committee) stated: “The miners are not going to win by kind words and collections, only by forcing the government to back down.” This strike was symptomatic of the support for the miners across industry. It was a foretaste of what was about to take place on a massive scale in the West Midlands.

The attention of the striking miners soon turned to the coke depot at Saltley Gasworks in Birmingham, the last big fuel depot to remain open in the region. The number of pickets at the gate steadily increased. On Tuesday, 8 February, 1,800 Midland car delivery workers struck in sympathy with the miners. The following day, the government declared a state of emergency. On the Thursday, a meeting of about 200 shop stewards in the Midlands’ engineering industry called for solidarity action from the 40,000 engineering workers and a mass march on the Saltley deport to close the plant. The secretary of the West Birmingham AEU District Committee stated: “We saw what happened to the postal workers last year. We are not going to let it happen to the miners.”[2]

Saltley Gate

The mood was electric as almost all of Birmingham’s 40,000 engineering workers went on strike, and some 10,000 marched on Saltley Gate. They joined 2,000 miners at the gates. The 1,000 police on duty were simply overwhelmed.

“At first there were only ten of us, then twenty, fifty, five hundred and finally ten thousand”, reported Bob McKee outside the gates. “That is how the picketing built up outside Saltley coke depot.” He continued, “men from Dunlops, British Leyland, Rover, Drop Forge, GEC, etc. were there. Birmingham industry was at a standstill and ten thousand people flooded the square outside the depot, stopping the movement of traffic. The police closed the gates for the day. Victory was ours. I cannot describe to you the feeling of joy, relief and solidarity that descended over all of us there. Leaflets I brought to hand out were taken out of my hands in bundles by total strangers, who distributed them for me – it was like what Petrograd 1917 must have been!”[3]

Arthur Scargill also described what happened:

“Some of the lads… were a bit dispirited… And then over the hill came a banner and I’ve never seen in my life as many people following a banner. As far as the eye could see it was just a mass of people marching towards Saltley… Our lads were jumping in the air with emotion – fantastic situation… I started to chant… ‘Close the Gates! Close the Gates! And it was taken up, just like a football crowd.”

With no alternative, the Chief Constable of Birmingham ordered the gates of the depot closed. It was to be a turning point. By 14 February fuel supplies were so low that many industries were forced onto a three-day week. The Tory government took fright at the scale of the movement. Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary, was later asked why he had not used troops to assist the police. In reply he said, “I remember asking them one single question: ‘If they had been sent in, should they have gone in with rifles loaded or unloaded?’ Either course could have been disastrous.”

He informed the Tory Cabinet:

“Its enforced closure represents a victory for violence against the lawful activities of the gas board and the coal merchants. This provides disturbing evidence of the ease with which, by assembling large crowds, militants could flout the law with impunity because of the risk that attempts to enforce it would provoke disorder on a large scale.”

Alarmed, the government took fright and rapidly established a Court of Inquiry under Lord Wilberforce to settle the dispute. The Inquiry finished its hearings on a Wednesday, wrote its report on Thursday and published its findings on Friday. Setting what must be a speed record for such a body, they declared the miners a “special case”. Finally, the strike was called off after the NUM executive voted by 14 to 11 to suspend picketing when the Wilberforce Inquiry (“we believe the mineworkers at this particular time have a just case for special treatment”) recommended a sizeable pay award of 20 per cent. “Even then further concessions were exacted by the NUM in Downing Street talks before a settlement was concluded”, stated cabinet minister Willie Whitelaw.[4] Heath was against the ropes and forced to give in. The miners had broken through the government’s pay policy. The miners, with fringe benefits, gained a 21 per cent increase in total, with £4.50 for face workers, £5.00 for surface workers and £6.00 for underground workers, a minimum of £34.50, £23.00 and £25.00 respectively. A whole host of other concessions on overtime rates, subsidized transport, and shift payments were also conceded.

“Inside and outside the Conservative Party”, relates Whitelaw, “the defeat was seen as a humiliation for the Government.”[5] The Times, the classic organ of big business gave its view on behalf of the ruling class.

“Every prime minister since Sir Winston Churchill had normally exerted a pressure to settle wage disputes rather than face the consequences of national strikes… Mr Heath has been working in exactly the opposite way. Unpalatable as the view may be, the cost of this coal strike so far and its likely future cost if it is settled as a result of the Wilberforce report is only a fraction of the damage that would have been done if there had not been a real determination to resist wage inflation. There really is no way of fighting wage inflation without being prepared to face major and damaging strikes.”[6]

This stark conclusion of The Times, the naked truth as it were, graphically revealed that the employers and their “strong” government had declared war on the trade unions. This fact was not due to the character of Edward Heath, which, as events proved was rather weak, but stemmed from the parlous state of British capitalism and the need to defend the interests of the ruling class.

Although a significant victory for the miners, if the strike had continued the union could have achieved its full claim. Nevertheless, the miners fought with courage and determination after 20-odd years of broken promises from governments and union leaders. After the 1972 strike, the policy of hard-faced Toryism was in ruins. They had completely miscalculated the determination of the miners and the solidarity of the rest of the working class. The victory was an inspiration to other sections of workers, who were also being pushed to the forefront to defend their conditions.

The miners had revived a fighting tradition that was to set the tone in forthcoming industrial disputes. The mass picketing, above all of the power stations, was an important feature of the miners’ victory. It was an example that other sections would emulate. For many workers, and especially the miners, the 1972 strike was an historic turning point and proved a just reward for the humiliating defeat of 1926.


[1] Militant, 18 February 1972

[2] Quoted in the Financial Times, 10 February 1972

[3] Militant, 18 February 1972

[4] The Whitelaw Memoirs, p.124, London 1989

[5] Ibid, p.125

[6] The Times, 15 February 1972