Union militants were at the heart of the struggle to beat wage cuts under previous Labour governments. The time has come to do it again, writes Charlie Kimber
Every Labour government has been elected on a promise to protect and improve workers’ living standards, and each has tried to impose cuts in pay.
Whenever the economy has shown signs of trouble, they have been faced with the choice of confronting the wealthy and their system, or attacking those who voted them into office.
Holding down wages has always been a key strategy for those who want to boost profits. Although Labour governments have always attempted this, they have not always succeeded. What matters is how workers fight.
The key lessons are that we need strikes and protests, but also unity between different groups of workers and a political strategy.
Labour governments’ long and dishonourable tradition begins with the 1929 administration of Ramsay MacDonald that backed huge cuts in wages as a response to mass unemployment.
MacDonald joined the Tories in a national government in order to implement his policy.
But no such manoeuvres were necessary for the Labour government of 1945-51, which is rightly remembered as the highpoint of Labour’s reforming zeal.
In 1948, as the economy faltered and inflation was running at 7.7 percent, the chancellor Stafford Cripps announced a wage freeze that would restrict increases to 4 percent.
A year later and wage increases were held to 2 percent, despite inflation having fallen to 2.8 percent. So in two years of the best Labour government there has been, real wages fell by nearly 5 percent.
There was little militant action against Labour’s wage freeze in the 1940s. The union leaders were utterly loyal, and politically independent workers’ organisation was weak.
However the economic boom of the 1950s saw a revival of confidence on the shop floor. Workers engaged in a battle to hold up the value of their wages using action that rested on their sectional strength within particular workplaces, rather than a class as a whole.
In 1964 Labour’s Harold Wilson became prime minister. He spoke of “modernisation”, by which he meant that wages would have to be held back so that British bosses could compete more effectively against their European and Japanese counterparts.
Wilson’s early moves were successful. With the help of the TUC and union leaders he was able to isolate and defeat the seafarers’ strike of 1966. In July of that year the government’s Prices and Incomes Board got legal powers to control wages – and the TUC refused to oppose the move.
But certain groups of workers would not accept that their pay should be reduced, and, at rank and file level, workers were sufficiently well-organised to fight independently of their leaders.
In 1967 a strike in the Liverpool docks was followed by stoppages of bus workers, bin workers, construction workers and market porters – creating a climate of resistance in the city. A strike by just 383 women over equal pay paralysed parts of Fords entire operation.
Unions like the T&G, which spoke in more militant terms, recruited from those that simply called for support for the government, and left wingers were elected to leading positions.
The 1968 TUC conference showed the new mood by voting seven to one against pay controls. The government, under pressure from the employers, attempted to bring in laws against strikes. But this generalised assault simply generalised the resistance. Economic struggle flowed into political.
A significant minority of trade unionists were linked to the Communist Party, which, despite the weakness of its politics, did at that time argue for a degree of independence from Labour.
These workers suddenly found they could get a much wider hearing inside the working class, particularly after the inspiring events of May 1968 in France, which saw the biggest general strike in history.
In February 1969 the first openly political stoppages since the 1926 general strike saw 100,000 workers in Glasgow and Liverpool protest against the plans for anti-union laws.
On May Day a Communist Party influenced grouping of trade unionists was able to coordinate a strike by half a million trade unionists, including a total newspaper stoppage.
Sections of the Labour Party joined the revolt, as did some union leaders, who, despite disapproving of the May Day strikes, now pressured the government for change. In a great victory the plans for anti-union laws were withdrawn.
This political victory flowed back into economic struggle. From May 1969 there was a wave of big struggles – including the first all out strike in British Leyland trucks for 40 years, a six week strike by trawler workers, and a seven week strike by Port Talbot blast furnace workers.
Young militants extended a miners’ strike by sending out flying pickets until it included over 150,000 miners from 150 pits.
Despite the official wage controls, average real wages across the working class rose by around 10 percent between April 1967 and April 1970.
Labour lost the election in 1970 because its attacks had demoralised large numbers of its own supporters. The turnout was the lowest for 35 years, and the Labour vote slumped by 5 percent. It was enough for the Tories under Edward Heath to get in.
Heath managed to use growing unemployment, and the weakness of some union leaders, to inflict a defeat on a postal workers’ strike and to partially defeat others.
But the summer of 1972 saw a renewed effort to impose anti-union laws defeated by an extraordinary rising from below.
The imprisonment of five dockers in Pentonville prison saw a rank and file explosion that forced the TUC to call a general strike.
The dockers were released and the government humiliated.
On May Day 1973 up to two million workers struck and 100,000 marched in London in protest at anti-union laws and against wage cuts. The confidence of workers was to utterly destroy Heath’s government.
The Tories’ desperate efforts to impose a wage freeze were smashed. Summing up this period, Tony Cliff, the founding member of the SWP, wrote that the five years from 1969 to 1974 “was a period when the class struggle achieved a level unprecedented in British working class history for generations.
“We had two national miners’ strikes. One of them smashed to pieces the incomes policy of the Tory government. The other forced the government to lose power.”
Unfortunately the level of political organisation lagged behind the scale of these great struggles.
The forerunners of the SWP grew quickly by combining support for militant struggles and attempts at rank and file unity with the wider politics of the battles over racism and support for the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland (1972 was the year of Bloody Sunday). But they remained a small minority.
The main tendencies on the left were arguing solely for backing for left union leaders. And when Labour was re-elected in 1974, these leaders did a deal with Labour.
TUC leaders forged an agreement with the government called the Social Contract. They promised to police strikes and limit wage claims in exchange for concessions over other issues – which never came.
However, Labour was elected at a time of global economic recession.
The unelected governor of the Bank of England told the government on 30 June 1975 that the pound was plummeting. There was hysteria among the ruling class as inflation soared to 24 percent, and the right wing press blamed this on supposedly high wage settlements.
In response the Social Contract brought harsh wage curbs – a £6 a week ceiling on pay increases in 1975, representing a rise of about 10 percent on an average wage. The following year saw a 4.5 percent limit, while inflation was 16.5 percent.
The bankers and employers were on the attack, but the union leaders’ loyalty to Labour meant they did their best to hold back struggle.
In 1976 the seafarers’ union threatened strike action over a long overdue pay award. The general secretary of the TUC, Len Murray, told them, “By god, we’ll make sure no union supports you. We’ll cripple you.”
The first ever national firefighters’ strike took place the following year. The TUC voted narrowly not to back them.
Three major strikes by groups of skilled workers in 1977 collapsed after trade union leaders instructed other workers to cross their picket lines.
The result was what became known as the Winter of Discontent – an outburst of feeling over five years of betrayal and disappointment.
The 1974-9 government had imposed the biggest attacks on working class living standards since the hungry years of the 1930s.
Workers stopped being “loyal” to Labour because Labour had not been loyal to them.
The feeling was so strong that union leaders could no longer hold back the flood.
Tanker drivers, council workers, water workers and others struck against Labour’s pay limits. Health workers and local government workers joined them.
Many of the strikers were at least partially successful. But the left wing Labour and trade union leaders failed to turn the seething bitterness of working class people into a fundamental challenge to Labour.
Instead the Tories and, to a lesser extent, the Nazis built from the despair. The confident working class activists, who had brought down the Tories five years previously, were utterly demoralised and Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 election.
In the dying days of a Labour government there is always anger and bitterness. For workers, pay is often the issue that focuses the wider discontent.
Today, with inflation at 4.8 percent and Gordon Brown attempting to hold wages at 2 percent or less, civil servants are striking over job cuts, pay and in defence of the public sector.
Teachers, health workers and postal workers are moving towards their own struggles.
But that anger has to be focused by activists who have politics independent of the Labour leaders. Otherwise the argument, “Don’t strike, the Tories will get in,” will win out.
There will be no militant revival in the British working class movement without the growth of a left alternative to New Labour.
That is why the civil service workers’ PCS union strikes are so important. They combine confrontation in the workplace with a political strategy opposed to the Blair-Brown agenda.
PCS leader Mark Serwotka recognises that civil service workers will be infinitely stronger at the centre of a wider battle by public sector workers.
He is working to achieve that unity, and initiatives such as Organising For Fighting Unions (OFFU) are crucial to making that happen.
The battles are a chance for people from different political traditions to unite and to build solidarity. But a forum where health workers meet firefighters, and postal workers meet council workers, and all these groups meet anti-war activists and anti-racists is critical.
It is here that politics that challenge the market and the bosses’ system can be developed. OFFU can help to develop the backbone of a fighting new movement.
And, compared to the 1960s and 1970s, the working class movement is politically much stronger.
The anti-war movement has created groups of politically aware workers who can be central to the growth of militancy over other issues.
The political mood against the war needs to be at the heart of a revival of working class politics.
The revolt against the war, and the fact that Labour has moved so far to the right, has also created tensions and splits among the trade union leaders.
It is now easier to replicate the experience of the Stop the War Coalition, which has united a section of trade union leaders with a wider group of left activists, in struggles that go beyond the question of the war.
All of this means that economics and politics can be combined in the battles to smash Brown’s pay freeze in 2007. Activists have to seize the opportunities to change the mood inside the working class.