It’s the winter of 1978. The prime minister is keeping a panicked watch on strikes—in incredible detail.
Ministers are even negotiating directly with the unions about supplies of crisps and beans.
This is the story told in government papers released at the end of last month under the “30-year rule”. The documents reveal an astonishing sense of crisis in the cabinet.
The Labour government, led by James Callaghan, was repeatedly on the verge of declaring a state of emergency, under pressure from the bosses.
It even drew up plans to use thousands of troops in an attempt to undermine strikes in what became known as the “Winter of Discontent”.
In the end, the government used the union leaders to hold their members in check—and used the threat of the Tories to make them toe the line.
At the time rampant inflation was undermining wages. In 1974 the government had struck a deal with the unions—the “social contract”—to curb rising wage demands.
The result was an outburst of anger after four years of betrayal and disappointment in a Labour government.
The anger was so strong that union leaders could no longer hold back their members. Council workers, water workers, health workers and many others struck against the pay limits.
The key documents now released cover the lorry drivers’ strike by the T&G transport union (also known as TGWU and today part of Unite).
“We are the only ones who can solve it and perhaps even we can’t,” Callaghan scribbled during a meeting to discuss the strike.
“Can’t avoid aggro,” he writes in another. “We cannot afford to solve all the problems this year.”
The government prepared hugely detailed—and somewhat panicky—daily reports of the strike, outlining the effectiveness of picketing.
Page after page details the strike’s strength, factory gate by factory gate.
In one, the Department of Transport reports, “Picketing intense but peaceful. Control by TGWU hierarchy doubtful and weakening.
“The extent to which TGWU officials have been able to control secondary picketing is minimal.”
The Department of Industry adds, “Despite efforts by some union officials secondary picketing is becoming intense.”
The Department of Agriculture chips in with, “It is said in many places in the north west and north east to be entirely in the hands of the strike committees.”
The Department of Energy warned, “If the strike continues into February then all major firms in manufacturing sector would have to close.”
The Heinz factory in Wigan had closed, revealed one report.
“Pickets isolated a new consignment of beans destined for the factory,” it read, “and are refusing to allow the beans out.”
Bill Rogers, the transport minister, wrote to the union. The letter starts, “Here is our shopping list.”
The list is ten pages of places the minister requires the union to get “essential supplies” through.
He complains of the solidarity (my words not his) at a Sainsbury’s depot where nothing is being loaded despite there being no picket line outside.
At one point he whines about the refusal to move Golden Wonder crisps, bemoaning that the “TGWU Regional secretary claims that crisps do not come within the priority categories.”
Meanwhile, the president of the CBI bosses’ organisation wrote to the prime minister, demanding that he use troops to break the strike.
“We are clear that you should declare a state of emergency if conditions do not improve immediately,” he wrote.
“What we are witnessing is the outcome of the inbalance of power that has being progressively tipped to the total advantage of organised labour.
“In the interests of the national
wellbeing it is essential that this inbalance is redressed.”
Cabinet minutes show that Callaghan agreed. He wanted to declare a state of emergency and bring in the army to break the strike—but was persuaded by colleagues to hold off.
The government did, though, use troops against striking oil tanker drivers in Northern Ireland.
It then moved in a different way to curb the road haulage pickets. The key became trying to get the union leaders to control the strike.
The minutes of phone calls and meetings from Callaghan to TUC leader Len Murray are revealing.
Callaghan warned Murray, “Maybe the trade unions will have to learn their lesson once again and face the anti-union measures that a Thatcher government would bring in.”
Murray’s response was simply, “The prospect of a general election and a Conservative victory based on Mrs Thatcher’s current propositions filled him with gloom and foreboding.”
The government proposal was to curb the pickets. So, as the minutes of one meeting put it, “The meeting closed on the basis that ministers would now get their suggested code of practice into final form.”
And so civil service workers wrote up a code of practice for picketing which, after some minor amendments, was then presented as the union’s policy on how to run the strike.
The bosses pushed the Labour government, the government pushed the union leaders, and the union leaders pushed the workers.
The battle over the “evils” of effective picketing laid the ideological basis for the Thatcher years.
But fortunately, as a set of cabinet minutes on the strike report, “The government would have to accept that there were some areas where industrial muscle would mean excessive settlements would have to be conceded.”
Because, despite the threats of a Tory government, and despite the union leaders, the strong picketing that so worried the ministers meant the transport workers won a 20 percent pay rise within days.