Socialist Worker

Secret 1972 cabinet papers released: strikes panicked ministers

Issue No. 1832

Secret cabinet documents from 1972 have just been released to the public. They reveal how working class action terrified the highest levels of government. And they show how solidarity action between workers humbled a powerful right wing cabinet. The Tory government began 1972 full of confidence and determination to hold down workers' pay.

The year before it had decisively beaten the post workers. No minister was going to worry about a pay dispute rumbling on in the mining industry. The National Union of Mineworkers had not been on a national strike since it was crushed in 1926. The union's leader, Joe Gormley, was a staunch right winger and the government had stockpiled coal.

The media egged the government on. The strike began on 9 January. From day one, rank and file miners went out to win solidarity from other workers. They picketed out lorry drivers, train drivers, and fuel depot and power station workers.

Just two days into the strike the cabinet expressed 'concern' that the miners were ignoring the union leaders' instructions to keep safety cover at the pitheads. Prime minister Edward Heath knew that 'sure handling of the dispute was of critical importance in the government's continuing success in holding down wage levels'.

By 20 January the cabinet was so desperate to crush the miners it considered sending in troops to move the coal which had been blacked (boycotted) by other workers.

But it was scared that using troops would escalate the dispute. On 3 February the cabinet vowed it would not give in to the miners. Heath insisted, 'It is important that the government is not seen to be weakening.' But the employment secretary, Robert Carr, reported that the 'miners are confident of their strength and unyielding'.

This confident Tory cabinet was paralysed within two weeks. It was terrified of conceding a big pay claim and of the growing power of the miners. A 'top secret' report to the cabinet outlined ministers' fears about solidarity action: 'If this sort of attitude is pressed too far, the social consequences are unpredictable.'

The Tories decided that the use of unarmed troops would be counter-productive. On 8 February the government introduced a state of emergency. Publicly it said this was to preserve fuel. In private it admitted it was also to 'hasten a transformation of public opinion'. It had reason to be worried.

On the same day, Arthur Scargill-then a local Yorkshire union official - was appealing to engineers in Birmingham to help the miners close down Saltley coke depot. Some 40,000 engineers struck in solidarity and a 10,000 - strong mass picket closed the depot. It was a turning point.

When workers won solidarity action the government was powerless to defeat them. A police report to the cabinet admitted that in mining areas officers were struggling because of 'the massive numbers of men who have been mustered in support of the pickets'.

The government hurriedly set up an inquiry to settle the pay claim. It declared that the miners were now a 'special case', but the miners refused to stop picketing. By 14 February fuel supplies were so low that many industries were on a three-day week.

At all-night sessions, some held in candlelight, the miners rejected the inquiry recommendations and squeezed more concessions from the employers and the government. The miners had smashed through the government's pay policy by picketing out other rank and file workers. This was a lesson the government did not forget.

A top secret report by home secretary Reginald Maudling on 9 May showed that the Tories said: 'In pursuing our battle against the unions in the public sector we have relied on the support of public opinion. There are limits to this as the unions and their families become a larger part of society. Glaring disparities of wealth still persist and are more clearly in the public consciousness. We saw this most acutely with the miners. I am afraid to say the only place where allies can be seen is in the trade union movement.'

When workers beat the anti-union laws

Heath wanted revenge for his humiliation at the hands of the miners. But his government had to tread carefully. A secret report a couple of weeks after the miners' victory said, 'A majority of shop floor workers lacked appreciation of the risks of lawlessness and were easily led by comparatively few but energetic elements intent on subversion.' The Tories were keen to get rid of the National Dock Labour Scheme, which protected dockers from casual labour.

The cabinet decided it could not because 'the union officials were having difficulty retaining control in the face of increasing militancy at a local level'. The government introduced a new law that banned the kind of secondary blacking of goods that was so powerful in the miners' strike. The industrial relations court could fine unions if their members broke the law. Dock workers began blacking companies that used new transport containers because the containers threatened dockers' jobs.

Fines were imposed on the TGWU dock workers' union, but the rank and file refused to stop their action. A cabinet memorandum from 18 July reveals that an 'unofficial shop stewards committee still has support from many moderate-minded dockers because they fear for their jobs'.

The cabinet discussed introducing another state of emergency, the rationing of essential food, and the requisitioning of vehicles to transport food around the country. The London docks were at a complete standstill by 20 July. Dockers in east London were issued with arrest warrants and five were locked up in Pentonville prison. The working class erupted.

Dockers walked out and began picketing printing works and closing down the Fleet Street printing presses of the major newspapers. The mass walkout petrified the government. 'The blacking of containers by militants was becoming more extensive,' they were warned. The union leaders were forced to call for a general strike and the cabinet rushed to end the dispute.

A top-level intervention released the five dockers on 26 July. There were scenes of great celebration but the fight was not over. On 28 July an official strike against unregistered labour on the docks began. By 31 July an emergency group reported, 'If troops were used there is a real danger of sympathetic action by lorry drivers and others which would be more damaging than the present situation.'

The dockers' shop stewards committee launched a campaign of picketing of all ports using unrecognised labour. 'We need to avoid a recurrence of the sort of incidents which took place during the miners' strike,' the cabinet worried. The dockers got less than they could have won after their leaders persuaded them to accept a deal.

Their actions saw off the anti-union laws, which the Tories did not dare use again. They were repealed in 1974.

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