Forty years ago this month, a mass picket shut down Saltley coking depot during a miners’ strike—and turned the tide in the dispute.
Pete Shaw was a 23 year old engineer at the time and travelled to Saltley to join the picket. He was also a member of the International Socialists (IS)—forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party.
He spoke to Will Howlett about the significance of the dispute and the lessons for workers today
In 1972 I was an engineer and union shop steward at Woodhead Manufacturing in Yorkshire. As a young man and a fervent reader of Karl Marx, even at that age, I believed that the workers had the power to change society.
At Saltley I saw proof of it. I saw workers’ power first hand.
Striking miners had been picketing Saltley, a coke depot in Birmingham, but police had made sure lorries could still get supplies out. It was undermining the strike.
A picket came to talk to us from Saltley. He said they’d been going there for three or four days and the miners were basically getting hammered.
There were 200 miners’ pickets and 800 police. When the police outnumber you, you always get a rough time.
They are part of the state and they are there to stop you. They are not there to defend the right of the worker. That’s a load of nonsense. The only way to defeat that is to outnumber them.
So, the word came up to the Yorkshire mines that they had to have more pickets at Saltley.
Arthur Scargill, a miners’ union rep in Yorkshire at the time, sent coachloads of pickets down.
A miner from the local Sharlston colliery spoke at our union branch meeting and asked for financial and physical support.
Miners at 21 pits had done collections for us during a previous dispute we’d had. We said we would assist them in any way we could.
Two days later he rang me and asked did I want to go to Saltley? I said definitely.
We travelled down in the early hours of Thursday morning and got to the picket line about 2.30 or quarter to three. Pickets were arriving literally from all over the place.
By six o’clock the coalworks were in full swing. They were trying to bring wagons in, we were battling against the police and this battle continued for maybe two hours.
We had Scargill stood on a toilet block and he encouraged us to push, to shove, to try and block the road.
Lorries were passing in and out and we were trying to stop them from loading and unloading.
So it’s eight o’clock, coming up to half eight. By this time there were quite a number of building workers there, especially from the McAlpines building site, who had walked out.
But the vast majority came from Birmingham engineering plants, car component factories and the assembly plants.
Scargill had toured workplaces and addressed the district committees of the engineering union.
There were two IS members on the committees.
Scargill basically said, “We don’t want your money, we need you on that picket line, we’ve got to shut this down.”
All the engineers in Birmingham stopped work that day and some 15,000 marched to the picket line.
To see this sea of people coming over the hill and trying to close the gates was unprecedented. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
The feeling of the power and unity that we had was indescribable. You just felt so elated because of the power that the workers had shown.
The chief constable of Birmingham contacted the prime minister and said if they didn’t close the gates, he couldn’t guarantee safety in Birmingham.
The cheer went up after he locked the chain to the works. It didn’t operate for the remainder of the strike.
The victory wasn’t just a case of numbers. It was won because ordinary workers took control of the strike. The rank and file ran the actions, the
picketing and the solidarity.
Train drivers gave a lot of solidarity. You could stick a banner over a bridge saying “NUM picket line” and the train driver would stop his train.
It was as simple as that—you don’t cross a picket line.
Rank and file organisation was built through trades councils and making links with other workers.
To my knowledge there were over 200 occupations, strikes and industrial actions between 1972 and 1974.
That’s like two a week. The vast majority won. And with each victory workers got more and more confident.
The national union officials wanted to keep a lid on the action because they believed it would give Labour a better chance at the elections.
The Communist Party was the major influence on the left at the time. But their tactic was to woo left wing union officials. They tried to replace right wing officials with left wing ones.
By doing this they neglected the rank and file. They neglected the fact that ordinary people were taking action and wanted support.
In the IS we had a strategy of building a mass party to have more influence on the shop stewards. That’s why I was a member of the IS.
We were pitifully small. But we did have influence—we had a lot of members in factories and we had factory workplace branches.
I think that from 1971 to 1975, the influence of the IS increased through the simple fact of our tactics.
The lessons of Saltley for me are simple. Support the union officials who want to support the workers—and when they don’t support the workers, act independently.
We must build the rank and file to a level where it can act independently, irrespective of the union or the struggle. By doing this we will have a greater influence on the movement.
All I want to say to younger comrades that are now in the forefront is—don’t give up.
It was a wonderful experience to watch on television the students storming the Tory Party headquarters two years ago and smashing the bastards to pieces.
You were an inspiration to us oldies. Hopefully the Battle of Saltley Gate can be an inspiration to young people today.
Pete Shaw, a 23 year old engineer at the time, joined the mass picket at Saltley coking depot from Yorkshire. Today he's an electrician – and still fighting for workers' rights
Close the gates! The 1972 Miners’ Strike, Saltley Gate and the Defeat of the Tories is a new pamphlet written by Pete Jackson. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £2. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk