Socialist Worker

The winter of discontent showed workers’ power

Forty years ago a Labour Party government was close to declaring a state of emergency due to militant strikes. Sadie Robinson looks at lessons for today

Issue No. 2635

A mass meeting of Ford car workers during their pay strike in November 1978

A mass meeting of Ford car workers during their pay strike in November 1978 (Pic: John Sturrock)


Forty years ago this month, mass strikes had a Labour government that was implementing austerity on the run. Yet prime minister James Callaghan was in denial.

Under the headline, “Crisis? What crisis?” in the Sun newspaper, Callaghan said, “I don’t think other people would share the view [that] there is mounting chaos.”

But the winter of discontent caused so much chaos that Labour ­considered using troops to break strikes.

Labour was elected in 1974 promising to bring about “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of ­working people and their families”.

Instead it imposed the worst attacks on workers since the 1930s. By 1978 some 25 percent of people in Britain lived below the official ­poverty line.

A policy to limit pay meant wages went down in real terms while prices shot up. Labour imposed a 5 percent cap on pay rises while inflation stood at 16.5 percent. Meanwhile it cut taxes on big businesses.

A nine-week strike by Ford ­workers won a 16 percent pay rise in November 1978. In the winter of 1978 tanker drivers, council ­workers, water workers, journalists, bakers and others struck against the pay limit.

Union leaders had tried and failed to hold back the struggle (see below).

Labour considered declaring a state of emergency as fears grew about a strike by 8,500 tanker ­drivers set to start in January.

The officials are sitting on dynamite. A militancy has been unleashed that can really blow up in their faces as well as those of the government.”

Ambulance worker Tony Ventham

A secret plan codenamed Operation Drumstick was drawn up. This would put 9,000 soldiers on standby to drive 4,000 requisitioned petrol tankers to break the strike. In the end bosses gave drivers 15 percent pay rises just hours into the strike.

One government report complained that pickets had “isolated a new consignment of beans” headed for a closed Heinz factory in Wigan. Strikers were “refusing to allow the beans out”.

On 22 January 1979 one and a half million public sector workers struck over pay. Tens of thousands protested in London, and some 3,000 went on to meet in Westminster Central Hall.

Socialist Worker reported at the time, “Union officials were visibly shaken by the aggressive demands for all out strike action and nothing less.”

Ambulance worker Tony Ventham said, “I’ve never seen so much hostility to the union leaders. There was frequent slow hand clapping, boos and catcalls.

“The officials are sitting on dynamite. A militancy has been unleashed that can really blow up in their faces as well as those of the government.”

The TUC agreed a deal with the government in February to end the strikes.

The brutal attacks demoralised working class people and created a space for Margaret Thatcher to be elected prime minister in 1979’s ­general election.

And the winter of discontent showed how, for all their rhetoric, Labour and the union leaders will try to limit workers’ resistance. But it also showed the power that workers have when they fight.


Bosses on the offensive

Labour bent over backwards to help the bosses—but they just demanded more.

In 1975 and 1976 they engineered a collapse in the value of the pound by moving money abroad.

Director general of the bosses’ CBI Campbell Adamson said, “We certainly discussed an investment strike.

“We also discussed various things about not paying various taxes, and a list of things which in themselves would not have been legal.”

And the CBI president urged Callaghan to use troops against strikers. “You should declare a state of emergency if conditions do not improve immediately,” he wrote.

“What we are witnessing is the outcome of the imbalance of power that has been progressively tipped to the total advantage of organised labour.”

Bosses wrecked the economy to the extent that in September 1976 Labour went to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan. The IMF demanded deep cuts in return.


Picketing firefighters in east London, on strike in 1977, cheer the arrival of construction workers, who marched in soilidarity despite a decision by TUC leaders not to support the strike

Picketing firefighters in east London, on strike in 1977, cheer the arrival of construction workers, who marched in soilidarity despite a decision by TUC leaders not to support the strike (Pic: John Sturrock)


Labour and TUC collusion

In 1974 the TUC had signed an agreement with Labour, the Social Contract, promising to limit wage claims. Union leaderships spent their time trying to protect Labour.

Jack Jones of the TGWU union said in 1975, “We simply must keep this Labour government in office and stand by it.”

When the Seamen’s Union threatened pay strikes in 1976, TUC general secretary Len Murray told them, “By god, we’ll make sure no union supports you.”

Firefighters staged their first ever national strike in 1977. The TUC voted not to support them. It later instructed workers to cross strikers’ picket lines. The government was terrified that union leaders could lose control over workers.

One Department of Transport report about a lorry drivers’ strike complained, “Control by TGWU hierarchy doubtful and weakening.”

Labour also tried to undermine action. Callaghan warned TUC leader Len Murray, “Maybe the trade unions will have to learn their lesson and face the anti-union measures that a Thatcher government would bring in.”

New codes of conduct were drawn up to try and control picketing. These laid the basis for future Tory attacks.


Labour’s attacks on working class people saw it begin to lose local elections.

In April 1977 it lost Ashfield to the Tories—a mining constituency where Labour had had a 23,000 majority.

Labour stayed in office by doing a deal with the Liberals, and with Welsh and Scottish nationalist parties.

It also did a deal with the Ulster Unionists to cling onto office.


Labour scrapped some 25,000 hospital beds in the first two years of the 1974-79 government.

And some 1,000 jobs a day went in its first three years.

By 1976 unemployment had reached 1.6 million – compared to 500,000 in 1974.

Prices doubled between February 1974 and December 1978.

The cost of a basic loaf of bread soared by a quarter in 1978 alone.


Some 29,474,000 working days were “lost” to strikes in 1979, compared to 9,306,000 in 1978.

Labour used troops against striking tanker drivers in Northern Ireland.

Soldiers occupied the Syndenham depot in east Belfast and took over 60 petrol stations.

It also considered using scabs and troops against 80 gravediggers who struck in Liverpool and Tameside, Greater Manchester, in January 1979.


If you enjoy Socialist Worker, please consider giving to our annual appeal to make sure we can maintain and develop our online and print versions of Socialist Worker. Go here for details and to donate.

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.