Fifty years ago another Kill The Bill movement led to strikes and protests against repressive Tory legislation that restricted workers’ rights.
This movement took place in a time when working class organisation was far stronger than today.
Unions wielded more power against the bosses, even bringing down a government in 1974. And rank and file workers would often strike against the wishes of cowardly union bureaucrats.
Once again, the Tories want to clamp down on the movements, this time with their protest-smashing police bill. While the context is different to the 1970s, we can still learn from that spirit of militancy.
Back then, a Tory government under Edward Heath came to office in 1970 looking to limit the strength of the working class. They were particularly worried about “wildcat” strikes led from the shopfloor. So Heath introduced the Industrial Relations Act 1971 to restrict workers’ power.
It forced unions to accept legal restraints through registration with a government body. Bodies not registered—whether a workers’ committee or union—would be subject to penalties if it called for action.
This meant strikes without official union backing would be banned.
The National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) was established to grant injunctions to prevent unofficial strikes.
Prior to the Heath government, Harold Wilson’s Labour had also attempted to limit the power of unions. This led to outrage and mass strikes between 1969 to 1970.
The ruling class were desperate to put a stop to the militancy.
Socialist Worker reported in 1971, “The Tories are on the attack because of the newfound strength of workers.”
Dave Sherry is a retired trade unionist who joined the International Socialists, the forerunner to the Socialist Workers Party, in 1972.
“What the Labour government and the Tories did was politicise workers,” he said.
“It wasn’t because of militant trade union leaders that workers were always on strike, but good workplace organisation.
“They’d go on strike before officials negotiated a rotten deal. They don’t do that now. It’s the job of socialists to learn from that and remember what we have been through in the last 50 years.”
The movement against the bill wasn’t straightforward. Rank and file workers had to fight union leaders in order to attack the proposed law, and often acted alone when they didn’t listen.
In early 1971 the TUC union federation began to soften its opposition to the anti-union laws.
Union leaders feared workers taking action on their own, as it would make their role unnecessary. Socialist Worker concluded, “Rank and file organisation is necessary if there is to be a united fight against the anti-union offensive.”
It’s this spirit of revolt from below that we can take into our battle against the police bill.
The fight to kill it can be successful if we rely on our strength in the streets and ignore those in official positions who tell us to curtail our radicalism.
Due to pressure from below on 12 January 1971 hundreds of thousands of workers took part in a one-day strike called by the TUC.
In Coventry more than 40,000 went on strike. And in Merseyside 50,000 went on strike, including almost all dock workers. Socialist Worker reported, “The mood of determination to kill the bill was keener than ever.
“The TUC can only be forced to take really decisive action if hundreds of thousands of more workers can be mobilised.”
A rally was also called by the TUC at the end of February to mark the end of its “feeble” campaign against the bill. Over 140,000 trade unionists took to the streets of London
But workers again clashed with union leaders. On 1 March 1971 workers across Britain went out on strike as part of an unofficial day of protest against the bill.
Around 250,000 workers struck in London and across Britain some 1.5 million downed tools, including postal workers.
Yet at the TUC conference in March 1971 leaders refused to make it a condition of TUC membership that unions should not cooperate with the new anti-union laws.
So again, workers acted alone. In July 1971 Glasgow workers occupied the UCS shipyards.
Dave said this “turned the tide”.
“More militant action flowed from the occupation,” he explained. “It provoked a huge spread and a series of explosions of struggle when the law had just come in. There were sit-ins, strikes and demos.
“The kill the bill movement didn’t kill off the act under the Tories, but folk defied it.
“The anger quickly spread to those seen as white collar workers, not just the vanguard section of the working class.”
It wasn’t until September 1971, after the bill became law, that the TUC shifted to “instruct” rather than “advise” members not to register under the Act.
In 1972 the Act met its match against dock workers who organised action in defiance of union leaders.
The mass strikes that followed were the pinnacle of a two-year battle over the right to strike and the inaction of union leaders.
By January, 300,000 miners had come out on national strike. And around 25,000 engineering workers in Manchester occupied 30 factories from March to May.
Dock workers in Liverpool picketed at new container depots in a fight to defend their jobs.
This went against the Act and bosses made complaints to the NIRC to shut down the pickets. The NIRC also threatened three London dockers with jail for picketing and refusing to handle goods. Dockers met three days later on 15 June and voted to strike until all proceedings were dropped.
This led to the charges being dropped, sparking an increase in confidence.
By July the Midland Cold Storage company applied to the NIRC to shut down a picket at its east London depot.
When the pickets continued, five dockers were arrested on Friday 21 July and sent to Pentonville prison.
As a result every docker in Britain walked out on an unofficial strike and mass picketing outside the prison was held.
Electricians struck that night. On the Saturday, to ensure the release of the Pentonville Five, dockers hit the national newspapers. They marched down Fleet Street in central London shouting and leafleting printers to join.
From Monday 24 to Friday 28 July national daily newspapers and London, Manchester and Liverpool evening papers were not published.
All major engineering firms struck in Sheffield, where 3,000 workers marched to demand the TUC called action.
A demonstration of up to 30,000 workers assembled at Tower Hill in London on Tuesday 25 July and marched to Pentonville. And some 250,000 workers unofficially struck.
The dockers were released five days later on Wednesday 26 July, followed by an official dockers’ strike that continued for three weeks.
“This period was another turning point,” Dave said. “There was immediate solidarity in breach of the law and the Tories couldn’t do anything about it.
“The mass rank and file was so big that the TUC had to call a one-day general strike the following Monday.
“The 1970s was the biggest thing that happened to the British working class since the end of the First World War.”
The strikes showed the ability that workers’ solidarity can have—despite unofficial action being banned.
“The organised working class was bigger then, now it is weaker,” Dave explained.
“We have a very different working class now, it is more widespread. There are more women in the movement and anti-racism has also pulled people in. That’s made a huge difference. We need to build the organised working class.”
The main focus of resistance is presently on the streets, rather than in workplaces.
But workers can be drawn into the current Kill The Bill movement and its militancy can help initiate new rank and file organisations.
This happened with the Yellow Vests in France.
A movement that began on the streets, inspired rank and file workers to organise militant strikes, with commentators talking about a “yellow vestisation” of the unions.
The fight against the Industrial Relations Act proves that militant resistance works.
And class struggle is the key to it.