Socialist Worker

When mass strikes showed their power

In the first in our series Dave Sherry looks at the great workers’ movement of the 1970s

Issue No. 2013

Miners’ poster, 1972

Miners’ poster, 1972

Since the start of the new millennium, a new generation of activists has risen to challenge capitalism.

In Britain the growing resistance to war and neo-liberalism has made a big impact on the unions. Yet there is a gap between the political anger and the level of class struggle.

Socialists look enviously to continental Europe or Latin America, but the recent national strike over pensions shows that the potential for mass action exists here too. The British working class has a fine tradition of struggle.

Thirty years ago the bosses bemoaned British unions for their militancy and in Europe strikes were referred to as “the British disease”.

Trade unionism grew steadily during the long boom after the Second World War. Full employment created the conditions in which shop stewards organisation flourished.

The gains workers made came through their own self-activity. It was a “do it yourself reformism”.

At the time, Labour politician Anthony Crosland could write, “Poverty and insecurity are disappearing… One cannot imagine today a deliberate alliance between government and employers against the unions.”

But things started to change towards the end of the 1960s. Under increasing pressure from foreign competitors, British capitalism could no longer afford increases in real wages.

When the world economy was hit by a series of crises the bosses’ scope for concessions was further reduced.

The first assault came during the 1964-70 Labour government. It imposed wage controls, framed laws against “wildcat strikes” and promoted large scale rationalisation and productivity deals, which created unemployment.

The Labour government fell under a wave of strikes in 1969-70 and it was left to Edward Heath’s Tory government to resume the offensive. The Tories provoked the biggest and most political strikes since the General Strike of 1926.

The rising wave of mass working class struggle lasted until 1975. According to labour historian Royden Harrison, the early 1970s represented “the most extraordinary triumph of trade unionism… Over 200 occupations of factories, offices and shipyards occurred between 1972 and 1974 alone and many of them won.”

Referring to the two victorious miners’ strikes, Harrison writes, “First they blew the government off course, then they landed it on the rocks.

“In 1972 they compelled the prime concede more in 24 hours than had been conceded in the last 24 years. Two years on, their next strike led him to introduce the three-day week - a novel system of government by catastrophe - for which he was rewarded with defeat in the general election.

“Nothing like this had ever been heard of before.”

The dramatic success of the workers’ struggles was reflected in the huge jump in strike days - rising from less than five million in 1968 to 24 million in 1972 - and the dramatic growth in union membership from nine million in 1967 to a peak of 13 million in the late 1970s.

The sit in by the workforce at the Upper Clyde Shipyards, which began as a defensive fight in 1971, caught the imagination of millions and sparked a wave of over 200 militant factory occupations across Britain.

The miners’ strike in 1972 was their first national strike for 46 years. The tactic of stopping coal from moving not just out of the pits but also into the power stations and steel works was novel, intelligent and highly successful.

The same year saw national strikes by building workers and railway workers. Most famously it saw the British working class’s greatest ever victory when an unofficial general strike from below forced the government to free five dockers who had been jailed in Pentonville prison for defying the picketing laws.

The upturn of the early 1970s was part of an international revolt inspired by the events of 1968. As in all extraordinary periods of class struggle, the whole of society was affected.

The big disputes of 1972 inspired protests by others that year. A school students’ strike in London led to the formation of the National Union of School Students. August saw a prison strike for prisoners’ rights. In October rents strikes were launched in over 80 towns and cities. In November steel workers in Scunthorpe struck for higher pensions.

Next week’s article will look at how the rank and file organised to control their own struggles.

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