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Defiance and victories in the 1970s

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Our series continues as workers hit back against anti-trade union laws
Issue 2210
Pentonville Five released
Pentonville Five released

In the early 1970s a Tory government tried to unleash war on the working class. But workers organised a revolt so powerful that it brought down the government.

A prolonged boom led to relative social peace in the 1950s and 1960s. But there was a build up of trade union strength at a shopfloor level.

So when the Tories came to attack workers they were faced with a well-organised movement.

For the first time in Britain’s history, workers occupied their factories.

They defied anti-union laws, took unofficial action and struck to support other workers.

Sections of the ruling class discussed organising a coup to hold onto power.

Edward Heath’s Tory government was elected in 1970 as the economic crisis started to bite.

The ruling class wanted attacks on workers in order to shore up profits. It wanted to keep pay down, despite prices rising.

It wasn’t long before resistance broke out. The first factory occupation began in July 1971. Workers at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) occupied against plans to close the shipyards.

They became the first to defy the anti-union laws put into place only a week before.

Hundreds of thousands struck in support of the UCS workers and a wave of occupations spread, drawing in organised and unorganised workers.

Between 1972 and 1974 there were more than 200 factory occupations. Many saw workers on the offensive – demanding more from the bosses.

The UCS action forced the government into a humiliating retreat, but worse was to come.

The 1972 miners’ strike inflicted a decisive defeat on the Tories. In the face of rising inflation and falling pay, the miners struck for a 47 percent pay rise.

Heath considered using troops against them but worried that it would provoke more struggle. “It is important that the government is not seen to be weakening,” he told the cabinet.

There were sympathy strikes with the miners. Flying pickets stopped the movement of stockpiled coal.

At the Saltley Gate coke works in Birmingham, tens of thousands of miners and other workers outnumbered police and shut down the depot.

Home secretary Reginald Maudling, responsible for the government’s Northern Ireland policy when the Bloody Sunday massacre occurred, whined that this was “a victory for violence”. He complained: “This provides disturbing evidence of the ease with which, by assembling large crowds, militants could flout the law with impunity because of the risk that attempts to enforce it would provoke disorder on a large scale.”


The miners smashed the Tories’ pay restraint winning a 21 percent pay rise, and concessions.

The government had underestimated workers.

Dockers picketed their depots after bosses used non-dockers on lower pay to do their jobs.

On 21 July, five dockers were jailed at Pentonville prison. Within hours dockers shut down all the major ports in Britain – despite the refusal of Jack Jones, left wing leader of the TGWU union, to help the jailed five.

Strikes swept Britain. They hit engineering, steel, transport, councils, the national press and one of the biggest workplaces in Europe – Heathrow airport.

Some 250,000 workers struck with almost 100,000 on all-out, unofficial strike. Five days after they were jailed, the Pentonville Five were released.

Ross Pritchard, editor of the Printworker rank and file bulletin, was there. He said, “People began to think of how working class power can change things.”

Workers won – against the Tories and their anti‑union laws, as well as the leaders of their own unions and the Labour Party. The Tories were in disarray.

The final blow came in 1974. Miners struck for four weeks over pay and brought coal production to a standstill. Other trade unionists refused to transport coal and oil to power stations.

Heath responded with a snap general election and ran his campaign on the unions. In a televised address he said, “The strife has got to stop… It is time for you to speak, with your vote.”

People did speak – and voted the Tories out.

By the mid-70s some union leaders had diverted anger away from mass struggle towards compromise with the government and bosses, in the “national interest”.

But the lessons of the 1970s – that the power of workers can overwhelm any law or government – remain critical today.

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