Do soaring inflation and the growing number of strikes mean we’re going back half a century to an era of flared trousers and flare-ups in society? Inflation is taking off as it did from the late 1960s onwards, peaking at over 24 percent a year in 1975. But this time the acceleration of price rises is far quicker even if it hasn’t hit such heights—yet.
And again, as last week’s interest rate rise signals, spiralling prices could be combined with a recession where growth dies and people lose their jobs. That’s what happened between 1973 and 1975. But it’s the return of strikes that most want to analyse.
The Sun’s front page headline recently read, “We regret to announce that this country is returning to the 1970s.” And it went on—in its usual lying mode—“Teachers and binmen threaten to join railway workers’ strike—causing chaos not seen since the 1970s.” The message is that the 1970s was a squalid decade of mayhem imposed by bullying trade unions who wrecked everyone’s lives in pursuit of their selfish demands. Everyone should try to prevent any return to this abyss.
In fact, there is a lot to celebrate about the 1970s. The greatest wave of strikes since the 1920s massively boosted workers’ confidence and terrified the ruling class. National miners’ strikes defeated the Tory government. An openly political strike freed the imprisoned Pentonville Five union activists and smashed anti-union laws.
There was the biggest building strike ever with 300,000 people out over 12 weeks. At the Saltley Gate coke works in Birmingham during the 1972 miners’ battle, strikers won a victory that became a symbol of workers’ power. Tens of thousands of striking miners and other workers who had walked out to join them defeated the police and shut down the depot.
Tory MP Douglas Hurd was then parliamentary private secretary to prime minister Edward Heath. He recorded in his diary that the government was “vainly wandering over the battlefield looking for someone to surrender to, and being massacred all the time”. By the end of 1973 Tory industry minister John Davies told his family, “We must enjoy this Christmas for it may be our last one.”
The number of strike days rose from fewer than five million in 1968 to 13.5 million in 1971 and 23.9 million in 1972. For comparison, the 2018 figure was 273,000. Millions of workers won pay rises that matched or beat inflation and stopped job cuts.
The fantastic high points of struggle encouraged fights by groups of women workers, the very low paid and those who had never been in unions before. They included cleaners, care workers, ambulance drivers, school meals workers, nurses, food workers and more. A powerful example came in January 1970 as the wage revolt spread to clothing workers in Leeds.
The mainly women workers at one firm, John Collier, struck and then pulled out other firms until 25,000 were on strike. Vince Hall, writing in Socialist Worker, reported, “I went along with 300 marching people down to the Woodhouse area of Leeds. They were singing ‘We shall overcome’. The demonstrators, mostly women, surrounded the small factory of H Spender Ltd and swarmed round it shouting ‘Out, out, out’.
“They banged on the windows and pushed open the doors.” Women “rushed in screaming ‘Support us’, ‘Don’t be blacklegs’, ‘Stop scabbing’. The place was shut down inside ten minutes. The demonstrators moved on, blocking traffic and taking over the whole street while nervous policemen looked on.”
Next the “incensed” women tackled the Hall Schiller Ltd factory. Here workers were unsure about joining in for fear of the sack. But “the continuous uproar and singing and shouting outside proved too much. Several ashen-faced men walked out nervously into the crowd. Later the rest of the women ran out.”
Such glorious moments weren’t because of left wing union leaders. The John Collier strikers’ demand for an extra shilling (5p) an hour for all workers was denounced by the national union officials. They were asking for far less, and for bigger increases for men than women. But that didn’t hold back the strikers who described a sense of fighting for each other and for young people.
It wasn’t just that there were lots more strikes. Strikers developed the tactic of “flying pickets”. These moved from workplace to workplace shutting down those still working and stopping the movement of goods linked to the strike. Militant methods became normal—between March and May 1972 there were 57 separate sit-ins going on.
Unions of teachers, civil service workers and hospital workers were blooded in struggle and became real class organisations. Who—apart from bosses, Tories, union bureaucrats and Labour politicians—wouldn’t want this to return? But there are big differences. Today one in four workers are in a union. In 1979 it was twice as many. So far we have seen only glimpses of the confidence of the early 70s.
It’s great to see more strikes, but there will be sharp battles to win more big unions to join the fight and to hold hard-hitting action. Union leaders hold back from defying the anti-union laws, and most activists go along with them.
We have to build on the signs of hope. Looking at the videos of the Amazon workers’ unofficial walkout last week in Tilbury, what shines through is the confidence of those involved. They don’t care what management says. They’re angry over pay and want action.
Ralph Darlington has written extensively on workers’ struggles of the 1970s. He told Socialist Worker last week, “One of the big differences from then to now is the absence of an organised network of rank and file workers who had at least some independence from the national union officials. “In the 1970s the Communist Party (CP)—for all its faults—and its Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) were very important.
“Although they sought official support, they were prepared to initiate unofficial action against the anti-union laws put forward under both Labour and Tory governments. There was a powerful network of shop stewards created during 25 years of economic boom after the Second World War, and the Communist Party provided a political glue for those people.”
That goes to the issue of politics. The CP did call independent actions, and the LCDTU could itself organise strikes which half a million workers joined. But the CP also hobbled the strike movement. It glued together a network of militants but also stuck them to people who would liquidate the strikes.
It had no vision separate from left wing union leaders such as Hugh Scanlon of the engineers and Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. So, when these leaders decided to turn against unofficial strikes, the CP went along with them. From as early as 1973 Jones and Scanlon were urging Chrysler car workers to abandon solidarity and work alongside contractors scabbing on a strike by Chrysler electricians.
The election of a Labour government in 1974 also saw these union leaders agree to pay cuts for workers to help out “their” government. Labour, as committed as the Tories to “modernising” British capitalism, forced through a wage-slashing social contract. And the union leaders went along with it, encouraging strike-breaking as they went.
The Labour government cut real wages, succeeding where the Tories failed. And the recession sapped the confidence of some of the militants who had earlier led strikes. A revival of action in 1977 and then the Winter of Discontent in 1978-9 weren’t based on the sense of class unity.
Nor did they have the exuberant hope that had marked the earlier period. That means there was a general drift rightwards. What was missing was to link the workplace struggles to other political issues of the time—British oppression in Northern Ireland, anti-racism, the reason why Labour fails.
Today, rediscovering the verve and assurance of the best of the 1970s can resonate with anti-racists, climate campaigners and fighters against oppression who won’t bow down to Labour. That doesn’t mean going back to the 1970s. It means going forward to something better.
Interview with author Phil Marfleet
He was knee-deep in blood
Protesters told Socialist Worker why they were marching