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Saltley Gate 1972 — how working class solidarity beat a Tory government

Fifty years ago striking coal miners in Britain took on a Tory government—and won with the support of tens of thousands of workers in Birmingham. Pete Jackson tells the inspiring story of class solidarity 
Issue 2790
A black and white photograph of clashes between strikers and police outside Saltley Gate. On the right hand side a truck tries to get through the gates

Workers picket the Saltley coal depot in the face of police brutality (Picture: Socialist Worker)

A right wing Tory government is determined to make working class people pay for a crisis just as living standards are squeezed by inflation. Prices are rising by over 7 percent a year, far higher than in recent years, and bosses are keeping pay low to protect profits. 

Sounds familiar. But the year is 1972—and the ­working class is about to inflict one of the most severe blows to the Tories in Britain’s history.

The Battle of Saltley Gate in Birmingham, 50 years ago this week, was a turning point in the 1972 coal miners’ pay strike. Some 30,000 engineers and car workers in east Birmingham struck in solidarity with the miners. And 15,000 of them marched to join the miners ­picketing a local factory that was distributing coal. 

Bill Mullins was a shop ­steward at the Rover Solihull Plant and a member of the car builders union the NUVB. He recollected that it became clear that the strike would affect all workers in the area. “The call for solidarity ­picketing at Saltley gates significantly raised the stakes for all workers in the city,” he said. 

All workers stood to gain from a victory for the miners as it would have made it harder for the Tories and the bosses to attack them next. It was the mass of working class people who forced the police to retreat and close the gates, turning the tide in the dispute. 

In the beginning, Ted Heath’s Tory government thought it could ride it out. But by the end of it, home secretary Reginald Maudling described the ­government as “wandering around the battlefield looking for someone to surrender to”.

 When the miners’ union the NUM launched the strike on 9 January, the union sent miners to mount picket lines at other workplaces that moved coal. 

Dockers, rail workers and lorry drivers respected their picket lines and agreements were in place to only move coal for essential use, such as for hospitals. But not everyone was ­complying with the NUM’s demands. 

 In Saltley in Birmingham, the West Midlands Gas Board had a huge stock of coal and would sell it to anyone. Queues of trucks a mile-long were waiting to collect coal to break the strike. This depot became a ­flashpoint in the strike. If it could continue distributing the coal, other companies would follow and the Tory government could defeat the miners.

If the depot could be closed, the miners would retain the advantage. The NUM had attempted to negotiate with the West Midlands Gas Board where only some vehicles with permits would be allowed to cross picket lines. 

On Friday 4 February, the negotiations failed and 200 NUM pickets descended on the depot. While the local ­transport union, the TGWU, was able to turn away unionised lorry drivers, most others defied the pickets.

 On the weekend, the Midlands NUM called for reinforcements. Some 2,000 miners from Yorkshire—with their president Arthur Scargill—south Wales and the Midlands arrived in Birmingham. 

The miners’ struggle became a focus for wider solidarity and a symbol of a bigger class fight. Delegations from local factories joined the pickets. And the miners’ strike coincided with a wave of strikes in the Birmingham factories, with the Birmingham Mail newspaper reporting on strikes every day that week. 

But the depot was not planning to budge. On Tuesday 8 February Scargill was invited to speak to the AUEW ­engineering workers’ union east district shop stewards. This body brought together the key militants from across the area. And crucially it meant union officials were under pressure from the rank and file of ordinary members in the workplaces.

 Scargill reported, “I told them that if they wanted to give us a quid to ease their conscience, then stuff it, we didn’t want it. We wanted physical support—we wanted strike action.” 

 The AUEW stewards supported the call for a strike. Scargill was also invited to speak to the district committees of the TGWU and NUVB car workers’ union. They supported the strike call. Workers in the electricians’ union EETPU and the NUGMW general and council workers’ union began an unofficial strike. 

 Their regional leaders had refused to call solidarity actions but workers defied them. On Wednesday 9 February a further attempt to negotiate with the depot manager failed. Shop stewards across Birmingham began preparing for a strike. 

The police, noting the calm on Wednesday, believed the ­situation was now under ­control—but they were in for a rude shock the following day. From first thing in the morning on Thursday 10 February, workers in the factories in the east of Birmingham were ­walking out. 

This area of the city was full of factories, mostly part of the car industry. Workers from as far away as Solihull, about six miles distant, were marching on the Saltley plant. Many thousands of women workers, at that point rarely receiving equal pay, struck and joined the demonstrations.

The front cover of Pete Jackson's pamphlet Close the Gates! The 1972 Miners' Strike, Saltley Gate and the Defeat of the Tories

Pete Jackson’s pamphlet Close the Gates! The 1972 Miners’ Strike, Saltley Gate and the Defeat of the Tories

Arthur Harper was the president of the east Birmingham AUEW, which called the strike. His report from the day is electrifying. “Thursday morning we got all our members together, put it to ‘em, put it to ‘em straight, that a nine o’clock we should go out that gate, the district banner’s there, and we should march on Saltley, and close the gate. 

 “That’s our slogan. The whole factory came out to a man. I should say around 4,000 people, and we marched on Saltley, and on the way we picked people up from Morris Commercial, Rover, the girls from SU Carburetter, and so forth, and we had quite an impressive march.”

 He continued, “The inspector asked me, what was going to happen when we got to Saltley, I said we would march past then gates and then disperse. As you know we didn’t march past the gates and disperse, we marched up to the gate and stood solid, a solid wall of humanity, and the police were powerless to do anything about it.”

At that moment, the Tory government was powerless to stop the miners. Home secretary Reginald Maudling wrote in his memoirs, “Some of my colleagues asked me afterwards, why I hadn’t sent in troops.

“And I remember asking them one simple question, ‘If they had been sent in, should they have gone in with their rifles loaded or unloaded?’ Either course could have been disastrous.”

For most of us this experience seems a million miles from ­anything we can hope to witness. But it’s a powerful reminder that if rank and file organisation is strong and can defy union bureaucrats if needed, it is possible to win. We need that same spirit to boot out another vicious Tory government today.

You can buy Pete Jackson’s pamphlet, Close the Gates! from Bookmarks—the socialist bookshop

The year workers’ power defied the union bureaucracy 

In 1972 Tory prime minister Edward Heath declared war on working class people. 

Inflation redundancies and public service cuts were rampant. The Tories handed public sector workers a pay increase of 1 percent. They also passed the Industrial Relations Bill in 1971, which snatched power from unions. 

But workers fought back. Throughout 1972 there were more strike days than any other year since 1919. In January hundreds of thousands of miners walked out over pay. The strike lasted over 12 weeks and was the first national miner’s strike since 1926. 

But the trade union bureaucracy was, as always, treacherous. Miners were fighting for a pay rise of up to £9 a week, but the government offered them only £2. NUM president Joe Gormley said if the Tory government had raised its offer slightly, the strike would not have taken place. 

Inspired by the miners, 300,000 building workers struck against casual work and for pay. It was the builders’ first national strike since 1924 and lasted over 12 weeks. The union leadership wanted selective strikes, but workers pressure triggered a nationwide revolt.

Around 25,000 engineers in Manchester occupied 30 factories for pay. Dock workers defied union leaders and struck against the bosses plan to outsource their workload to containment firms. Liverpool dock workers picketed new container depots, blocking lorries from entering. This sort of action, although illegal, spread across Britain.

In June, 35,000 dockers unofficially struck in solidarity with three dock workers who were threatened with arrest for picketing at Chobham Farm container base. The charges were dropped. 

The next month five picketing dockers were arrested and sent to Pentonville prison. They were freed after 250,000 dockers, print workers, construction workers, engineers came out on unofficial strike, demanding their release.

Bob Light, a 22 year-old docker at the time, gave a flavour of how the strike spread. “‘I was dispatched with another docker and an engineering worker to Heathrow airport,” he said. “We drove up to Terminal One, demanded to see their convenor, and two hours later there were no holiday flights from Heathrow.”

From start to finish, 1972 was the year of rank and file militancy. 

Struggle had been building in the previous two decades. The 1950s and 1960s saw growing confidence and organisation at the rank-and-file of unions. Back then, workers’ pay was made up of two elements—an agreed national rate and a rate per job. 

And it became increasingly normal for a team to finish it’s agreed job and then walk out in order to improve the rate offered for the next job. These unofficial strikes were often over quickly, rarely spread, and were rarely counted in the official statistics. 

But they were very effective and—almost under the radar—the working class was increasing its strength. While bosses could put up with this during the long boom of the 1950s and early 60s, when global capitalism slowed down they tried to rein in the unions. 

But the growing confidence and workplace organisation fuelled strikes—and these strikes were often led by union shop stewards. 

At the end of the 1960s, there were around 200,000 shop stewards in Britain. They were linked into stewards committees and had a far higher level of independence from the local and national leadership than we are used to today. 

Rank and file organisation was crucial to the success of Saltley in 1972—and fed in to a wave of revolt that year. Two years later, another miners’ strike brought down the Tory government. 

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