By Hazel Croft
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1824

When we hit that winning streak

This article is over 21 years, 8 months old
TONY BLAIR accused the firefighters last week of bringing back the spectre of \"Scargillism\". He wanted to use the name of miners' union leader Arthur Scargill to try to discredit the firefighters. When Blair refers to \"Scargillism\" he means working class militancy. Workers in the 1970s showed that they could beat off attacks from the bosses and the government, through striking and winning active solidarity from other workers.
Issue 1824

TONY BLAIR accused the firefighters last week of bringing back the spectre of ‘Scargillism’. He wanted to use the name of miners’ union leader Arthur Scargill to try to discredit the firefighters. When Blair refers to ‘Scargillism’ he means working class militancy. Workers in the 1970s showed that they could beat off attacks from the bosses and the government, through striking and winning active solidarity from other workers.

Almost all strikes then were all-out indefinite action. They took place after democratic debates and votes in mass meetings. This is unlike today where the law means repeated postal ballots act as a delaying tactic.

Then workers used audacious and militant tactics like mass picketing, winning solidarity action from other workers and defying the anti-union laws. The height of the struggle was in 1972. There were continuous battles by workers for a whole year. Each group was inspired by others’ victories to take action to better their own pay and conditions.

The government of Tory Edward Heath was shaken by these struggles. That government believed it could ram through welfare cuts, holding down pay and introducing new anti-union laws. Some 250,000 miners were the first group to win against the government. It was their first national strike since 1926. The government was confident it could defeat the miners and their union, which had a right wing leadership.

Militant rank and file miners had begun to learn how to organise independently of their leadership in a series of unofficial strikes in 1969 and 1970. Arthur Scargill, who was a branch official in Barnsley in 1969, later recalled how they had developed ‘flying pickets’ to spread an unofficial strike in Yorkshire.

‘We sent emissaries to Scotland and Derbyshire. And then we launched flying pickets into Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire… We launched from the coalfield here squads of cars, minibuses, and buses, and directed on to predetermined targets, with five, six, seven hundred miners at a time.’ Rank and file miners repeated these tactics in the national strike in 1972 to make it much more effective.

The miners did not limit the dispute just to workers in the coal pits. They sent out flying pickets to major coal depots and power stations. Everywhere the miners picketed, they found they could win active support from other workers. Many workers also hated the Tory government and did not want to see the miners beaten.

In South Wales dockers refused to unload coal, and train drivers refused to move it. Some 90 percent of drivers in the Midlands respected picket lines. Where support was harder to get, the miners launched mass pickets to stop the movement of coal. The strike’s turning point was when the government made a stand at the Saltley coal and coke depot in Birmingham.

The miners 3,000-strong picket was not enough to face down thousands of police determined to break up the picket line. The miners needed solidarity. Arthur Scargill addressed the local district committee of the engineering union and urged convenors and stewards to call on their members to strike and march on the plant.

‘We don’t want your pound notes,’ he told them. ‘Will you go down in history as the working class who stood by while the miners were battered down or will you become immortal? I do not ask you – I demand that you come out on strike.’

The next day the engineers’ AEUW and the TGWU unions called their members in Birmingham out on strike. Some 100,000 Birmingham trade unionists went on strike, and 20,000 marched on Saltley. ‘The miners’ picket line didn’t close Saltley, what happened was the working class closed Saltley,’ said Arthur Scargill.

The Tories were shaken. ‘The government is now vainly wandering over the battlefield looking for someone to surrender to and being massacred all the time,’ said Douglas Hurd, who later became a Tory minister. The miners gave confidence to other groups of workers to fight. Rail workers took on the government and won a victory over pay.

There was a wave of factory occupations by engineering workers in the Manchester area, which involved some 30,000 workers in 25 factories. Some 300,000 building workers took their first national strike action since the 1920s. Their heroic strike over pay included sending workers to site after site to build support. Actor Ricky Tomlinson, then a building worker, was jailed for two years for his role in the militant strike.

Rank and file dockers appealed to other workers to take action in support of their fight. They wanted the release of five dockers who had been jailed in 1972 for picketing in defiance of the anti-union laws. Within hours workers had shut all the major ports in Britain. This was despite Jack Jones, the left wing leader of the TGWU, refusing to do anything to support the jailed five.

Left wing shop stewards and activists, and younger workers inspired by the militant struggles, were key to that activity. Over just a few days some 250,000 workers came out on strike at some point, and almost 100,000 were on all-out unofficial strike. The five dockers were released. It inflicted a decisive defeat on the government and its anti-union laws.

The inspiration of these victories lifted the confidence of the whole working class. There were rent strikes in over 80 towns and cities. Asian workers at Mansfield hosiery mills in Loughborough went on strike for higher wages and an end to discrimination in job opportunities at the factory. The wave of workers’ militancy would continue, with ups and downs, until 1974. Then the election of a Labour government led to workers’ confidence to fight being sapped, as their trade union leaders tried to hold the struggle back. The Labour government had promised to shift wealth back to workers.

But in the face of economic crisis the government bowed to the bankers and the International Monetary Fund. It imposed the biggest attack on working class living standards since the 1930s. Trade union leaders, especially the left wing Hugh Scanlon of the engineering union and TGWU leader Jack Jones, actively held back workers’ attempts to defend their living standards.

TUC leaders forged an agreement with the government called the ‘Social Contract’. The union leaders agreed not to fight against the government during the economic crisis.

In 1976 the seafarers’ union threatened strike action over pay. The general secretary of the TUC, Len Murray, told them, ‘By god, we’ll make sure no union supports you. We’ll cripple you.’ The TUC refused to support the first ever national strike by firefighters in 1977. The employers wanted to use this behaviour by the TUC.

Workers’ anger boiled over during the wave of strikes which became known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’. These were not struggles by greedy workers, ready to strike at a whim. It was a revolt by low paid public sector workers against a government-imposed 5 percent wage limit.

But the TUC’s response was to sign a document with the government in February 1979 called the ‘Concordat’. The TUC conceded the false idea that if it held back from struggling over pay the government and employers would treat workers fairly. The Concordat also gave ground on issues like limiting picketing and agreeing to new strike procedures designed to put off strikes.

This paved the way for Margaret Thatcher’s assault on workers and trade union rights in the 1980s. The union leaders claimed they had to be ‘realistic’ and not jeopardise the return of a Labour government.

That timidity enabled Thatcher to inflict a series of defeats on workers including steel workers, miners, dockers and print workers. These defeats were not inevitable. Thatcher could not rely just on brute force to beat the miners in their year-long strike in 1984-5.

The blame for the defeat lay with leaders of the trade union movement. They refused to turn words of support into the kind of effective solidarity action that had won in 1972.

At decisive points the Tories looked very vulnerable. The dockers went on strike in July and pit deputies in the Nacods union threatened to strike in October. Determined action by the rest of the trade union movement could have forced Thatcher to surrender. But the trade union leaders left the miners to fight alone.

Today we face a revival of militancy among workers in Britain. Blair is terrified that there could be a return to the world before Margaret Thatcher. That is what any ordinary person should want, a return to workers standing up for better pay and conditions, and supporting others who do the same. For that we need the tactics of the 1970s, of solidarity and rank and file organisation, and not a repeat of the 1980s.

As one commentator said after the victorious miners’ strike in 1972: ‘The miners taught the working class an old lesson: that victory can only go to those who fight, and that aggressive action, far from frightening off support, can attract and hold it.’


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