By Hazel Croft & Kevin Ovenden
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1729

When workers fight, governments panic

This article is over 21 years, 0 months old
MANY OFFICIAL documents covering 1970 have just been released to the public. They reveal precisely what happens when there is a high level of strikes. Thirty years ago workers' action echoed through the whole of society and dominated government thinking at the highest levels. Almost every cabinet meeting, under both Labour and Tory governments, focused on strikes.
Issue 1729

MANY OFFICIAL documents covering 1970 have just been released to the public. They reveal precisely what happens when there is a high level of strikes. Thirty years ago workers’ action echoed through the whole of society and dominated government thinking at the highest levels. Almost every cabinet meeting, under both Labour and Tory governments, focused on strikes.

Cabinet minutes show ministers’ sense of panic in February as Ford workers, teachers and Post Office clerical workers struck. Cabinet meetings were full of reports on discussions between ministers and key union leaders such as Jack Jones, leader of the TGWU. Almost the entire cabinet meeting on 12 February was taken up with frenetic discussion about public sector pay claims.

Labour lost the general election in June. A million Labour voters could not bring themselves to vote for a party which had betrayed promises to create a ‘modern Britain’ in the interests of the many.

A Tory government was elected led by Edward Heath. On 1 July Robert Carr, the new secretary of employment and productivity, summed up the problems the government faced:

‘Industrial strife is unfortunately almost certain to be a major feature of our life in the coming months. The industrial climate has changed so much since 1964. The strike problem is most serious in a small number of industries-docks, motor assembly-but doctors, teachers and other ‘white collar’ occupations have taken or threatened major strike action for the first time.’

Dockers hit the Tory government with a national strike over pay just weeks after the election. Cabinet minutes for July show that the strike was one of the top priorities at every meeting. On 7 July the cabinet minutes reveal that the Tories thought ‘a national dock strike would be preferable to a series of unofficial strikes’.

They hoped that in an official dispute, trade union leaders would ‘settle the dispute without a strike and if a strike did occur, might help prevent it from extending to union members in, for example, road transport.’ A file of Downing Street correspondence on the dock strike shows Edward Heath received detailed daily strike reports. These included reports of every shop stewards’ meeting and information about every ship and its cargo.

Heath also got weekly Security Service reports on the Communist Party (CP), which then had leading militants in the docks and other industries. This was despite the fact that the government believed the Communist Party had ‘not significantly contributed to the development or threat of a national strike’.


JANUARY-APRIL: Rising wave of strikes such as Leeds women clothing workers, Ford workers in Swansea, Hull trawlermen, Pilkington glass workers.

JUNE: General election. Labour loses because it has disillusioned its supporters and Tory Edward Heath takes office.

DECEMBER: 500,000 strike against Tories’ new anti-union law.

Feather in Tories’ cap

VIC FEATHER (above) was the leader of the TUC in 1970. In August Feather held a confidential meeting with prime minister Edward Heath. Feather grovelling said to Heath, ‘If the government made it publicly clear that we faced a serious economic situation, trade unions would probably in practice reluctantly acquiesce in a measure of wage restraint for a period of six months.’

Feather even had a conversation with the Tory prime minister about militants in the unions after a successful unofficial dispute. ‘Mr Feather did not think that the Trotskyites had played an important part in this dispute, or were significant in industrial relations except on Merseyside and in the south west.’

What they said

‘SO FAR in 1970 the number of strikes, and of days work lost through strikes, had been much greater than in previous years… There also appeared to be a disquieting trend towards strikes of greater duration. Militancy was also continuing to be rewarded with success, as for example at the works of GNK-Sankey Ltd at Wellington, Shropshire.’
Tory cabinet meeting, 3 September 1970

‘THE DEPARTMENT of Health and Social Security consider that strikes by virtually any of the groups of NHS workers would be irrestistible.’
Memo on the threat of strikes spreading to the health service

War stepped up in N Ireland

MANY OF the official documents on Northern Ireland from 1970 are still being withheld from the public, including a detailed report on the IRA. When the Labour government sent troops to Northern Ireland in August 1969, it said the reason was to protect Catholics under attack from Loyalists and the RUC police force.

By 1970 the troops were terrorising the Catholic population. In April, under the Wilson government, troops went on the attack against the Catholic Ballymurphy estate, firing CS gas and baton charging young people protesting against an Orange anti-Catholic march. The army’s terror against Catholics was stepped up with the election of the Tory government.

In July British troops rampaged through the Catholic Falls Road area in Belfast. They raided hundreds of homes and shot four civilians dead. This was before the newly formed Provisional IRA had fired a shot. Private secretary to the prime minister D H Andrews boasted in a private letter to prime minister Edward Heath:

‘The military feel that the exercise in the lower Falls Road area has been very successful in administering a shock to the extremists and in boosting morale among the troops.’ The Tories wanted even more repressive powers.

Lord Balniel wrote to the home secretary on 2 July, ‘It appears our present anti-riot weapons are becoming less effective and rioters no longer fear them…the GOC [governor in command] in Northern Ireland has asked for the addition to his armoury of water and of a rubber baton round.’ Balniel then admits about rubber bullets, ‘There is a small but distinct possibility of moderate damage to soft organs, and in the unlikely event of a direct hit in the eye damage would be severe… I consider the medical risks are acceptable.’

Since then the security forces have killed at least 17 people with plastic bullets and seriously injured hundreds more.

US thanks for Vietnam help

THE PAPERS released this week also show the brutality of our rulers. US president Richard Nixon ordered a major escalation of the war against the Vietnamese National Liberation Movement in April 1970. He authorised the invasion of Vietnam’s neighbour, Cambodia.

The US National Guard shot four students dead on an anti-war protest at Kent State University in Ohio just days later. On 22 May the British embassy in Washington sounded its fears about growing militancy in the US ‘When President Nixon decided to send troops into Cambodia, he doubtless expected some vigorous opposition. But with the Democrats in disarray, the president seemed confident. One agitation group was in the process of dissolving itself and the college year was approaching its end. But within a few days of his 30 April speech the political situation had been transformed and the nation found itself in a crisis of confidence and of leadership. College campuses all over the country had burst into a flame of protest, four students were dead from rifle fire in a hitherto docile Midwestern college. There is a smell of class war in the air.’

The Labour government was officially neutral in the Vietnam War. But Harold Wilson gave often quite open support to the US. Nixon was one of the first people Wilson told about the date of the general election.

Nixon thanked him in a letter on 23 May, while public outrage over the murder of the students in Ohio was at its height: ‘The understanding which you personally, the foreign secretary and other members of your government have shown in connection with our actions in Indochina has been most gratifying to all of us here.’


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