By Chris BamberyPeter Morgan
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Industry – Anger into action?

This article is over 19 years, 2 months old
The firefighters' action has revived talk of the winter of discontent in the 1970s. Chris Bambery and Peter Morgan look at what happened.
Issue 268

Everyone has their breaking point and I’m afraid the FBU has reached theirs.’ These are the words of Jim Burge, a firefighter of 15 years based in North London, who takes home just £21,500 per year. He was speaking shortly before the FBU leadership announced that they were suspending their first two strikes over pay after the government hinted that there might be more on offer than the 4 percent on the table. Blair was clearly under pressure–firstly from the overwhelming vote the firefighters gave for action and a determination to strike, and secondly from other workers who have a lot of sympathy because they too are feeling the squeeze.

As ‘Socialist Review’ goes to press it is still not clear whether, or how, the firefighters dispute will be resolved. What is abundantly clear, though, is that Tony Blair and New Labour are facing increasing pressure from workers who are fed up with low wages and poverty pay. This, combined with the increases in the cost of living, most obviously with the high cost of housing and transport, means there is a greater willingness of workers to take action.

It is too early to tell if there will be a major upturn in industrial unrest which generalises into a series of widespread, successful strikes. But already in the coming weeks there is action planned by teachers, public sector workers and train workers, as well as university lecturers. All of these are about pay. This is now developing into one of the biggest problems facing the Blair government–a powder keg which, if it ignites, could lead to a generalised assault on a scale not seen since the 1970s.

The confrontation between the firefighters and the Labour government over a 40 percent wage demand saw journalists looking back to the 1970s to invoke the supposed horrors of the Winter of Discontent. New Labour MPs and their supporters have attacked the firefighters for being part of what Blair has termed the comfortably off two thirds of society, whose wage demands would be at the expense of the other third. The implication was that somehow if the firefighters forgo their wage increase Blair would be taking the money round to hand out to hospital ancillary workers. New Labour supporters were also quick to claim that union militancy had paved the way for Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 and all the woes which followed.

Today you might ask why the gap between rich and poor has grown under Blair’s government, why income continues to soar for those at the top, or why firefighters in London cannot afford to live in the city. Yet in 1976, after two years of a Labour government, matters were even worse than today. Unemployment reached the highest levels since the 1930s. Wages fell by the greatest amount in a century. In return for a loan to bail out its budget deficit (unnecessary as it transpired) the International Monetary Fund demanded the Labour government carry out the biggest reduction in welfare spending of any administration to this day. Racism was increasing and Labour’s Social Contract with the union leaders limited wage increases while profits rose by 27 percent.

Wage restraint

The Labour government, led first by Harold Wilson and then by James Callaghan, had been elected at the start of 1974 on the back of a national miners’ strike against Tory wage restraint. The Conservative prime minster, Ted Heath, had asked the country to judge who ruled–him or the miners. The answer was ‘Certainly not you’. The previous two years had seen an upsurge of militancy unprecedented since the stormy years following the First World War. Mass pickets and solidarity action had destroyed Heath’s attempts to introduce anti-union laws and incomes policy. Those struggles, combined with opposition to racism and repression in Northern Ireland, had created a radicalisation that threw up serious Marxist organisations that had begun to develop roots on the shopfloor.

But the dominant force among working class activists was the Communist Party, which punched well above the weight of its 30,000 membership. Communists formed the backbone of the movement that defeated the Tories, and their strategy influenced the left trade union leaders and the left of the Labour Party. This centred on forging an alliance of all these forces to pressurise a Labour government leftwards. The Communist Party’s key allies were Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones, left wing leaders of the key engineering and transport unions. But with Labour back in 10 Downing Street, Scanlon and Jones put loyalty to the Labour Party before the interests of their members. They accepted the need for a social contract and agreed to make sure it worked for the government. Only they had the credibility to sell Labour’s policy of wage controls and austerity.

The strategy of the Communist Party and their Broad Left allies in the trade union machine was not to break with Scanlon and Jones, or to avoid any all-out confrontation with the Labour government. They organised lobbies and conferences to dissipate the pressure building up from below. But that pressure was too great to be contained.

During 1977 pay packets shrank and prices increased steadily. The number of strikes began to mount significantly. At the start of 1977 the British Leyland Combine, made up of shop stewards from across Britain’s then biggest car firm, met to agree on a one-day strike against the social contract. The dominant force in the Combine was members and supporters of the Communist Party. The strike call was whittled down to a lobby of parliament (minus strike action) two months later.

In February 1977 6,000 car workers walked off the job at Birmingham’s Longbridge car plant, demanding higher wages. Shop stewards secured their return to work. In spring the toolroom workers at the plant combined with engineers at London’s Heathrow airport to strike against Labour’s social contract. If they won, a nationwide rebellion over pay beckoned.


The Leyland Combine met to declare they could not support the toolroom strikers because ‘British Leyland workers have a vested interest in the retention of a Labour Government’. Workers were told to cross toolroom workers’ picket lines. The Communist convenor of Longbridge signed a management letter threatening toolroom workers with dismissal. Hugh Scanlon told a mass meeting of toolroom workers to get back to work. The Communist Party’s paper the ‘Morning Star’ waded in, opposing the strike and calling it ‘divisive’. Left to fight alone the toolroom workers returned to work defeated.

The same tactics were employed against striking engineers at Heathrow. The ‘Observer’ attacked SWP members there, declaring, ‘Trotskyists Blamed For Airline Strike.’ Left wing union officials, including Communist Party members, tried unsuccessfully to get other airport workers to cross the picket lines. The engineers fought on and won a rise that broke government guidelines but the union officials succeeded in isolating them and preventing their example being followed.

Another opportunity was thrown away in the summer and autumn of 1977 when the owner of the Grunwick photo processing plant in north west London tried to break the union. The largely Asian workforce struck. Ranged against them were the press, assorted right wing and employers’ organisations and the Metropolitan Police. Local postal workers boycotted deliveries of films. Workers joined the picket line to prevent the bus carrying scabs entering the plant.

On the morning of 11 July 5,000 pickets–including hundreds of Yorkshire miners led by Arthur Scargill–stopped the bus entering the plant despite police attacks. But then TUC leaders called for people to march away to a rally in a local park. Bitter arguments about deserting the picket line ensued. But Scargill successfully urged workers to march off, leaving the scab bus free to enter the plant. The strikers fought on as Tories funded legal attacks on them. The union leaders tried to counterpose a consumer boycott and Grunwick ended in bitter defeat.

That summer also saw thousands of anti-fascists decisively check the growth of the National Front. A march through the racially mixed Lewisham area was sliced in two by local youth, trade unionists and SWP members. The Nazis were forced into a humiliating retreat.

A polarisation was taking place in British society. The Nazis were beginning to attract serious support beyond their middle class core. This support came from workers who felt let down by Labour and the unions. The Tory Party was reconstituting itself under an aggressive free market leader, Margaret Thatcher. A minority of workers were also breaking from Labour and being drawn towards the revolutionary left. Far greater numbers were prepared to mobilise against the Nazis. But their ability to mobilise the majority of workers was reduced as the great mass slowly fell into apathy–believing that in the absence of a united fightback the best thing was to try and look after oneself and one’s family. And so 1977 ended with real wages having fallen 12.5 percent in the three years after Labour’s election.

Faced with the prospect of a rebellion over low pay the Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan, declared, ‘I’ll fight the lot.’ With a general election looming Callaghan was trying to compete with his opponent Thatcher over who would be toughest with the unions (and harder on immigration). Like Blair today, Callaghan wanted to take on and beat a powerful group of workers. At the time the Fire Brigades Union had never taken national strike action. Their leaders were right wing and opposed to a strike over pay. So when the rank and file forced through an overwhelming vote for strike action, Callaghan decided to take them on. Businessmen gathered to hear him address a Lord Mayor’s banquet in the City of London and cheered him as he laid into the firefighters.

The employers had reason to want to humiliate the FBU. In late 1973 an unofficial strike of firefighters in Glasgow had won, driving a coach and horses through the Heath government’s official wage limits. Army Green Goddesses were used in an attempt to break the strike. The strikers had defied the right wing union leadership, a media offensive and attacks by Labour MPs. Council electricians and other groups of workers in the city refused to cross picket lines and strike action threatened to spread to Clydebank and neighbouring towns. In many ways this was a prelude to the miners’ strike, which broke the Heath government a few weeks later. It also threw up a new generation of rank and file leaders whose presence is still felt in the union today.

In 1977 the odds were stacked against the firefighters. Left and right wing officials on the TUC’s general council refused to support them, saying the strike broke the government’s pay limits. In the absence of official support it was left to grassroots’ activists to build support for the strike. Across the country there was a tidal wave of collections. ‘Socialist Worker”s ‘Pay the Firefighters’ front page was so popular it was reproduced as a poster. But as the army was mobilised to break the strike, the media launched yet another witch-hunt and Labour MPs laid into strikers. Something more was needed–solidarity action.

Strength of the left

But solidarity, which had turfed out the Tories just a couple of years before, had been broken. Calls from left wing union officials to cross picket lines and to oppose strikes had done their work. The left, which supported the firefighters, did not have the strength the Communist Party had to deliver effective action.

In January 1978 the TUC and the right wing of the FBU secured a return to work. The firefighters’ defeat could not prevent pressure over falling wages spilling out onto the picket lines. That is what happened in the so called Winter of Discontent in 1978-79. But it meant the rebellion, spearheaded by the very low paid workers that Labour had claimed wage restraint would benefit, was made up of different sectional strikes. There was no movement, no focus for united action that the firefighters’ strike could have provided.

Bitterness with Labour was accompanied by despair about the ability of workers to stand together, and a lack of conviction that there was an alternative to the free market agenda espoused by both Callaghan and Thatcher. A few months later Thatcher won the general election–not because she attracted large numbers of Labour voters, but because she had won back Tory supporters and because Labour voters, disillusioned with their record in office, sat on their hands and didn’t vote.

Today when New Labour claims that greedy wage demands and union militancy secured Thatcher’s election they are standing history on its head. A Labour government, elected on the promise of shifting wealth from rich to poor, had presided over wages and welfare spending cuts Thatcher never emulated. They had presided over the return of mass unemployment which Thatcher used so effectively to undermine working class organisation. Labour had all too successfully sold the message that there was ‘no alternative’ to the free market. Attempts to pander to racism by targeting immigrants had only helped the Nazis gain support and given confidence to every right winger in the land. The left was on the back foot.

The difference today

Today, however, there is nothing that dictates history must repeat itself. The difference between now and then is:

* The general shift, globally and domestically, is to the left. There is a rejection of the neoliberal agenda of free market policies and war. A rebellion is under way which rejects the neoliberal consensus that engulfs all establishment parties, the media and academia. The right is on the back foot.

* Privatisation, poverty pay and dreadful social services sicken the vast majority of people. That is increasingly dovetailing with overwhelming opposition to Bush and Blair’s war plans.

* Solidarity is back. The firefighters can win solidarity action on a scale way beyond what was achieved in 1977. The generation of union leaders who sold the social contract and isolated strikers are long gone. Instead we have seen the election of left leaders who have called openly for solidarity action. Rank and file organisation is beginning to be rebuilt, and a successful fightback will give it massive impetus.

* The left is back! In the late 1970s the left stood in elections to present an alternative to Labour’s Tory policies. The results were derisory. Paul Foot stood in the general election, lost his deposit and was ridiculed. Just recently he came third in the Hackney mayoral elections with nearly 13 percent of the vote, beating the Liberals and Greens. The argument about what comes first–loyalty to Labour or loyalty to your class–has never been easier.

* Above all, anyone fighting back will get support. The late 1970s saw defeat after defeat pave the way for Thatcher and Blair. We have now seen a process of recovery. It is important we now secure victories. Pay is a time bomb ticking away under New Labour. Britain is one of the most expensive countries in Europe. We work some of the longest hours in the worst conditions while this government lauds labour ‘flexibility’ and the fat cat bosses keep raking it in.

Of course there are always dangers. Attacks on asylum seekers and big votes for the Nazis in Lancashire and Stoke show how disaffection with establishment parties can be diverted rightwards. But the general and overwhelming trend is to the left.

In September we saw the biggest demonstration in modern British history as 400,000 marched against war. It was a marvellous example of solidarity across a racially mixed working class that exists on such a scale nowhere else in Europe. The European press termed it ‘Britain’s Genoa’. Last July’s massive protests in Italy against the G8 summit lit a flame of resistance that spread across Italy. The same tinderbox conditions exist here. The spark has been lit. Let’s fan the flames of revolt!

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