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Socialism Today 153 - November 2011

When workers defeated a Tory government

Forty years ago, in August 1971, the anti-trade union Industrial Relations Act became law. Over the next three years a mass of strikes resulted in its removal from the statute books and the ousting of Edward Heath’s Conservative government. JIM HORTON looks at what lessons can be drawn for the struggles today.

AS MILLIONS OF public-sector workers prepare to take action on 30 November they can gain inspiration from the strikes of workers from 1970-74. In defiance of anti-trade union legislation, these prevented the then Tory government from off-loading an economic crisis onto the backs of the working class.

The events of four decades ago show that resolute militant action by the trade union movement can result in victories and bring the representatives of capitalism to their knees. Yet many activists will point to the changed balance of forces since the 1970s, and may question whether a survey of the tumultuous events of that period offers little more than an opportunity to reflect nostalgically upon a bygone age.

It was certainly a different era. In contrast to the last three decades, during the post-war period the union movement had grown in numerical strength, confidence and combativity. Workers had not suffered a serious industrial defeat for a generation. Growth in the economy and practically full employment had strengthened unions’ bargaining position, particularly at local level where negotiations on pay and conditions were conducted by shop stewards. Workers were able to take a bigger share of the wealth their collective labour had created. During the 1960s wages constituted up to 60% of gross domestic product (and by 1975 had reached 64.5%), compared to 53.2% in 2008.

Pivotal to the industrial action that engulfed Heath’s government was the role of the shop stewards, who by the early 1970s numbered over 200,000. By 2008 their number had declined to 128,000 (although the overall figure for all union reps, including health and safety, equality and learning, appears to be no lower than it was in the mid-1960s). The role of shop stewards in the workplace has changed dramatically though over the last four decades, including the current lack of strong organisations at a rank-and-file level, as a result of management offensives and legal constraints. No less important has been the effect on political consciousness of the absence of a mass working-class party following the transformation of Labour into New Labour.

Nevertheless, while not ignoring the very real changes that have taken place in union membership and density, workplace organisation, and political consciousness, it remains the case that the labour movement retains the potential power to not only defeat the coalition government’s cuts agenda, but also to precipitate its removal from office.

The palpable anger of workers at the Com-Dem’s austerity programme was evidenced on the 500,000-strong demonstration on March 26 – bigger than any demonstration in the 1970s – and, particularly the strike of 750,000 public-sector workers on 30 June. This has pushed the TUC leadership into naming 30 November as the date for coordinated public-sector strike action. Although ostensibly a strike over pensions, November 30 will act as a conduit through which the pent up anger and frustration at pensions, the wider cuts programme, and years of management offensive, will erupt to the surface.

Indeed, three to four million trade unionists taking action on 30 November will involve more workers than on any one day of strike action during Heath’s government. It would, in fact, surpass any one-day strike action taken by the British labour movement, including during the 1926 general strike.

Heath’s plan to make workers pay

ONE SIMILARITY IN the situation today and in the early 1970s is that the Conservative Party had won the general election of June 1970 against a backdrop of disenchantment with the previous Labour government, led by Harold Wilson, amid mounting difficulties in the British economy.

Throughout the 1960s, productivity had lagged behind its rivals because of the failure of British capitalism to sufficiently invest in industry. Heath’s Tory government was determined to make workers pay for this long-term economic malaise. At a time when rampant inflation and increased taxation were eroding wage levels, a key plank of its policy was wage restraint to restore the profitability of British capitalism.

The implementation of wage restraint was premised on the successful application of the anti-strike provisions of the Industrial Relations Bill, published in December 1970. The number of strikes had been on the up in the 1960s, the vast majority unofficial. The shop stewards articulated the developing militancy of the union membership, which also found an echo at the top of two of the largest trade unions, where left-wingers Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones were elected, respectively, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU).

During the 1960s Britain’s ruling class was increasingly incensed at the inability of the union tops to prevent wildcat strikes, unofficial action organised by shop stewards but not sanctioned by the union leadership. In response, the then Labour government set up a royal commission, headed by Lord Donovan. Its 1968 report recommended maintaining the voluntary system of industrial relations, but proposed that shop stewards be brought into the formal bargaining process to end unofficial action.

In the same year, Labour published its white paper, In Place of Strife, which went beyond the commission’s recommendations by ordering ‘cooling-off periods’ and ballots to prevent unofficial action, with penal sanctions for contravention. This was the first post-war attempt to use the law to challenge the power of the union rank and file, particularly the shop stewards. It met fierce opposition which, because of the position the unions then had within the Labour Party – in contrast to today – forced even figures on the right of the party to oppose it and stopped the subsequent bill becoming law.

The Tories, however, pledged to complete what Labour’s In Place of Strife had set out to do. Their 1970 election manifesto was explicit that the aim of their bill was to give the trade union leaders the legal means to exert more central authority over rank-and-file activists to prevent wildcat stoppages: "We aim to strengthen the unions and their official leadership by providing some deterrent against irresponsible action by unofficial minorities". There is evidence that some TUC leaders had intimated to the Tories that they ‘understood’ the need for such legislation – they too wanted to regain control over the shop stewards movement – but could not state this publicly.

What became the Industrial Relations Act 1971 stipulated that any dispute deemed to endanger the ‘national interest’ would be subject to a secret ballot and a compulsory cooling-off period of not less than 14 days. In an effort to encourage non-unionism it outlawed the closed shop (union only workplaces). Solidarity action in the form of sympathy strikes was also made illegal. Sweeping aside the legal protection in place since the 1906 Trades Dispute Act, unions would lose all immunity from being sued by employers in the civil courts if they were not registered and their union rule books had not been approved by the state. A National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) was established to hear cases relating to the act.

Kill the bill

EVEN DURING THE heightened period of militancy in the early 1970s, TUC leaders expressed no confidence the bill could be defeated once it reached the statute book, and eschewed demands for strike action against it. Instead, the TUC merely backed a series of national, regional and local protest meetings. On 21 February 1971 up to 200,000 trade unionists participated in a national demonstration from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, the biggest since the Chartists’ protests 140 years earlier.

In opposition to the TUC, however, four one-day unofficial ‘kill the bill’ protest strikes took place from December 1970 to March 1971, the last of which involved up to 1.25m workers. The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) played a key role in organising the action, which received the backing of the AUEW. Established to oppose In Place of Strife, the LCDTU attracted militant shop stewards. It was led by the Communist Party, which at that time had a significant base in the unions despite its flawed policies.

TUC opposition focused on the requirement to register. Tory ministers believed that after some public protest all the unions would eventually register. A late amendment to the bill sought to expedite this by deeming that any union which was on a newly established ‘provisional’ Register of Friendly Societies would be transferred automatically to the permanent register unless it took the positive step of actually requesting its removal. This put the onus on unions to deregister.

Both the government and the TUC leaders held the view that if a sizable union decided to remain on the register union opposition would likely collapse, yet the TUC leadership opposed moves to compel unions to deregister. At a special TUC congress in Croydon on 18 March 1971 a motion instructing unions not to register under the act, and to deregister from the temporary register, was lost by 5.055m to 4.284m. It was moved by the AUEW, backed by the TGWU and the miners. Instead, unions were merely ‘strongly advised’ not to register. The Industrial Relations Act reached the statute book in August 1971.

At the TUC congress in September 1971, in opposition to the TUC leadership, the AUEW successfully moved a motion hardening the position, instructing unions to deregister. Scanlon warned: "Whatever the motives a single step towards implicit co-operation with the act by any section of our movement might give temporary relief but in the long term it would be disastrous to all". Within four months of the congress decision, 82 TUC-affiliated unions with a combined membership of five million had deregistered. However, a number of important unions remained registered, including GMWU, NALGO, ASTMS, EETPU, and USDAW. Meanwhile, the Labour Party promised to repeal the act, but urged union members to obey the law.

The first miners’ strike

THE FOLLOWING YEAR marked a high point in the class battles between the unions and the government. On 8 January 1972, before the anti-strike provisions of the act came into force, a six-week miners’ strike began. Resentment had been developing for a decade over pit closures and job losses. Discontent had risen to the surface in a number of unofficial disputes in 1969 and 1970. But the Economist magazine complacently wrote that the "miners cannot stop the country in its tracks as they once could have done". Ex-Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt declared in the Daily Mirror that the miners had "more stacked against them than the Light Brigade in their famous charge".

Learning the lessons from the last national miners’ strike of 1926, when pickets had remained at their own coalfields before being virtually starved back to work after six months, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) successfully deployed the new tactic of mass flying pickets, with thousands of miners traversing across the country. Each NUM area was given power stations and coal depots to picket with the aim of stopping all movement of coal.

The TUC refused to give a lead, leaving the rank and file of individual unions to provide support. ASLEF rail drivers and TGWU road haulage workers took solidarity action, refusing to move coal from the pit heads to the power stations. After two weeks, power stations were under total siege. The power workers were already engaged in an overtime ban over pay. The decisive battle of the dispute took place at the Saltley coal depot of the West Midland Gas Board in Birmingham. Starting with 200 miners picketing on 4 February, within three days numbers had swelled to over a thousand. The entire Birmingham police force was put on alert.

On 10 February an estimated 2,000 miners, led by the then Yorkshire NUM official, Arthur Scargill, were joined by more than 10,000 other trade unionists from workplaces and factories across Birmingham. The chief constable advised the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, that he did not have sufficient forces to keep Saltley open. Panic-stricken, the government was forced to declare its third state of emergency in less than a year. After a six day struggle which at its peak involved 800 police and 15,000 pickets, Saltley coke depot was closed. In his memoirs, Maudling recounts how the chief constable of Birmingham had previously assured him that only over his dead body would the pickets succeed in closing the depot. Maudling amusingly comments: "I felt constrained to ring him the next day after it happened to enquire after his health!"

Brendon Sewill, in 1972 a special adviser to the chancellor, wrote in 1975: "At the time many of those in positions of influence looked into the abyss and saw only a few days away the possibility of the country being plunged into a state of chaos not so very far removed from that which might prevail after a minor nuclear attack. If that sounds melodramatic I need only say that – with the prospect of the breakdown of power supplies, food supplies, sewerage, communications, effective government and law and order – it was the analogy being used at the time. This is the power that exists to hold the country to ransom: it was fear of the abyss which had an important effect on subsequent policy".

Maudling recalls colleagues asking him afterwards why he had not sent in troops to support the police. His response reveals the dilemma facing the ruling class during this period of heightened class struggle: "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 would have been disastrous". The government was pushed into direct negotiations with the miners, and forced to make significant concessions.

A traumatised Heath subsequently pleaded on television that the country needed to find "a more sensible way to settle its differences". The government’s incomes policy was in tatters, yet the TUC leadership, who had effectively remained on the sidelines during the miners’ dispute, embraced Heath’s offer to enter into talks to try to agree a voluntary incomes policy.

Taking on the anti-union laws

ON THE DAY the miners’ strike ended, 28 February 1972, the anti-strike provisions of the Industrial Relations Act came into force. Threatened industrial action by railway workers provided its first real test. In April, the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) rejected a pay recommendation and imposed a work-to-rule and overtime ban. Maurice Macmillan, secretary of state for employment, activated the 14-day cooling-off period. In line with TUC policy, the NUR refused to attend the NIRC, but adhered to the cooling-off period ordered by the court. At the end of the 14 days, the NIRC ordered a secret ballot, the result of which saw over 80% in support of the union’s proposed action. The dispute was settled with a wage increase. Mortified, Heath’s government never again attempted to use the cooling-off and ballot provisions of the 1971 act.

The most significant dispute of 1972 was by dockers over containerisation. Companies were moving work to non-registered ports or container depots away from the docks to avoid paying dockers’ rates. Ignoring the TGWU leadership, who wanted talks with the employers, the powerful National Port Shop Stewards Committee began an unofficial boycott of firms who refused to use dock labour, and unofficial picketing of new terminals and road haulage companies.

Liverpool road haulage firm, Heatons Transport, sought redress from the NIRC. On 23 March the NIRC instructed the TGWU to end the boycott and to discipline its members. In line with TUC policy, the union refused to attend the court or obey the order, resulting in a £5,000 fine for contempt. Following a further fine of £50,000 in April, the union made fruitless efforts to persuade the shop stewards to lift their action. Meanwhile, under the threat of sequestration of its funds, the TGWU executive attended the court, which rejected the union’s correct contention that it had no power to stop unofficial picketing. The TGWU then applied to the Court of Appeal. Nervous about the consequences of bankrupting the union, it unexpectedly ruled in the union’s favour, ‘discovering’ that ‘faulty drafting’ meant the act did not actually make unions answerable for the actions of their members. The NIRC consequently turned its attention to the dockers’ rank-and-file leaders.

On 12 July, twelve dockers were ordered by the NIRC to stop picketing the Chobham Farm container terminal in East London. Three dockers who refused were named for arrest. Thirty-five thousand dockers immediately responded to an unofficial strike call. The previously unheard of Official Solicitor stepped in to prevent the three London dockers going to jail.

Despite this, a case before the NIRC involving the boycotting and picketing by dockers of Midland Cold Storage resulted in five dockers’ shop stewards being committed to Pentonville prison on 21 July for contempt. The response was immediate, with unofficial protest strikes by 44,000 dockers, and solidarity strike action by up to 200,000 other workers, including in the newspaper industry and London buses. The scale of the unofficial action, which was developing into a general strike from below, compelled the TUC on 26 July to call a one-day general strike of its affiliated ten million members for 31 July – safe in the knowledge, however, that the House of Lords was about to come to the rescue of the government by overturning the Court of Appeal decision.

The Official Solicitor then conveniently reappeared with a request for a review of the Pentonville Five case. Despite refusing to purge their contempt, they were hastily released. A relieved TUC withdrew its strike call. However, the next day a dockers’ delegate conference called an immediate official national strike on the substantive issues. The government declared its fourth state of emergency on 4 August. The strike continued until 15 August. An inquiry report claiming to meet most of the grievances of the dockers over containerisation and registered jobs was bitterly opposed by the dock shop stewards for not going far enough.

The jailing of the Pentonville five hardened the position of those unions who until then had failed to follow TUC policy on deregistration, but now complied. Without the determined unofficial action of the dockers it is likely the TUC policy on non-registration would have collapsed. The government was now confronted with the completely unsustainable position of even official industrial action being unlawful because all the major unions were unregistered. The Times newspaper sullenly complained that "the process of law, like a disordered slot machine, produces a succession of unforeseen results, mostly raspberry-flavoured".

Following these defeats at the hands of the working class, and under pressure from an establishment alarmed at the inexorable social chaos, Heath entered into tripartite talks with the Confederation of British Industry and a worried TUC leadership. Cognisant of the militant mood of union members, the TUC presented a list of demands that included statutory price controls, suspension of rent increases due under the 1972 Housing Finance Act, the introduction of a wealth tax, substantial increases in family welfare benefits and, most notably, a government assurance that it would not use the Industrial Relations Act. The talks inevitably collapsed.

Who runs the country?

ON 6 NOVEMBER, the government announced its intention to introduce a statutory incomes policy from January 1973 after the immediate imposition of a 90-day freeze on wages, prices, dividends and rents.

However, still smarting from their painful defeats, the government trod carefully. According to Sewill: "The statutory policy was in a way all bluff. On the pay side the law was never invoked. Indeed because the government had realised that all hell would break lose if any trade unionist was fined or imprisoned… what the policy really meant was that the government staked its whole reputation, its whole authority, indeed the authority of parliament, in the hope that the unions and their members would accept the law, or anyway believe that the government would never allow a strike to succeed. For 18 months the gamble worked; but when it failed the stakes were lost".

While the TUC leadership offered little more than ‘resentful and reluctant acquiescence’, gas workers began unofficial stoppages, including an overtime ban. This was extended and made official on 14 February 1973, involving more than 23,000 workers. Three civil service unions called their first ever one-day national strike, involving 128,000 workers. Fifty thousand low paid hospital ancillary staff also took part in selective action.

Heath launched stage three of the government’s income policy in October which, under pressure from union members, the TUC denounced. More serious for the government was the response of the NUM. On 10 October 1973 the National Coal Board management made what they described as their ‘final’ wage offer, which was immediately rejected by the union.

Following widespread support for industrial action in a national ballot, an overtime ban began on 12 November. The next day, the government declared its fifth state of emergency. On 28 November, Heath called the NUM’s negotiators to a meeting with the whole cabinet where he promised a review of the coal industry and better pensions and fringe benefits. The NUM executive committee rejected the offer. On 13 December, Heath blamed the miners for the introduction of a country-wide three-day week, in effect a national lock-out of hundreds of thousands of workers.

The TUC offered Heath a potential lifeline, pledging that if the miners were treated as a special case it would not be used as a basis for negotiations by other unions. But this was rejected by Heath because, understandably, he was not confident that the TUC leaders would be able to hold the line against other workers taking action. Heath was also under pressure from rabid anti-union backbench Tory MPs who were convinced a general election would decide the issue in their favour, and allow a strong Conservative government to act decisively against the trade unions.

On 24 January 1974, the NUM executive decided to ballot its members with a recommendation for all-out action. The NUM executive announced its ballot result on 4 February, with 81% supporting a strike. It declared an all-out national strike to begin on 9 February. After some hesitation, on 7 February, Heath called an emergency general election.

The theme of the Tories’ election campaign was ‘who runs the country?’ Its general election manifesto, under the sub-heading, ‘The Danger from Within’, declared that settling the miners’ dispute on the NUM’s terms would "undermine the position of moderate trade union leaders". Promising, "in the light of experience", amendments to the Industrial Relations Act, their manifesto went on to declare that they wanted a country "in which there was change without revolution".

Wilson joined Heath in making it known he wanted to see the miners’ strike suspended for the duration of the election. However, the Labour Party was not unaffected by the radicalised mood of the working class. In 1973, it had adopted its most radical programme since the second world war, promising to attack inequalities of wealth and power, extensive nationalisation with workers’ participation, and state planning of the economy. This had been preceded by a resolution successfully moved by supporters of the Militant (now the Socialist Party) at the Labour Party conference in 1972 – at a time when industrial militants attended conference and participated in genuine debates – calling for the public ownership of the major monopolies. All this would be unimaginable today in a New Labour enthralled to big business – with policies barely distinguishable from its Tory and Lib-Dem rivals – and Ed Miliband condemning low paid workers taking strike action in defence of their paltry pensions.

The election outcome on 28 February 1974 was close. The Labour Party formed a minority government, and repealed the Industrial Relations Act on 31 July. It increased its majority in the general election of October the same year. Commenting on the miners’ strike, The Times noted: "This has been an historic dispute. It is the first time that an industrial stoppage has provoked a general election and indirectly brought about the downfall of a government". (7 March 1974)

Anti-union laws today

SINCE THE 1980s the relationship of forces swung favourably to the capitalists, at a national level and in the workplaces, with the ground yet to be recovered. Even during the economic growth of 2001-08, union membership barely inched forward. More importantly, shop-floor representation and organisation continued its downward trend. The combativity and confidence of workers had increased throughout the 1970s, but the 1974 Labour government’s refusal to break with capitalism led it into a series of conflicts with workers, most notably against low-paid public-sector workers during the winter of 1978/79. The resulting disillusionment led to Labour’s defeat in 1979, which allowed Margaret Thatcher to come to power with an agenda to destroy militant trade unionism.

Thatcher’s vendetta against the unions in the 1980s was partly revenge for the battering her class received under Heath – to try and ensure that never again would ordinary union members be able to inflict such a devastating blow against the representatives of capitalism. Thatcher and her successor, John Major, eventually achieved, with eight shorter and specific pieces of legislation over a 13-year period, what Heath had attempted to enact in one fail swoop. But the successful enactment of the anti-union laws and the heavy defeats of the workers’ movement in the 1980s were not inevitable. A TUC leadership matching the determination of the union rank and file could have defeated Thatcher on a number of occasions before she was finally seen off by millions of poll tax non-payers.

The subsequent turn by the TUC to partnership with the bosses, which in practice meant concessions to the employers, disoriented activists, compounded union decline, and has proved disastrous as the government’s cuts agenda exposes the sham of partnership when it comes to paying for the financial crisis. The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the transformation of the Labour Party from a workers’ party with a leadership unwilling to break with capitalism to a party empty of working-class participation and enthralled to the market, also impacted negatively on the consciousness of most active trade unionists.

Thatcher’s anti-union laws remain a shackle on organising effective industrial action, both at a local level and in terms of more generalised action. Workers can only take industrial action against their own employers, solidarity action and political strikes are unlawful. The millions-strong strike set to take place on 30 November will result from coordinated industrial ballots by the individual public sector unions.

1972 was the closest Britain came to a general strike since 1926. Yet it was not strikes specifically aimed against the Industrial Relations Act that defeated it, but decisive action on wages and terms and conditions in defiance of the anti-trade union laws that rendered the act unworkable. Defiance of such laws may prove necessary again where they act as a barrier to workers defending their livelihoods.

Key to the action that eventually defeated Heath was the militant role of the shop stewards in thousands of workplaces across the country. But no less important than the numerical strength of shop stewards was their political consciousness, reflected in the role of the LCDTU and the shift to the left in the trade unions and the Labour Party. Indeed, the number of shop stewards peaked at over 335,000 in 1984, before the heavy defeats of that decade took their toll. The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) is not yet in the position of the LCDTU in the 1970s, but it has already played a crucial role in galvanising pressure on the TUC to coordinate strike action on pensions. It has growing support among the best activists in unions such as the RMT, PCS, FBU, Unite and the NUT.

With six-and-a-half million members, the trade union movement still remains potentially the most powerful force in society. In the coming period the momentous working-class struggles of the 1970s will provide rich lessons for the current generation of activists moving into battle. This time round though, workers will not only have to rebuild strong workplace structures as part of the process of transforming the unions into fighting democratic organisations, but will also need to address the question of political representation. This requires the establishment of a new mass workers’ party, which can reflect the growing militancy of workers and aid the development of powerful rank-and-file movements in the unions.

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