SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 225 February 2019

1979’s winter of discontent

Forty years ago a wave of industrial action – known as the ‘winter of discontent’ – would define the downfall of the then Labour government. JIM HORTON examines these events and considers the lessons for the labour movement today.

On 22 January 1979 more than a million public-sector workers began industrial action in support of their pay claims at a time of declining living standards, the biggest mass stoppage in the UK since the 1926 general strike. Up to 100,000 marched in London, with mass demonstrations in many other towns and cities, including Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. A movement developed that had some of the features of a rolling general strike.

On this anniversary, particularly if the political crisis over Brexit triggers a general election, the Tories and their big-business media friends are likely to make derogatory references to the winter of discontent to try to discredit Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his radical programme. As might the Blairities. Even some trade union activists will accept the narrative peddled by the enemies of the labour movement that the problems the Labour government of 1974-79 faced were due to the ‘excessive’ power of the unions at a time when the government had to deal with intractable problems in the economy. Moreover, that ‘irresponsible’ industrial action caused Labour to lose the subsequent general election to Margaret Thatcher.

It is true that Labour failed to manage a crisis-ridden capitalist economy beset with hyperinflation and rising unemployment inherited from the previous Tory government. However, it was only industrial action by workers in the late 1970s which prevented a drastic decline in living standards at a time when the employers were demanding the government impose wage restraint, not for the claimed ‘good of the country’ but to boost company profits.

In contrast, the general inaction at the top of the trade union movement since the onset of the financial crisis ten years ago has allowed big corporations and the super-rich to amass huge wealth while the worst wage stagnation for two centuries has meant cuts in living standards for millions of workers.

The real problem 40 years ago was that the labour movement did not use the favourable opportunities to bring about the fundamental change the Labour Party had promised in the 1974 general election campaign. Attempting to manage capitalism rather than break with it inevitably meant doing the bidding of the ruling class. This included imposing wage rise limits below the inflation rate. Workers had no other option than to strike in defence of their living standards against what was perceived to be their government. It is imperative that activists in the labour movement today learn the salient lessons in preparation for the challenges a future Corbyn-led government would face.

Simmering discontent

From the beginning of 1979 – following strikes the previous year, most notably at Ford motors – Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU, now Unite) lorry drivers took strike action over low pay and long hours. Led by the shop stewards, within weeks supplies transported by road were at a virtual standstill. The employers were forced to concede most of the union’s demands.

The ruling class viewed as impertinence and treachery each occasion workers took action to gain a decent wage. Thatcher, then Tory leader of the opposition, fumed that the country was "practically being run by strikers’ committees. They are ‘allowing’ access to food. They are ‘allowing’ certain lorries to go through". Alongside the lorry drivers, train drivers in the ASLEF union were drawn into the movement.

But it was the strike by low-paid workers in local authorities, the NHS, the water industry, ambulance workers and other public-sector groups that really symbolised the simmering discontent that erupted in the winter of 1979. Their claim for £60/week was modest given that success would still put them on only two-thirds the average industrial wage but, after years of falling living standards, a revolt was inevitable. Striking ambulance workers were joined by nurses belonging to one of the least militant unions in the country, the Royal College of Nursing. Staff in over 1,000 hospitals refused to treat non-emergencies.

Commentators disparagingly referred to the winter of discontent as the ‘dirty jobs strike’, mainly because of industrial action by waste collection workers. The Tory media splashed images of piles of rubbish on the streets across their front pages and television screens to paint the strike in the worst possible light, without explaining the real causes. After a month on strike the waste collection workers largely achieved their aims, as did other sectors.

It was a strike by low-paid GMWU (now GMB) gravediggers in Liverpool and Tameside in late January that earned the most severe scorn of the ruling class and their media hacks, in particular denigrating gravediggers in Liverpool who ‘refused to bury the dead’. This is still readily cited when referring to the winter of discontent. After two weeks they returned to work having accepted a 14% increase.

Most activists in the labour movement acknowledged that this would not have been achieved without strike action, while recognising that such action should ensure the maintenance of emergency services to cut across the hypocritical condemnation of the capitalists who inflict poverty and misery on the mass of the population every day. The London Evening Standard urged the government to use troops against strikers and pickets. In his diaries, Tony Benn recalls the discussions in the Labour cabinet on whether to heed the Tories’ demand for a state of emergency, with Labour prime minister James Callaghan despairing at how to proceed.

Labour elected

While the winter of discontent was the culmination of a brewing revolt of workers against the policies of the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, five years earlier things had seemed more hopeful. In February 1974, during the miners’ strike and three-day week – effectively, a lockout imposed by the Tory government – prime minister Ted Heath called an emergency general election on the question, ‘Who governs Britain: the government or the unions?’ His administration had already sustained a series of defeats as workers in the private and public sectors took industrial action against statutory wage restraint and attempts to legally shackle trade unions. Initially, Wilson denounced the election as unnecessary and unhelpful for settling the miners’ strike.

Contrary to the opinion polls, which predicted a big Tory majority, and the expectations of most (including Labour) MPs, workers gave their answer with a Labour victory, although the party had only a four-seat lead over the Tories, and no overall majority in parliament. Notwithstanding labour movement unity against the Heath government’s anti-trade union policies, Wilson’s own attempts in the late 1960s to limit pay rises and curtail union rights had not been forgotten. It was just that, after the savage attacks by Heath, most workers were seeking a change.

Heath did not resign for four days, in the vain hope of securing a coalition with the Liberals. Wilson then rejected Liberal overtures, preferring to lead a minority administration. Promising to bring about "a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families", Labour won the election on the most radical manifesto since 1945 – more radical than Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 election programme.

With the announcement of another general election to take place in October 1974, the parliament of February 1974 proved to be the shortest in 300 years. Labour’s share of the vote increased by only 2%, but it won a three-seat majority. It would have been greater if it had conducted an enthusiastic, radical, socialist campaign. Even so, for many workers it meant that the Labour leaders now had the means and time to fulfil their promises.

Instead, within days of victory, Wilson opened talks with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the bosses’ organisation which then, as now, was implacably opposed to any radical programme in favour of workers. It is never possible for any government to marry the conflicting demands of labour and capital, particularly in the midst of an economic crisis. The current Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell has also had discussions with the CBI.

In the 1970s, such talks eventually spelled disaster for the labour movement as the government capitulated to the threat of a ‘strike of capital’. Pilkington Glass, for instance, declared it would refuse to invest unless the government acceded to the demands of the CBI for wage restraint. This was followed by similar declarations by the bosses of Hawker Siddeley and Metal Box. Struggles erupted on the factory floor as the employers sought to take revenge for the defeat of their party in the general election. Workers in the car industry were at the forefront of battles over pay and conditions, particularly at British Leyland, but also at Vauxhall where I worked.

Pro-union legislation

Nevertheless, within its first few months in office, Labour had settled the miners’ dispute, and put an end to the three-day week and state of emergency. It also increased pensions, briefly froze rents and introduced temporary food subsidies. There was a determined mood within the labour movement to push for far more radical policies. However, these early positive measures were soon outweighed by the impact of wage restraint and public expenditure cuts.

Labour did manage to pass important and enduring pieces of workplace legislation, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. In addition, in accordance with Labour’s pre-election agreement with the Trades Union Congress, the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act (1974 and 1976) repealed all the anti-trade union provisions of Heath’s Industrial Relations Act and restored legal protection to strike.

Trade union rights in the workplace were also strengthened under the Employment Protection Act 1975. This gave shop stewards the right to paid time off work for union duties, activities and union approved training. It reintroduced a procedure to assist unions gain employer recognition, imposed a legal duty on employers to disclose information to unions relevant to collective bargaining, and granted a period for compulsory consultation with recognised trade unions before major redundancies could be announced.

These welcome changes marked an extension of state support for collective bargaining, subsequently undermined by Thatcher in the 1980s – and by the David Cameron and Theresa May governments. The EPA also introduced a range of new individual employment rights, and Wilson’s government enacted equal pay and sex discrimination legislation.

In many respects the combination of these measures was more radical than the welcome pro-trade union proposals set out in the autumn by John McDonnell. While calling for a total break from the policies pursued by all governments since 1979, the aim to repeal the Trade Union Act 2016 falls far short of the pressing need to abolish all the existing anti-union legislation, in contrast to the more decisive action taken in 1974 by Wilson.

Nonetheless, the pro-union legislation enacted by Wilson’s government was not without its cost. The quid pro quo agreed with the union tops while Labour had been in opposition was the ‘social contract’, a euphemism for a policy of stringent wage restraint. Wilson raised the threat of rampant Toryism returning to power to persuade the union leaders to accept, and in effect police, wage restraint. It was the imposition of this policy, particularly on some of the lowest paid workers in Britain, which eventually led to the victory of Thatcher in 1979 and the consequent brutal assault on trade union rights and the social gains won by the working class after the second world war.

TUC and Labour leaders’ pact

For a time, the voluntary wage restraint agreed between the government and the TUC was not significantly breached by any union, though not without some resistance by workers. It would be a strike in 1976 on wages and union recognition by low-paid, predominantly Asian women workers at Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in London that would give a graphic indication of which side the Labour government would take in industrial disputes.

The Grunwick workers gained the support of the ranks of the labour movement but, disgracefully, the government used the full force of the state to break the strike. The brutal military-style policing deployed against the strikers and their picket line supporters would be adopted in the 1980s by Thatcher in her bid to crush the unions, most notably during the 1984-85 miners’ strike and the Wapping print workers’ dispute in 1986. Notwithstanding the huge sympathy for the Grunwick strikers, and the active solidarity of thousands of workers on the picket lines, the strike was defeated by the ineffectual leadership of the Grunwick workers’ own union, APEX, and their abandonment by the TUC.

Soon after Labour had assumed office in 1974 inflation had risen rapidly across the world economy following the four-fold increase in oil prices after the Arab-Israeli war. As early as 1975, inflation moved towards 20% in Britain. There was a massive balance of payments deficit and sterling was under pressure. Government civil servants pushed for a statutory incomes policy.

In order to avoid this and assist the government, in August the TUC suggested a flat-rate increase on basic wage rates and a freeze on higher incomes, on the condition the government tightened price controls and reduced unemployment. The government supported these proposals, but with a lower flat-rate rise and without more price controls. In the meantime, unemployment went over the one million figure for only the second time since 1940.

Following the referendum that year on Europe, in which the Labour left had campaigned against joining the Common Market (predecessor of the European Union), Wilson’s government lurched further to the right, bringing it increasingly into conflict with rank-and-file Labour Party members, and the left in the Parliamentary Labour Party. In March 1976, Harold Wilson resigned and James Callaghan beat left-winger Michael Foot to succeed him, marking a further shift to the right.

In May, the TUC and government agreed a further twelve months of pay policy, which was approved at a special TUC congress in June. At its annual congress in September, however, the TUC voted for a return to free collective bargaining at the end of stage two of the incomes policy (1 August 1977). Three months later, the government implemented savage cuts in public expenditure in order to secure a $3.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. This ‘deal’ was negotiated by Labour chancellor Denis Healey who, in 1974, had promised to "make the pips squeak" with a wealth tax on the rich. When confronted with a big-business investment strike, hyperinflation and rising unemployment, Labour chose to take the axe to vital public services rather than challenge the bosses.

By 1977 there was seething anger on the shop floor at years of cuts in real wages, which had declined roughly by 10% since 1974. At the AUEW engineering union and TGWU conferences the rank and file successfully pushed their unions to reject further wage restraint, demanding a return to free collective bargaining. This ended their left leaderships’ support for the government’s pay policies. Egged on by big business, the government ignored warnings from the unions and pushed for a commitment to a 10% limit on wage increases from August 1977, in exchange for income tax reductions. Despite finding it harder to gain membership support for continuing wage restraint, the TUC acquiesced.

The TUC leaders had for three years actively colluded in imposing an incomes policy designed to decrease the living standards of trade union members in the hope that inflation would be curtailed, unemployment reduced, and Labour kept in power. Yet the Labour government’s failure to break with capitalism actually resulted in workers suffering pay cuts, unemployment rising and, ultimately, the ejection of the party from office. Even after the TUC ended formal cooperation with the government’s wage restraint policy in 1976, there was a nod-and-a-wink understanding that the TUC would not seek to mobilise the labour movement against government policy.

At its congress in September, the TUC reaffirmed its call for a return to free collective bargaining. Three months later, the TUC General Council voted by 20 to 17 not to support the firefighters who were engaged in a bitter pay dispute supported by 99% of FBU members. The use of the army to break the strike failed, and the union secured a 10% pay rise and better working conditions.

Opening the floodgates

At the beginning of 1978 the retail price index went below 10% for the first time since October 1973. But, since Labour had been in government, there had been a wealth transfer from workers to the richest 1%, with the latter’s share of the nation’s wealth increasing from 22.5% in 1974 to 24.9% in 1976. Meanwhile, in the same period, the poorest half of the population had seen their share fall from 7.1% to 5.6%! Despite inflation still running at 7% and warnings from the TUC that it would no longer be able to hold the line, the government announced a 5% pay guidance to operate from August 1978. This would bring the government into direct confrontation with the ranks of the trade union movement.

Within weeks, a pay strike at Ford motors, initially unofficial, would become the precursor to the wave of industrial action that unfolded in the winter of 1978-79. Ford bosses had set a pay increase within the government’s 5% limit, despite amassing £270 million profits the previous year. This was rightly rejected by the workforce and 60,000 workers brought Ford factories to a standstill across Britain. In November, after nine weeks’ strike action led by TGWU shop stewards, Ford workers accepted a 16.5% pay rise.

The strike transformed the mood at the TUC congress in September and the Labour Party conference the following month. The TUC voted against further pay restrictions, while at Labour’s conference the plans of the right-wing cabinet were shattered. A resolution moved by a supporter of Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party), rejecting the government’s 5% wage limit, was passed by four million votes to 1.9 million. In effect, this ended the social contract and opened the floodgates to the industrial movement.

A couple of months after the Ford workers’ victory, the mass revolt of public-sector workers erupted. The Labour government was virtually paralysed at the end of January 1979 by the cumulative impact of industrial action, forcing it to abandon its pay limit policy in the most dramatic circumstances.

With many taking strike action for the first time, the tenacity of these low-paid workers, in the face of press hostility and police intimidation, forced the employers to offer a 9% increase and the promise of a ‘comparability study’. Some strikes continued – by civil servants, for example – even after the TUC had negotiated the formal ending of industrial action at the end of February. In March, the Labour government lost a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons by 311 votes to 310. Two months later, the general election saw the Tories return to office with a 43-seat majority.

The winter of discontent and subsequent election defeat could have been avoided. The Labour government, however, repeated the experience of its previous tenure in office in 1964-70. At the time, attempts to hold down workers’ wages provoked industrial action, which was followed by the party’s defeat in the 1970 general election. It is true that, unlike then, Labour in 1974-79 had not sought to introduce anti-trade union laws to shackle the ability of workers to take industrial action in opposition to the government’s wage restraint policies. But with the same aim of making workers pay for Britain’s economic crisis, Labour introduced legislation which, while nominally favourable to the unions, in fact facilitated the incorporation of the trade union leaders in a pact aimed at managing capitalism.

Then and now

Yet an alternative was possible. Labour had won the February 1974 general election on the most radical manifesto since 1945 – certainly more left wing than the programme that inspired millions of workers to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in 2017. Notwithstanding the relative strength of the left within the Labour Party – including in parliament, where a quarter of Labour MPs counted themselves as part of the broad left-wing Tribune group – the right wing remained in control of the party and government policies.

The 1973 Labour conference had rejected resolutions moved by Militant supporters calling for democratic public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy as too radical. Even Tony Benn argued that the demand was unrealistic. Yet it was precisely this measure, backed by a mobilised labour movement, that could have ensured decent pay and conditions for all workers and sufficient funding for all public services. Instead, towards the end of its tenure, Labour made a pact with the Liberals in a desperate bid to stay in power at any cost, in the process blocking any prospect of adopting socialist policies.

Today, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and the left are in a much weaker position in the PLP, even though they have majority support among the party membership. The Blairites are consummate representatives of capitalism still embedded within the Labour Party.

Delegates at the 1978 Labour conference not only decisively rejected wage restraint, they also reflected on the experience of Labour in government. Calls for socialist policies and the reselection of Labour MPs gained an echo. The latter remained a major theme for the next three conferences until the historical decision to adopt it was secured in 1981. These issues are no less urgent in the Labour Party today. Corbyn needs to mobilise the mass support he has among ordinary members around socialist policies to drive out the Blairites if he is to have any chance of implementing the radical measures contained in his programme.

The trade unions were also stronger in the 1970s, both in terms of membership – peaking in September 1979 at 13 million, 55% of the workforce – and workplace organisation. Yet even left-wing trade union leaders initially gave support to wage restraint, stepping back only under pressure from disgruntled members. Union membership today is less than half that of 40 years ago. Nonetheless, with roughly six million members, the trade union movement remains, potentially, a decisively powerful force in society. The best preparation that union militants can make for events under a future Labour government is to fight for socialist union leaders who will always put the class interests of their members and the broader working class first.

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