History of the Trade Union Movement in Britain Part 3

This radical history of the trade union movement in Britain runs from 1964 to 1992. The summary is based on “In Cause of Labour: History of British Trade Unionism” by Rob Sewell, which you can read here.

Here is a list of this series. You can read Part 1 here, which describes the British trade union movement from the 1700s to 1918. Read part 2 here, 1918 to 1964. Part 3 here, 1964-1992. Part 4 here, 1992 to 2005. Part 5 here from 2005 to 2010. Part 6 here from 2010-2015.

In Place of Strife 1964-1970

The election of a new Labour government after 13 years of Tory rule was met with enthusiasm and optimism. Prime Minter Wilson talked of using the scientific revolution to transform people’s lives and this caught the imagination of the large amounts of the population, especially the youth. Popular ideas included rational planning model, automation and more leisure time, modern technology to end the monotony of work, nuclear energy to meet all energy needs for generations to come.

Sewell describes the problems Wilson had straight away when he was told by the Governor of the Bank of England that there would need to be a cut in government spending as the country could not afford Labour’s programme. That if Wilson did implement the programme it would lead to financial ruin and a strike of capital. Sewell explains that this is the problem of working inside capitalism. Sewell quotes Wilson from his memoirs and it’s worth including:

“I asked him if this meant that it was impossible for any government, whatever its party label, whatever its manifesto or the policies on which it fought an election, to continue unless it immediately reverted to full-scale Tory policies… We had now reached the situation where a newly elected government was being told by international speculators that the policy on which we had fought the election could not be implemented: that the government was to be forced into adoption of Tory policies to which it was fundamentally opposed… The Queen’s First Minister was being asked to bring down the curtain on parliamentary democracy by accepting the doctrine that an election in Britain was a farce, that the British people could not make a choice between policies.”

The Labour Party response was to keep the working class in the dark and give into the bankers and City of London. “To restore the flagging competitiveness of British Industry, old policies were dusted down and presented as something new.” The new government has inherited a serious balance of payments crisis from the Tories so reduced spending through public spending cuts and a Prices and Incomes policy to reduce inflation. Workers were told to work harder to increase productivity and unofficial strikes were discouraged. In 1965, the government established a Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations to investigate industrial relations to bring in ‘reforms’, “in other words, changes more suitable to the needs of capitalism.”

The National Board of Prices and Incomes was created in 1965 and started by bringing in voluntary wage restraint. The trade unions membership were convinced by a promise of a planned growth in wages. A national economic plan was announced but it failed as Sewell describes because “it is not possible to plan within the anarchy of capitalist production, where the blind forces of the market decide, underpinned by the profit motive. Under capitalism, it is not the government that decides economic policy, but the boardrooms of the major monopolies.”

The TUC backed the voluntary wage restraint and the Prices and Incomes policy. Sewell explains that this only boosted the capitalist profits at the expense of wages.

At this point, Labour had a small majority so Wilson called another (1966) General Election and won a big majority. In response, the trade union leaders backed the Prices and Income policy. Employers increased their pressure on workers to increase productivity and therefore profitability. Wilson introduced a six-month wage freeze in the second half of 1966 that wasn’t popular. “Wilson remained within the parameters of capitalism and in effect attempted to run the system better than the Tories.”

There was a seafarers’ strike in 1966 against poor wages and conditions. Wilson came out against it and called a state of emergency. The seafarers were successful in reducing their weekly hours from 56 to 42 and getting a wage rise increase, higher than normal. The Labour government reorganised the docks so there were fewer companies, better job security and conditions but a smaller workforce. There were several unsuccessful strikes.

Sewell makes the important point that workers are not against all modernisation. “New methods should be used to shorten hours, lighten the burden of work, and improve working conditions. But under capitalism, new techniques are used to make fewer workers work harder, while the remainder are thrown on the scrap heap. Modernisation under capitalism is used not to ease work, but to maximise profits.”

The docker’s strike was followed by the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) coming out in oppositions to the government’s pay policy. There was also a significant strike at Robert Arundel in Stockport over union recognition that ended with the company going bankrupt.

There was a shift in the union memberships to the left. In 1967 the Amalgamated Engineering Workers’ Union replaced its right-wing President, with a left-winger. The following year, the same thing happened in the TGWU.

The Wilson government nationalised the steel industry in 1967, Sewell explains how this was not for socialist reasons but to support big business with cheap steel. The former owners were of course well compensated. It met little resistance from the capitalist class as they were happy to be bailed out by the state in difficult times. The new British Steel Corporation faced heavy competition from abroad and the lack of investment in new infrastructure resulted in large job losses. Sewell describes how little was done by the steel unions to resist the lay-offs.

Sewell explains that a general problem in British capitalism was the lack of investment in industry to modernise. This lead to a drop in Britain’s share of world exports to 14 per cent by 1964. In 1967 the Wilson government devalued the pound. In response, British capitalists increased their prices, resulting in Britains share of world exports falling to 10 per cent in 1970. Profits increased but the profit margins decreased. Imports also increased. Wilson responded to the declining profits by effectively attacking workers’ living standards. Several cuts and counter-reforms were introduced: “free school milk for secondary pupils was abolished, prescription charges were reintroduced, National Assistance rules were tightened up, and wage restraint introduced.”

Sewell describes the opposition to Wilson’s support for America’s war in Vietnam and the 1968 General Strike in France, here.

In June 1968, the Donovan Commission delivered its Report on British trade unions. It stated the main problems were unofficial strikes, which had made up 90 per cent of strikes from 1960-68. To reduce this, the report recommended that the semi-official shop stewards’ movement, estimated to be 175,000, would be fully integrated into the trade union bureaucracy. The Commission wanted to trade union leadership to control its rank-and-file membership. The Commission did not call for legal sanctions on the trade unions, the capitalist press was not happy. The Tory Party issued its report on industrial relations called ‘Fair Deal at Work’, arguing for the introduction of anti-union laws.

In 1969, the Labour government announced a White Paper called ‘In Place of Strife‘ that went a lot further than the Commission report. It recommended “the creation of a Registrar of Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations and the setting up of Industrial Courts. It envisaged ‘cooling-off’ periods and fines on trade unions. According to the government the legislation would ‘enable the Secretary of State by order to require those involved to desist for up to 28 days from a strike or lockout which is unconstitutional…’ And further, ‘The Board will have the power to impose financial penalties on an employer, union or individual striker as it found appropriate’.”

The prospect of a Labour government introducing anti-union legislation caused a large protest in the Labour movement and Labour Party. There were actual protests at Labour Party headquarters in London and there were threats by union groups to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. The Communist Party responded by setting up the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU), which received a wide level of support from across the Labour movement. It called a national day of action in December 1969 and over a million workers went on strike for the day. The pressure continued and by 1970 the government had to back down. This radicalised the Labour movement and prepared it for the coming Tory anti-union legislation.

The switch from coal to oil as a power source and the mechanisation of the coal pits resulted in a large number of pits closing and the workforce halving to 365,000. Miners had the option of taking redundancy or being transferred to another pit, to then be moved on again. The National Union of Miners had a right-wing leadership so did little to resist these changes.

1969 saw a national coal miners strike. It started in Yorkshire over a demand to reduce hours. The unofficial strike resulted in all pits in Yorkshire stopping work and spread to Scotland, South Wales, Derbyshire, Kent, Nottingham and the Midlands, involving over 130,000 miners. The National Coal Board (NCB) refused to reduce hours but did increase wages. In response, the government Commission recommended the creating of the Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR) to control the unions. Sewell describes it as “a vehicle for class collaboration and harmony under capitalism, a means of glueing together the interests of employers, union officials and shop stewards.”

1968 saw a strike by women machinists at Ford Motor Company over equal pay, most were on lower pay bands for no other reason than their gender. This led to Ford worker striking over wages in 1969. The same year, dustbin men went on strike over wages. 1970 had more strike days than any year since 1926. Sewell describes in some detail the bitter unsuccessful Pilkington Glass Factory in St Helens strike.

The Wilson government called a General Election in 1970 and was defeated by the Tories led by Edward Heath. For Sewell “The period of counter-reform under Labour had disillusioned its supporters, resulting in large Labour abstentions in the July 1970 general election. The coming to power of the Tory government’ constituted a sharp change in the political situation, opening up a tidal wave of struggle not seen since the 1920s.”

Close the Gates!” 1970-1972

Sewell describes how the new Heath Tory government was pro-big business and “was determined to reverse the decline of British capitalism, set out to tame the trade unions and carry through a programme of deep cuts in living standards.” Between 1945 – 1970 British industrial productivity grew much slower than in the USA, Germany and Japan. Industry machinery investment and profits were also much lower. This resulted in Britain’s share of world manufacturing exports dropping from 25 per cent to 10 per cent. Sewell explains that these problems were created by the failure of the British capitalists to reinvest their profits, extracted from the working-class, in the re-equipping industry. “The ruling class, which blamed the ‘lazy British worker’ and the ‘restrictive practises’ of the unions for all its ills, attempted to resolve this problem by reducing ‘costs’ at the expense of the working class.”

Within a month of the election, there was a national dock strike over pay. The government threatened the use of the army but the Person Inquiry recommended a wage increase which was accepted by the dockers. Later in 1970, 250,000 local authority workers went on strike over wages. Again the government threatened to bring in the army but another inquiry agreed to most of the striking workers’ demands.

Sewell describes several other setbacks for the Tories: “An unofficial miners’ strike secured a £3 a week raise. Electricity supply workers gained around 15 per cent after a state of emergency was declared and the Queen in Buckingham Palace was forced to “take tea by candlelight”. In the private sector Ford workers won an £8 a week raise over two years. The only success for the government was the defeat of the seven-week old postal workers’ strike over pay, led by the extremely moderate Tom Jackson. During the dispute, he threatened to sell every brick of the union’s headquarters before giving in. But he ended up selling out the workers instead. The government was less successful in disputes affecting electricity supply, railworkers and refuse collectors.”

In response, the Heath government brought in the Industrial Relations Act in 1971 to weaken the power of the trade unions. The union rank-and-file pressure on the trade union leadership was moving the Labour movement to the left. The new Tory legislation aimed to force the union leaders to police their membership by threatening them with legal penalties. Read the details of the legislation here.

The legislation became known as ‘the scabs charter’ in the Labour movement. A campaign was organised to defeat it including the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU), Labour Party and TUC. In December 1970 the LCDTU organised an unofficial strike of 600,000 workers. This was followed in January by 500,000 workers taking part in a day of protest against the government. Then in February, 300,000 trade unionists demonstrated in London to ‘Kill the Bill’ followed by a series of one-day strikes and protests around the country involving 2 million workers.

The TUC organised a special conference in March, during which 3 million workers went on strike, the biggest since the 1926 General Strike. The conference advised a boycott of the legislation and motions were passed instructing unions to not register with the government, which most unions went along with.

Sewell describes how “Between July 1970 and July 1974, more than three million days were lost in political protest strikes against the Industrial Relations Act, more than one million against the NIRC and 1.6 million against the government’s incomes policy. It was a historic show of militancy, and the high point of working-class confidence not seen for generations.”

The nationalised Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) was facing closure, even after a 30 per cent reduction in the workforce and 85 per cent increase in productivity. It was sold off to Yarrow for a £1 plus a £4.5 million loan. The Heath government refused a second loan so was to be closed with the loss of 6,000 jobs. The workers organised a ‘work-in‘ that received huge support around the country. Sewell blames the UCS leaders who were in the Communist Party for not pushing the strike beyond a ‘work-in’ or to attempt to spread the strike beyond UCS to force the government to nationalise shipbuilding. In the end, the four sites were sold off to two private companies that received ongoing government support. 2,000 jobs were still lost.

The 1971 recession had resulted in a significant increase in unemployment, the highest since 1939. Workers facing factory closures responded by a wave of factory occupations and sit-ins across the country, a least 200 over the following few years.

The 1972 national miners’ strike had 280,000 miners taking action over wages. Flying pickets were used effectively to spread the strike to other coal pits. The miners were supported by trade unionists in other industries to halt the movement of coal as well. The was also broad public support from millions of ordinary people. The Heath government considered using the army but there were serious concerns this would push the conflict somewhere unpredictable, possible another General Strike.

The strike spread to other industries including the engineering industry in Birmingham. The striking miners targetted the Saltley Gasworks in Birmingham, the last large fuel depot still not closed due to the strike in the area. In early February 1972, the number of pickets at the gate increased. Midland car delivery drivers joined first. The next day the government declared a state of emergency. The following day “a meeting of about 200 shop stewards in the Midlands’ engineering industry called for solidarity action from the 40,000 engineering workers and a mass march on the Saltley depot to close the plant.”

Nearly all of Birmingham’s 40,000 engineering workers went on strike with 10,000 marching to Saltley Gate to join the 2,000 miners there. The 1,000 police were overwhelmed and were forced to close the Saltley depot gates. By mid-February, fuel supplies were so low that many industries were forced into a three-day week. The government considered sending in the army to take control but decided it would have resulted in a disaster. The government set up an inquiry to settle the dispute. It very quickly recommended that the miners were to be treated as a special case and they got a 21 per cent pay rise and several other concessions. Read more details from Sewell here.

Sewell explains how this was a significant defeat for the government. “Although a significant victory for the miners, if the strike had continued the union could have achieved its full claim. Nevertheless, the miners fought with courage and determination after 20-odd years of broken promises from governments and union leaders. After the 1972 strike, the policy of hard-faced Toryism was in ruins. They had completely miscalculated the determination of the miners and the solidarity of the rest of the working class. The victory was an inspiration to other sections of workers, who were also being pushed to the forefront to defend their conditions.

The miners had revived a fighting tradition that was to set the tone in forthcoming industrial disputes. The mass picketing, above all of the power stations, was an important feature of the miners’ victory. It was an example that other sections would emulate. For many workers, and especially the miners, the 1972 strike was a historic turning point and proved a just reward for the humiliating defeat of 1926.”

The Road to Pentonville 1972-1974

Sewell describes that following the miners’ strike of 1972 the ruling class was very concerned about the levels of militancy in the Labour movement. They were viewed as more left-wing than at any time before. The idea of unions using ‘direct action’ for political objectives was popular again after 50 years since the General Strike. The Civil Contingencies Unit (CCU) was created in 1972 to deal with any potential disorder and kept secret. ‘The Times’ newspaper revealed, “by early 1973 ministers had detailed estimates of 16 key industries, their capacity for disruption, their importance to the country’s well-being and the possibility of using alternative military labour in the event of strikes.”

The Tory government were keen to end the National Dock Labour Scheme as it protected dockers from being ‘casual labour’. They decided against it as they knew that union officials were having trouble keeping control of their militant union membership.

The situation changed when two haulage companies took legal action against the TGWU for allowing their members to unofficially boycott their businesses to limited their use of containers. It went to the National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC). The TGWU was heavily fined and threatened with the sequestration of all its funds if the union did not lift the boycott. The TGWU decided to consult the TUC. Sewell is very critical here, arguing that if the union had called a national strike and given the size of the TGWU and the likely level of support across the Labour movement it would have resulted in a General Strike. The TUC stated to pay the fines and the TGWU executive committee voted in favour of this by a very small majority. Sewell describes how “despite the wobbling of the leadership, the dock shop stewards remained defiant and refused to lift the boycott of the haulage companies.”

The Tory Cabinet met to deal with the situation, expecting the worst. The unofficial shop stewards committee was believed to have a lot of support from moderate minded dockers that feared losing their jobs. The government considered several options “a state of emergency, rationing of essential food, and the requisitioning of vehicles to transport food around the country.”

Several haulage companies container depots were being blockaded by trade unionists. The owners attempted to get court orders to have them removed with mixed success. The Midland Cold Storage Company got a court injunction but the blockade continued. Private investigators identified five shop stewards as behind the blockade and they were arrested for contempt of court, they are known as the ‘Pentonville Five’.

In response, 44,000 dockers and 130,000 other workers went on strike. Docks came to a standstill in London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Swansea, Glasgow, Bristol, Felixstowe, Leith, Chatham, Ipswich, Middlesborough and even King’s Lynn. The workers recognised that this wasn’t a dockers strike but a strike in defence of trade union rights against the Industrial Relations Act. The TUC was under pressure to act and called a one-day General Strike. The government reinterpreted the law so that the courts would hold the unions, instead of the individual pickets responsible for their actions. The government wanted to avoid a one-day strike as it might continue. The Pentonville Five were released and the strike was called off. Read more details by Sewell here.

A few days later the dockers were on strike again over job security. The government called a state of emergency. They considered sending in the army but the Civil Contingencies Unit advised that this might cause the strike to spread to other sectors such as lorry drivers. The docker’s national shop stewards committee “stepped up their campaign by closing all ports using unregistered labour.” A few weeks later the government was forced to agree to a deal to end the action.

At the end of 1972, the engineering union AUEW was fined £55,000 for refusing membership to James Goad, a scab. The union refused to pay and the money was sequestrated by the court. The AUEW also had to give Goad membership. In response, 750,000 workers struck unofficially but the AUEW limited itself to verbal protests.

There was also a large building workers’ strike in 1972. Several building workers’ unions had merged in 1971 into the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT). They ran a 13-week strike over wages and conditions. Flying pickets were used to move between construction sites and kept the strike going. The Tory government decided to target the leaders of the strike, arresting 24, known as the ‘Shrewsbury 24‘. They hoped this would stop the militant workers and deter others. The courts found a number guilty of unlawful assembly, affray and conspiracy, with some getting short prison sentences.

The old traditions of militancy had returned with 1972 seeing nearly 24 million days lost to strike action and only 1919 had a higher number. This impacted the Labour Party, with its National Executive Committee (NEC) moving to the left. A left grouping also emerged on the TUC’s General Council. Sewell describes how the right-wing on the TUC wanted to avoid a confrontation with the government and did everything they could to dampen the growing militancy. He describes how the Lefts on the TUC did not have a strategy for the movement so failed to prepare and mobilise the workers to bring down the government. The Lefts ended up giving in to the right-wing and believed it was possible to influence the government through discussion.

Sewell explains that by the end of 1972 and the two years of epic struggles, there was a drop in activity because the movement could not sustain its activities to the same level. This lull lasted most of 1973, where days lost of strikes dropped to 8 million. But the number of shop stewards increased to 300,000 and trade union members was continuing to grow especially with white-collar and professional workers. Confidence was high in the Labour movement and given the provocative behaviour by the Tory government a General Strike seemed likely.

By the end of 1973, the third phase of the Tories income policy was announced. This would result in a cut in living standards. This was combined with a war in the Middle East resulting in a quadrupling of oil prices, resulting in a global economic recession, the first since the 1930s. This reduced availability of oil gave the miners an advantage and increased their bargaining power. The miners ran a national campaign to ban overtime across all coal mines. In January 1974, in response, the Heath government announced a state of emergency and a three-day working week to save energy. By mid-January, over a million workers had lost their jobs. A national ballot in early February had very strong support for strike action at the start of March. In response, Heath called a snap General Election on February 28th. The media ran a campaign against the miners but many were fed up with the Tories and were looking to the Labour Party, which had moved to the left. The Labour Party 1973 conference had voted in support of nationalising the top 25 monopolies. Sewell describes how the Labour Party right-wing watered down the manifesto but it was still relatively radical.

The snap 1974 election gamble backfired with the Labour Party winning 301 seats and the Tories’ 296. The Liberals had 14 seats and held the balance of power. Heath tried to hold onto power but failed and resigned. Sewell describes how this was a historic dispute, the first time a strike had resulted in a General Election and then the demise of a government.

The Labour government came to power in early March and a few days later the miners returned to work with major concessions. In the Tory Party leadership election, Margaret Thatcher defeated Heath.

The Turning Point 1970-1979

1974 had a world recession that was the biggest since 1929. The post-war 25-year economic boom had come to an end, with a 10 per cent drop in industrial production in the advanced capitalist countries in 1974/75. This brought in a new period of political, social and industrial upheaval with the ruling class unsure about the future of their system.

Sewell describes 1974 as a year of revolution: “Portugal was rocked by a revolutionary movement of workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants, which succeeded in sweeping away the hated dictatorship of Caetano. In Southern Africa, the events in Portugal resulted in profound revolutionary changes in Angola, Guinea Bissau and Mozambique. In Ethiopia, the removal of emperor Haile Selassie ended up in the nationalisation of the economy. In Spain, the dying Franco regime was met with an explosion of opposition and mass strikes. The overthrow of the Greek Junta produced a pre-revolutionary crisis in the country.”

Sewell describes how the ruling class and military across Western Europe were making plans to neutralise left-wing government. In Britain there was much talk of a military ‘solution’ to the problems of capitalism and if there was another General Strike. Leading Tory MPs were also publicly writing about the “theoretical justification for doing away with democracy if it ever posed a threat to the capitalist system”. This can be interpreted that if a left Labour government threatened capitalism then it would face a “conspiracy and overthrow by reactionary forces” even if it had been legally elected through a General Election. Sewell gives an example of this: the overthrow of the Allende socialist government in Chile in 1973 in a coup by General Pinochet back by British and US Capitalism.

In 1974 there was “a ‘general strike’ in the North of Ireland, called by the sectarian Ulster Workers’ Council against the “power-sharing” Executive established by the Sunningdale Agreement. Even though this was a reactionary sectarian strike, involving threats and physical intimidation by Protestant paramilitary groups, it nevertheless showed the power of the organised working class. Workplace after workplace was shut down and the government was impotent to do anything about it. Faced with a strike of power engineers and technicians, the military tried to employ naval technicians to run the power stations, but they were completely baffled by the voluminous instruction manuals! “The army, therefore, concluded they could do nothing to maintain the power system in Northern Ireland, and by inference anywhere else in the United Kingdom”, stated Robert Fisk in his book The Point of No Return. After a fortnight of trying to use troops to break the strike, the Tories were forced to back down, demonstrating how ineffective military intervention was in any large-scale industrial stoppage.”

Senior military officers were making public statements that the army might be needed to deal with the social disorder from strikes that the police couldn’t handle.The Chief of the Defence Staff at the time, Lord Carver, made a personal intervention stating that no one was to go around saying these things. The problem was not with the idea but not publicly expresses these views as they were counterproductive and highly provocative to the Labour movement.

Sewell describes the successes that the industrial struggles of the early 1970s – “Real take-home pay increased by 3.5 per cent a year between 1970 and 1973, four times the rate achieved under the 1964-70 Labour government.” The miner’s strike had given the workers increased self-confidence that had outmanoeuvred the ruling class. He is also critical of the “semi-syndicalist mood amongst certain sections of union militants – who regarded the trade union struggle alone as sufficient in dealing with the Tories and the employers. The fall of the Heath government certainly tended to reinforce this outlook.”

The new minority Wilson Labour government was still right-wing. There were several left-wingers in the cabinet and many of the new Labour MPs were on the left. The first task was to resolve the miners’ strike, they were given wage increases ranging from 22-32 per cent and within a week of the election the country was back to a 5-day week. The Labour government then introduced several reforms: “it raised old age pensions, increased food and rent subsidies, cut the rate of VAT, and encouraged the building of council houses. To the great relief of the Labour movement, the government repealed the hated Industrial Relations Act, abolished the Pay Board and scrapped Heath’s statutory incomes policy. The Housing Finance Act was also repealed and a rent freeze was introduced. As promised, the Labour government introduced gift and wealth taxes, although not as much as to make the rich squeak too loudly. The granting of these reforms produced a honeymoon period for the Wilson government, which appeared at long last to be carrying out a radical programme.”

The Labour government was under huge pressure from both the working class and the capitalist class. The reforms appeased the workers, who were willing to give the government a chance. The reforms were disliked by the capitalists but they had to bide their time to act. Wilson called another General Election at the end of 1974 to gain a working majority in Parliament. Labour did win a small majority of 3 so was still vulnerable.

Sewell discusses the world recession that took place in the mid-1970s. He explains here that the main cause was the overproduction of goods in the boom/slump capitalist economic cycle. The quadrupling of oil prices aggravated the crisis. The boom/slump cycle had been hidden since the 1930s by the Second World War and then the postwar economic boom.

In Britain this caused inflation to increase by 20 per cent, which quickly eroded living standards. The combination of a slump and inflations was called ‘slumpflation’. Capitalist business was seeing declining profits so put pressure on the Labour government to cut public spending, not increase wages and stop all state interventions in the market. The Wilson government had a choice between taking on the powerful capitalist forces or go along with them. The government chose to submit to the capitalists and proposed an income policy call the ‘Social Contract’. The left-wing of the TUC and Labour movement had the same choice and decided to back Wilson’s policies. The TUC accepted the ‘Social Contract’ and the government put pressure on the trade unions leaders to get the union membership to support it.

At the end of 1974, the Labour Chancellor announced several measures to increase profitability: “reduction of corporation tax, less stringent price controls, and state handouts for industry. Healey also announced restrictions on public expenditure for the duration of the government. As in the past, this signalled a continuation of orthodox economic policies, and as usual the working class was being asked to pay for the crisis of capitalism.”

Sewell describes how going into 1975 inflation was causing real-take-home pay to decline by about 10 per cent. The mainstream economists that the Labour government were listening to stated that inflation was caused by rising wages so pay increases had to stop. Sewell explains that inflation was caused by speculative capital that was injected into the system after decades of Keynesian public spending. Blaming inflation on rising wages was an excuse so that a wage restriction could boost profits. The Wilson government proposed a voluntary incomes policy to happen in co-operation with the TUC that the TUC accepted. The trade union members trusted their leaders so went along with it. Between 1974-77, this resulted in the largest drop in real wages in Britain.

In early 1976 Wilson resigned as Prime Minister and James Callaghan replaced him. Not long after this Britain faced a balance of payments or ‘sterling crisis‘ and had to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan. The IMF would only grant the loan if £3 billion was cut from public spending over the following 2 years. This was accepted by the Callaghan Cabinet.

This caused many at the time to argue that this was the end of the Keynesianism approach of cutting taxes and increasing government spending to increase employment and spend your way out of a crisis. In 1977 the Labour government had lost its small majority due to by-election defeats so formed Lib-Lab Pact.

The Grunwick dispute took place between 1976-78 over trade union recognition at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in London. It also attempted to gain the reinstatement of sacked women, mainly Asian workers. There was broad support from the Labour movement and violence and arrests on the picket line. The dispute end with:

“The incumbent Labour government commissioned the Scarman Inquiry, chaired by Lord Scarman, which recommended both union recognition and re-instatement of the workers, but the employer, backed by the right-wing National Association For Freedom (NAFF) and the Conservative Party, rejected the recommendations. The TUC subsequently withdrew their support and the workers’ strike committee announced the end of the dispute in June 1978. The repercussions of the strike for British industrial relations were far-reaching, significantly weakening the British trades union movement. The Conservative Party and other members of the right wing saw this as a major political and ideological victory, preparing the ground for Conservative success in the 1979 general election and their subsequent curbing of the unions’ power in the 1980s.” [1]

Sewell describes how there was serious concerns at the IMF, World Bank, US and UK ruling class that the Labour movement and Labour party were moving to the left and this would threaten capitalism. It was seen as the job of the right-wing trade union leaders to stop this from happening. In 1977, phase three of the Labour governments income policy was introduced, which was a 10 per cent limit on wage increases. This was very unpopular in the Labour movement and the TUC was forced to reject it. At the end of the year, 80,000 lobbied parliament against the government’s policies. The Callaghan government attempted to force a wage limit on the public sector and this pushed ‘moderate’ trade unionists into industrial action.

At the end of 1977, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) went on strike for a 30 per cent pay rise and a small reduction in hours. This was the first fire brigade strike in British history. They were attacked in the media and the army was called in by the strike held for two months. There was public support for the strike but the TUC refused to support it. In early 1978 a special FBU conference was called and voted to accept a 10 per cent pay rise.

In 1978 the Callaghan government announced another round of wage restraint but workers were no longer willing to accept this and it was rejected by the 1978 TUC conference. This lead to the ‘Winter of Discontent’. [2] Between 1978 and March 1979 10 million working days were lost due to industrial action. There was a seven-week strike at the Ford Motor Company that resulted in a 17 per cent wage increase. At the 1978 Labour Party conference, there was a vote against the Labour government’s new 5 per cent pay policy. This was a huge blow to the government and was caused by a shift to the left in the Labour party and movement.

Local authority manual workers on very low wages had a large one-day strike in January 1979. Talks broke down by the end of January so a million workers went on strike in the first week of February. They were attacked by the media and managed to hold out until the end of the month and got a 9 per cent wage increase.

185,000 TGWU lorry drivers won their first national strike in 50 years by effectively picketing: “Strike committees were established to run the strike, which vetted transport needs, permitting emergency and essential deliveries, but stopping all others. It was once again a demonstration of the potential power of the workers, and an echo of the Councils of Action of the 1920s. These committees constituted elements of “dual power” in the strike, as they challenged the prerogatives of employers and the state. Thatcher, who was horrified at this display of union strength”

Badly paid Ambulance workers threatened to go on strike and got a 9 per cent increase so the strike was called off. Poorly paid workers, many women, joined trade unions in huge numbers. Total trade union membership in 1979 was 13.3 million, which was 55 per cent of the workforce – an incredible figure and the historic high point of trade union strength.

In March 1979 Callaghan lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons and was forced to dissolve parliament and call a General Election for May. The Tory Party led by Margaret Thatcher won the election. Sewell describes how the media argued that it was worker militancy that resulted in Thatcher winning but it was disillusion with the Callaghan government resulting in abstention by Labour voters that let the Tories win. That the Callaghan government was completely out of touch with popular feelings, similar to 1970.

Preparing the Class War 1979-1984

Sewell describes how Thatcherism attacked and crushed the trade unions, with membership going from 13.3 million in 1979 to 9 million in the mid-1990s, only 7 million of which were affiliated to the TUC:

“The closed shop had been outlawed and the basic right to strike had been severely curtailed. The large elements of workers’ control in the factories and workplaces – control of hiring and firing, the speed of the job, and other restrictions on the prerogatives of management – were completely undermined by the employers’ offensive. The balance of forces within the workplaces swung dramatically in favour of the employers, who, in turn, had no hesitation about putting the boot in. For them, it was retribution for the great unrest of organised labour during much of the 1970s.”

British capitalism was struggling and Thatcher’s approach to resolving this was an all-out class war. This meant an attack on workers wages and conditions. The was also a world recession in 1979-81, resulting in high levels of unemployment as millions of workers, many in manufacturing lost their jobs.

Sewell describes the switch in economic policy from Keynesianism to Monetarism, based on Milton Friedman’s theories – a reinstatement of classical capitalist economics. He explains that these policies made the economic crisis worse, resulting in the destruction of about 20 per cent of the manufacturing industry between 1979 and 1981.

The new Thatcher government starting making plans to weaken the unions. They identified three sectors vulnerable to strikes: “(a) sewerage, water, electricity, gas and the health service is the most vulnerable group; (b) railways, docks, coal and dustmen in an intermediate group; and (c) other public transport, education, the postal service and telephones, air transport and steel in the least vulnerable group.”

Strikes in the most vulnerable sectors could not be fought directly, the government needed to isolate each group and pick them off one at a time. Start with the weakest sections and be prepared to do whatever is necessary. This included “rigging of profit figures in the nationalised industries to put them on the defensive”. A large and mobile group of well equipped and prepared police was necessary to ‘uphold the law’ against violent picketing. They also need to recruit non-union drivers to cross picket lines with police protection. This union-busting strategy was implemented in the following years resulting in the biggest industrial conflict since 1926. There was no such preparation by the trade union leaders.

The next step was to replace those dealing with the unions in the nationalised industries with those willing to attack the unions. He gives examples of how the unions were beaten at British Leyland and in the British steel industry, read here.

In response to the new political situation in 1980, there was a TUC mass ‘Day of Action’ and a 150,000 demonstration in Liverpool against unemployment. The Labour Party moved to the left and there were greater controls over election manifestos and the election of the Party Leader and Deputy Leader. A new Electoral College was established in the party, unions getting 40 per cent, constituency parties getting 30 per cent and the Parliamentary Labour Party getting 30 per cent. There was unsuccessful resistance from right-wing trade unionists. Soft-left Michael Foot was elected Leader of the Labour Party. The right-wing Denis Healey narrowly beat left-wing Tony Benn to the Deputy Leadership. Several Labour MPs broke away from the party to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

In 1981 the Thatcher government was very unpopular following its attacks on the welfare state and local government. In February 1981, the Tory government announced the closure of 50 coal pits, 23 immediately. Miners went on strike in South Wales, Kent, Scotland, Derbyshire and Yorkshire. The government were unprepared for this response so backed down.

In 1982 the left-winger Arthur Scargill was elected President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). This left leadership had several setbacks. They lost three votes for strike action over national pay claims and the planned closure of pits. This was a knock to the left in NUM and showed the dominance of the right-wing at this point. Sewell explains that a strike in such a hostile political environment needs to be well prepared to reach every worker and build unity from below.

Sewell describes the anti-trade union legislation that the Tory government brought in to weaken the unions: “The Trade Union Act of 1980 provided finance for secret ballots, limited picketing to six people, outlawed secondary picketing and removed the immunity for certain types of secondary actions. The 1982 Act exposed union funds to damages for ‘unlawful acts’ (unless explicitly repudiated) and removed trade union immunity from political strikes. This legislation placed restrictions on the closed shop.”

Under pressure from the grassroots, the TUC Congresses of 1982/83 passed a motion against these laws and to ‘mobilise the movement in the event of any legal attacks’. The trade union leaders wanted to avoid any conflict with the Tory government and preferred dialogue.

Sewell describes how by 1982 the left advance in the Labour movement had come to an end. The recession and mass unemployment of 3 million resulted in the loss of industrial militancy. There were still several bitter strikes: “civil servants, oil tanker drivers, water workers, carworkers, printworkers, teachers, bank workers, prison officers, bakers, civil servants, ambulance workers, seafarers, miners, railworkers, and steelworkers.”

The defeat of the train drivers in 1982 related to ‘flexible rostering’ fed into the declining militancy. Sewell describes this in some details here. Sewell also describes the witch-hunt against supporters of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency in the Labour Party, which moved the Labour Party to the right and was supported by the right-wing trade union leaders.

Sewell describes the 1982 Falkland War between Britain and Argentina in some detail here. Up until that point, the Thatcher government was very unpopular and looked likely to lose the coming General Election. Thatcher used the war to gain support by calling for ‘national unity’ against ‘foreign aggression’ and it worked. The Tories achieved a landslide victory at the 1983 General Election. This was not helped by the SDP splitting the Labour vote. 1983 saw the lowest number of days lost through strikes as the lowest since the Second World War.

Neil Kinnock was elected Leader of the Labour Party and the party moved to the right. At the 1983 TUC conference, the right-wing union leaders announced the new policy of ‘New Realism’. This was a move away from militant resistance to Thatcherism. Instead to accept Thatcherism’s new dominance and be open to negotiating and talks with employers and the government. They also wanted to move away from the Labour Party. The trade union leaders were put under a huge amount of pressure in the media by the ruling class, to be mediators between the government and union membership.

Sewell describes that during the 1980s there was a large drop in union membership. Many lost their jobs so left the unions. For those that kept their jobs, the levels of exploitation increased but so did their wages so they experienced a rise in real wages and living standards: “The increased intensity and pressure of work meant that most workers had less time to participate in the union organisations. In any case, what was the point of participating when the unions were not offering anything? Therefore, participation in the trade unions and Labour Party fell away as the result of both objective and subjective reasons. This, in turn, served to intensify the pressures of capitalism on the trade union and Labour leadership, pushing them further to the right.”

Sewell explains how the economic boom of the 1980s, which started in 1982 formed the ‘material basis’ for the general shift to the right. This was combined with a series of industrial strike defeats that eroded the confidence of the working class.

In December 1983, a dispute in Warrington started between the print union (NGA) and the Stockport Messenger. The owner was anti-union Thatcherite and was backed by other media owners and the Tory party. The right was keen to break the print unions agreements to bring in new technology, which would result in job losses. Sewell describes the new police tactics such as blocking roads to stop pickets getting to the newspaper plant and extremely violent riot police attacks on picket lines. When mass picketing started, the newspaper owner was given a court injunction against the union for breaking the 1982 Employment Act. The union ignored the ever-increasing fines until the High Court ordered the sequestration of all the NGA union’s assets. The NGA appealed to the TUC, with the General Council giving its support but this was sabotaged by the right-wing in the TUC. Sewell describes how this began the start of the defeat of the print unions and the protection of workers resulting in workforce ‘flexibility’ and ‘efficiency’.

The Enemy Within 1984-85

This is a long chapter with a lot of details that you can read here.

Sewell describes the Miners’ strike of 1984-5 as the “bitterest class war since the 1926 General Strike”. :

“The Tory government of Margaret Thatcher mobilised the entire strength of the state to crush the National Union of Mineworkers. Paramilitary riot police placed mining communities under total siege. The welfare state was manipulated to starve miners back to work. A scab workforce was organised to break the strike, and billions were spent to keep the power stations running without coal. The full weight of the courts was used to sequestrate the funds of the miners’ union and break its resolve. The capitalist press churned out a Niagara of lies against the miners. As with all great events, it exposed the class relations of society. All the forces of the old society combined in order to crush the miners. For twelve months, the miners and their families held out against this unprecedented onslaught. Their heroism, determination and courage astonished the world and inspired millions. They demonstrated their unconquerable will to fight.”

The Tory government wanted to take revenge on the miners for the miners’ victories in the 1970s. It was also important for the government to crush the miners because they were the most militant workers and needed to be defeated to dominate the rest of the working class and change the ‘balance of class forces’.

“Thatcher imagined that Great Britain could only become great once more on the backs of an oppressed and exploited working class. Wages had to be driven down to the lowest levels possible. In effect, the programme of Thatcherism meant an attempt to return to Victorian times. A humiliating defeat of the NUM would represent a decisive blow to the morale of the British workers, and open up a new stage of capitalist domination.”

In preparation for the conflict, the government built up coal stocks, ensured new anti-union laws were in place, centralised the command of the police force and trained thousands of extra riot police. In March 1984, announcements were made about large-scale pit closures. Many were predicting that the miners no longer had the fighting abilities of the 1970s. In response to the pit closure announcement, there were “spontaneous walkouts across the coalfields”. And flying pickets went out to “bring all pits to a standstill” – very quickly 171 pits were no longer operating. Sewell describes how the miners union (NUM) made a mistake of not calling a national ballot on national strike action and instead the executive endorsed the strike through the rulebook. This gave the power to the Areas to hold ballots in their regions to decide to go on strike or not. Swell explains that had a national ballot been called, it very likely to of passed. For Sewell, it showed a lack of confidence in the miners. He argues that a successful ballot and a united union would have resulted in victory in four months. That this decision played into the hands of the Tories as it allowed them to make the cause in the media that the strike was not a democratic decision by the miners when it was completely within the NMU rules to operate as they had.

Several Areas voted against going on strike – Nottingham, Lancashire, Midlands and North Derbyshire. Sewell puts these defeats down to a lack of a serious campaign rather than these areas being right-wing as they had supported previous strikes. The Tory government decided the way to break the NMU was to keep these pits operation, especially Nottingham to create disunity in the working class. They were heavily protected by 20,000 police that prevented the flying pickets by isolating them and if that didn’t work, then violence was used, with riot police attacking the pickets.

The miners had an unprecedented attack by the media and courts. 10,000 striking miners were arrested, many on charges that hadn’t been used in British courts of generations. Two were killed on pickets lines with thousands injured.

The Tory government had expected a quick victory. To avoid other groups of workers joining the strike they had given them significant concessions. Sewell describes how

“as time wore on, they became more and more alarmed by the situation. The miners stubbornly refused to give up. The Tories were taken aback by the enormous will power, solidarity, imagination, and organising abilities of the miners, their families and supporters. The strategy of the government was beginning to run into difficulties.

To the utter astonishment of the ruling class, the resolve of the miners hardened. This was particularly the case after the experience of police violence, roadblocks and the besieging of mining communities. In many instances, miners and their families were beginning to draw revolutionary conclusions from their own experiences. It was like a miniature revolution, in which the masses were in direct struggle against the state, which appeared before them as an instrument of repression in the hands of the ruling class.

Through their experiences, the miners and their families clearly understood the class struggle, the role of the capitalist state, and the rottenness of capitalism that was intent on destroying their livelihoods. Some of the Tory “wets”, such as Heath and Francis Pym could see what was happening and were openly worried that the strike was “damaging the fabric of British society.” Their concern was not for the miners or their communities, but for the long-term interests and survival of capitalism. They understood that even if the government won, nothing would ever be the same again. The “consensus” built up in the post-war years would be completely undermined, if not destroyed altogether.”

In June 1984, there was ongoing police violence against pickets at the Orgreave coking plant near Rotherham, Sheffield. Many were injured and arrested after repeated mounted police and riot police attacks. The media blamed the violence and disorder on the NMU. This ended mass picketing at Orgreave.

Following this, the scab moving of coal by road was increased. The miners needed support from unions in other sectors. Some railway workers refused to move coal and the printworkers at ‘The Sun’ stopped the paper from being printed twice in solidarity. There was not much support for this strike from the Labour Party or any of the union leaders. There were two national dock strikes in the summary of 1984 over pay and conditions but they failed to unite registered and unregistered dockers. This resulted in the strikes not being maintained, starting with Dover and spreading. The second unsuccessful dockers’ strike was from August to September.

In July 1984, two transport companies took the South Wales NUM to court and the union received fines. It refused to pay them so they were sequestered. Scargill, leader of the NMU asked the TUC for support but was refused. Sewell describes how a 24-hour general strike could have transformed the situation. That the TUC “were paralysed by their fear of militant action and of breaking Tory laws. They decided that rather than support the miners, and get themselves into a hole later, it would be far better and simpler not to support them in the first place!”

In August, the pit deputies and overseers’ union NACODS, who was responsible for the safety in the pits, voted in favour of going on strike. It was over a disagreement with the National Coal Board over the continued payment of NACODS members if they refused to cross picket lines. This scared the Tory government and the strike was called off at the last minute with a deal, where the disputed issues were going to be looked at by an independent body. Sewell describes how if the NACODS leaders had held firm, then they could have defeated the government and transformed the situation. In the end, NACODS members lost their jobs when Thatcher decimated the industry.

The September TUC Congress backed the miners’ strike but did not give any concrete proposals. Sewell describes the important role of miners’ wives in the mining communities and keeping the striking going: “At critical times, when the men’s resolve weakened, they provided the backbone for continuing the strike. They were in the forefront of defending their families, communities, and their very way of life. Nothing could destroy this resolve. The role of the women in the miners’ strike mirrored the growing militancy of women workers in general.”

Sewell describes a propaganda offensive against the miners. The Tory government put pressure on the Labour Party and trade union leaderships. Scargill and the NUM as Marxist communists controlled by Russia. In July 1984, Thatcher made her famous ‘enemy within’ speech. At the Tory Party conference, she stated the miners want a revolution and aimed for a breakdown in law and order and the destruction of democratic Parliamentary government. In her November Guildhall speech, she equated the miners’ actions with terrorism.

In October 1984, the High Court sequestered all of the NUM funds. The TUC could still not be brought into the struggle. There were calls from the left of the Labour Party for a General Strike. Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock made very public statements arguing against this. Sewell explains that with the TUC’s refusal to call a General Strike, then the NUM could have called one themselves directed at the rank and files of unions across different sectors. The miners had a lot of support so it would have put a lot of pressure on the TUC leaders to back it. Sadly, the NUM did not do this. By early 1985, the strike began to crumble with a slow drift back to work. The Central Electricity Generation Board had managed to avoid power cuts but running nuclear and oil-fired power stations flat out.

I’ll quote a lengthy conclusion by Sewell in full as it’s a very useful analysis:

“The miners’ strike represented a watershed. The Tories tried everything to break the miners as a means of breaking the spirit of the working class. The dispute had cost the country an estimated £3.75 billion. The strikers and their families had to be crushed, and seen to be crushed. But the Tories had underestimated the support, resilience, stamina and courage of the miners and their communities. They threw everything at them: the police, the laws, mass media, etc. But it was the divisions within the miners, played up and cultivated by the Tories and the press that fatally undermined the strike. This led to the formation of the scab Union of Democratic Miners (UDM) led by the renegade Roy Link. The UDM naturally had the full support of Thatcher, MacGregor and the rest of the capitalist Establishment, as did the Spencer union after 1926.

The NUM leaders made a number of tactical mistakes throughout the year-long strike, but the decisive factor in the defeat of the miners was the failure of the TUC and Labour leaders to organise effective solidarity action. The mood existed in society to help the miners, despite the orchestrated propaganda campaign by the government. The magnificent work of the miners’ support groups, which collected hundreds of thousands of pounds outside factories, offices and shopping centres, demonstrated this fact. When the miners and their families faced Christmas 1984 penniless, the workers of Britain and other countries sent them food parcels and presents, organised Christmas dinners, parties. The miners will never forget this tremendous working class solidarity, just as they will never forget how Thatcher or the Tories destroyed their communities.

The strike continued until March 1985, twelve months since the announcement of the closure of Cortonwood. On 3 March the special delegate conference of the NUM held in Congress House, the headquarters of the TUC that had let them down so badly, voted 98 to 91 to return to work with no agreement, no reprieve for the threatened pits and no amnesty for the sacked miners. Faced with the coalfield’s extinction, only Kent opposed ending the strike. By this time some 718 miners had been sacked.

The end result of this Herculean struggle was a defeat. Not like the abject humiliation of 1926, but a bitter defeat nonetheless. The return to work was a shattering disappointment to most activists. True, the proud and dignified nature of the return to work behind colliery bands and banners robbed Thatcher of the “total” victory she and her class sought. Nevertheless, the Tory government subsequently closed over 100 pits and more than 100,000 were made redundant. The pit closure programme was carried through remorselessly. It tore the guts out of the industry and out of the mining communities. In the immediate aftermath, the miners staged a whole series of guerrilla struggles in the pits, but these failed to prevent the destruction of the industry. As a final measure, privatisation was now brought forward to pick over the carcass of whatever was left.

The defeat of the miners had an enormous impact on the whole movement. Along with the extension of the economic boom, it accelerated the shift to the right amongst the Labour and trade union leaders. It further strengthened the ideas of “New Realism”, widespread in the trade union bureaucracy. The mining industry was decimated. In 1926 there were over one million miners. At the time of the 1984-85 strike there were still 181,000. By 1990, numbers had fallen to 65,000.”

Aftermath of Defeat 1985-1992

The defeat of the miners was a big blow to the Labour movement and many trade unionists left the unions or looked to their careers. This resulted in a further shift to the right that had started in the early 1980s, of ‘New Realism’ or class collaborations. The Right were on the ascendancy with Britain’s victory in the Falklands’ war, the 1983 General Election victory and an economic boom. Arthur Scargill was attacked in the media and by Labour Party leader Kinnock. Sewell describes how it was common to hear the message that ‘militancy never pays’.

This situation reduced class struggle, which was made worse by high unemployment so workers were afraid of losing their jobs. At the end of 1985, unemployment was officially near 3.2 million or 13.2 per cent. The real figure was over 4 million.

The Tories boasted that they were having the most strike free year in 50 years. Sewell describes that following the defeat and the TUC weakness, employers were using the courts to get injunctions against strikes, such as at Shell, against the National Union of Journalists during a dispute at the printers of Dimbleby’s newspapers, and at Austin Rover. Sewell describes a survey that found: “a total of 70 cases had been brought before the courts by August 1985, the vast majority under the 1980 and 1982 Employment Acts. By 1985, a third of the cases emanated from employers in printing and publishing.” He also describes how “between 1979 and 1987, 29 trade unions, comprising more than 80 per cent of the TUC’s affiliated membership, had appeared before the courts for breaking the Tories’ anti-union laws.”

The Tory government’s plan to make British capitalism profitable again was to roll back the reforms the working class has gained in the past. This was done by attacking local government and local authority spending, through new rent-capping legislation, that resulting in cuts. In 1984, most Labour councils took a policy of ‘non-compliance’ but after a year only two councils were holding firm – Liverpool and Lambeth. Labour Party leader failed to support these councils and at the 1985 Labour Party conference attacked Liverpool city council and its Militant tendency leadership. The Liverpool city councillors had the support of the working class but were removed by “unelected Tory judges”. The following year, they were expelled from the Labour Party.

Sewell describes the 1986 Wapping dispute in some detail here.

The owner of the Wapping newspaper plant, Rupert Murdoch, organised a pre-planned showdown with the print unions to break them. The union-busting strategy was to use electricians to work at the Wapping plant based on completely flexible contracts, new technology and industrial action was forbidden. Non-union staff were secretly moved onto the site. In January 1985, 6,000 printworkers were dismissed. It resulted in a bitter confrontation with around the clock pickets, the union demanding full reinstatement of their members. Police presence was in the hundreds, then as the strike continued thousands, with the police violently attacking and arresting pickets. It is estimated to have cost 5.3 million by December 1986 with over 1300 arrested by February 1987. The TUC failed to support the strike and it was defeated by February 1987.

There was also a P&O shipping line dispute, with P&O wanting to break the union and make conditions harsher to improve profitability. Sewell describes how the National Union of Seamen (NUS) had a choice between calling a national strike or giving in. He explains that the NUS lacked the necessary determination and were not supported by the TUC so capitulated

Sewell describes how these defeats resulted in a general spiral of capitulation, with the right-wing dominating the trade union leaderships. In 1987, the electricians union EETPU made several single-union deals with the companies Yuasa, Thorn-EMI and Orion. The TUC ordered the EETPU to withdraw from these as it “was infringing the rights of other TUC affiliates”. Under pressure from the trade union rank-and-file over the electricians union strikebreaking role at Wapping, the TUC was forced to suspend and then expel the EETPU. The EETPU had 225,000 members so this was the biggest split in the history of the TUC. There was then a split in the EETPU, with the left faction forming the small EPIU. Sewell argues that this was a mistake as it resulted in the EETPU right-wing leadership, even more firming in control. He explains how the EETPU merged with the AEEU in 1992 which eventually resulted in the defeat of the right-wing so if the EPIU grouping had waited things would have improved. The EPIU ended up merging with the TGWU.

At the 1987 General Election, the Tories under Thatcher got 43 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 32 per cent. The Labour Party’s move to the right under Kinnock hadn’t worked and was under pressure to move further to the right. The TUC also moved further to the right, with the mineworkers union losing its seat on the TUC General Council for the first time.

From 1987, the Tory government focused on defeating the dockworkers. In 1989, it brought in a bill to abolish the Dock Labour Scheme. Tilbury and Liverpool docks went on strike in protest. The TGWU national dock committees vote to ballot its members for a strike but this was blocked by the national executive committee, to the disgust of the rank-and-file. The employers refused a new national agreement and threatened court action and sequestration of TGWU funds if they went on strike. In the end, the executive committee called a ballot of the 9,000 members. There was strong support for industrial action to protect the Dock Labour Scheme. Sewell describes how the High Court in collusion with the government and bosses granted an injunction stopping the TGWU from taking action. Several docks went on strike but the leader of the union called for a return to work, which took the momentum out of the strike resulting in a drift back to work. The TGWU appeal at the high court was successful so another ballot for strike action was called, which was supported. By this point, the Dock Labour Scheme had already been abolished. The dock owners responded by sacking leading shop stewards and the strike was called off after 3 weeks. Sewell explains that the TGWU had the size and strength to defeat the government if it chose to use it but didn’t. The union was derecognised on the docks and there were redundancies. Casual labour returned to the 12,000 dockworkers nationally. The Tory government had isolated and defeat another section of the working class after the miners.

Strike figures had dropped to an all-time low by the end of the 1980s. It was not a good time for the Labour movement: “employers took advantage of mass unemployment and the compliance of the union leaders to relentlessly push through drastic changes in working practices, terms and conditions. Compulsory Competitive Tendering was introduced into local authorities, forcing down established conditions and wage levels. Personal contracts, part-time working and short-term contracts were also brought in across the board. Thus, the economic boom from 1982 onwards, was a boom at the expense of the working class. Under these conditions, workers had their heads down, hoping to survive, many hoping to see the election of a Labour government as a solution to their problems.”

Sewell description of the anti-trade union laws is worth quoting:

“The earlier Tory anti-union laws of 1980 and 1982 introduced a battery of changes to industrial relations. It limited picketing, banned secondary action, effectively outlawed the closed shop, watered down unfair dismissal procedures, repealed the 1975 Employment Protection Act, provided money for union postal ballots, and removed the legal immunity covering unions. The Tories introduced further anti-union legislation in 1984, 1988, 1989, 1990, and then later in 1993. These forced unions to hold regular secret ballots for union posts, ballots for political funds, secret ballots for strikes, abolished the post-entry closed shop, union officials were forced to repudiate unofficial strikes, the check-off system was undermined, the Bridlington Agreement was effectively scraped as workers were allowed to join a union of their choice, rules governing pre-strike ballots were further tightened, wages councils were abolished, and employers were allowed to offer workers financial inducements to leave their trade unions.

Over a fifteen-year period from 1980, seven separate pieces of Tory legislation were introduced to break the back of the trade unions and undermine collective bargaining. The restrictions governing strikes were so strict that the effective right to strike, with the necessary solidarity (“secondary action”), was largely undermined. As with much of the nineteenth century, after the repeal of the Combination Acts, legal trade unions existed but with either one or both hands tied behind their backs. These laws all added up to a “counter-revolution” against the trade union movement. They constituted the most important challenge to trade unionism for more than a century.”

Sewell is highly critical of the TUC leaders for their refusal to challenge the Tories and break the law. For Sewell, they were far too comfortable so preferred to have a dialogue with the government and therefore not risk trade union funds being sequestered. Sewell explains that the main motivation behind these new anti-union laws was for the ruling and capitalist class to reduce costs. He notes that revenge for previous defeats would have also played a small part.

Thatcher was forced to resign as Prime Minister in 1990 following a mass revolt against a new poll tax. John Major replaced Thatcher as Tory Party leader and Prime Minister. The Tories were very unpopular by this point but still managed to win the 1992 election. Kinnock resigned and was replaced by “the new Labour leader John Smith was a barrister and traditional Old Labour right-winger.”

A few months after the 1992 election, the Tory government announced the closure of 30 pits. In response, there was a mid-week demonstration in London of 50,000 miners. Under pressure from below, the TUC called a demonstration a few weeks later, 250,000 attended in the rain. The TUC refused to call any more demonstrations. Sewell argues that the failure to harness this potential was a waste opportunity. The government set up a Royal Commission to look into pit closures and buy time. The TUC went along with this. By 1993, even further pit closures were announced. There were some one-day RMT strikes in early 1993 but Sewell describes how the general limited fight-back from the Labour movement, allowed the Tories to move ahead with privatisation plans of gas, water, electricity and network rail.

Here is Sewell’s description of the 1992 economic crisis:

“In October 1992 the country was in the grip of a deep economic crisis. The Tories had taken Britain into the European exchange rate mechanism. However, with sterling over-valued and a budget deficit at unsustainable levels, the currency was subjected to a barrage of speculation. In the end Britain was forced humiliatingly out of the ERM, and the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, was forced to resign on this “Black Wednesday”. Fears of economic turmoil increased as interests rose to 15 per cent, to the dismay of the Tories.

The Tory government, which in the past had a reputation for financial competence, was shaken to its very foundations. From then on, everything started to unravel. Support for the Tories in the opinion polls collapsed, and they would continue to trail behind Labour for the following four-and-a-half years. It signalled the beginning of the end for the Major government, which staggered on from one crisis to another.”

(edit) Here is an article on how Asian workers fought racism on the railways in the 1980s and 1990s.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grunwick_dispute
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_of_Discontent and https://libcom.org/history/1978-1979-winter-of-discontent