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From: The Socialist issue 336, 28 February 2004: Global Warning: Profit Threatens our Future

Search site for keywords: Working class - Heath government 1974 - Edward Heath - Unions - Trade unions - Pay - Election - Miners - Strike - Labour

Working class history

When Workers Beat The Heath Government

THIRTY YEARS ago, Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath called a snap general election on the issue of "Who runs the country - the government or the trade unions?" Heath lost! 
ALISTAIR TICE looks at when the strength and power of the organised working class smashed anti-union laws, broke a pay freeze and brought down a bosses' government.

WHEN HEATH came to power in 1970, he promptly set about the task of restoring British capitalism's profitability just as the post-war economic upswing was running out of steam.

This meant confronting the power of the trade unions (with over 11 million members - nearly 50% of the labour force) and especially the shop stewards' organisations. Heath even said he was prepared to "face up" to a general strike if necessary.

His "no lame ducks" policy, where ailing or unprofitable firms were allowed to go bust, led to unemployment rising sharply to over a million for the first time since the 1930s. Wage controls were brought in to keep pay rises down and the Industrial Relations Act was framed to shackle the unions.

Workers' resistance to these policies grew and three great struggles forced the Tory government to make a 'U-turn'.

In 1971 the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in caught the imagination of millions and sparked a wave of factory occupations against redundancies and closures. Then in 1972, the first all-out miners' strike since 1926 broke the government's wage controls, winning a 22% pay rise - way over the 8% norm.

This historic victory was achieved through mass picketing of steelworks, major ports, power stations and coal depots. The strike's turning point came at the 'Battle of Saltley Gates'. Picketing miners (led by Arthur Scargill then Yorkshire NUM president) were joined by 10,000 striking Birmingham trade unionists who forced the police to close the Gas Board coal depot.

Afterwards Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maudling wrote: "some colleagues asked why I had not sent in troops to support our police. I remember asking them a simple question. If they had been sent should they have gone with rifles loaded or unloaded?"

In July 1972, the Industrial Relations Act was effectively defeated when unofficial mass strike action forced the immediate release of five dockers' shop stewards imprisoned in Pentonville jail for picketing in defiance of the anti-union laws.

Such was the spontaneous movement from below that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was forced to threaten a one-day general strike, but only when it was clear that the dockers were about to be released.

These battles were not isolated. Railworkers won a 13% pay rise. Building workers held a long strike where shop steward Ricky Tomlinson (later of Royle Family fame) was arrested and imprisoned as one of the Shrewsbury Two.

Militancy growing

TWENTY FOUR million working days were lost in 1972, a rise in militancy unprecedented for over 50 years. 

This radicalisation was reflected inside the Labour Party by a big shift to the Left. Indeed the 1972 conference passed a Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) motion calling for nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy.

Whilst not going that far, Labour's 1973 Programme was its most radical since 1945 including a commitment for public ownership of shipbuilding, the aircraft industry, pharmaceuticals, and North Sea gas and oil. The 1974 election manifesto talked of carrying out a "fundamental and irreversible shift in power and wealth" and being proud of its socialist aims.

However, the Labour government that followed, once the pressure of workers' struggles had abated, did not "squeeze the rich until the pips squeaked" as Chancellor Denis Healey promised, in fact they began 'free market' monetarist policies even before Thatcher!

Nevertheless, this period shows how the workers' movement could affect, influence and bring change in the Labour Party, unlike today when New Labour has become an openly capitalist party.

These industrial defeats forced Heath into a U-turn; he sought to embroil a compliant TUC leadership into tripartite talks with government and employers, from which emerged a new wage freeze followed by further pay restraint.

Temporarily this collaboration cut across the strike movement ("only" seven million days were lost in 1973, compared with one million days last year).

The BBC documentary True Spies revealed that National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) president Joe Gormley was a paid informer for the secret services throughout the 1970s. In July 1973 he met Heath privately in Downing Street to try to avert another strike. A Special Branch officer said: "He was very worried about the growth of militancy in his own union."

This militancy pushed other union leaders to the Left, such as Jack Jones of the transport workers and Hugh Scanlon of the engineering union. They were the 70s equivalent of the "awkward squad", but with the big difference of having powerful shop stewards' organisations and a combative membership behind them.

Even so, their limitations as Left but reformist leaders were exposed when trade union power raised the question of who runs the country? As Scanlon later admitted: "We looked over the precipice and didn't like what we saw." Later, Jones and Scanlon would be the architects of the Social Contract negotiated with the Labour government which led to voluntary wage restraint policed by the union leaders.

Two-day lockout

HOWEVER, THE British economy was in a dire state. 

The speculative property boom collapsed. The pound floated downwards by 20%. The balance of payments headed for a record deficit. Inflation was running out of control.

Then the Yom Kippur War in the Middle-East and the subsequent quadrupling of oil prices by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), tipped the world economy into its first simultaneous post-war recession.

So when the miners began an overtime ban in November 1973 the ruling class were determined that Heath should not back down again.

The ruling-class press raised the question of an "authoritarian solution" to try to avoid repeating the humiliations of 1972, although more thoughtful employers realised that you couldn't send 300,000 miners to jail.

Heath refused the TUC offer to treat the miners as a special case and gambled on trying to isolate and defeat the NUM. With electrical power engineers working to rule as well, the government declared a state of emergency and introduced petrol rationing, power cuts and 13% interest rates.

Then, ostensibly to save energy and conserve coal stocks, a three-day working week (in effect a two-day lock-out) was introduced to try to divide other workers from supporting the miners. However this backfired as other workers, even those made redundant by the crisis, backed the miners.

The Evening Standard reported the views from a London employment exchange, "To a man - and woman - they were behind the miners."

By now the ruling class were in a panic. Tory Industry minister John Davies told his family, "We must enjoy this Christmas for it may be our last one."

Sir William Armstrong, chief civil servant and head of Heath's think-tank, suffered a total mental and physical collapse, "being quite mad at the end" according to Whitehall inside sources.

Solidarity and confidence

AT THE beginning of February 1974, the NUM national ballot revealed a 81% yes vote for all-out strike action.

 Amidst growing power cuts and blackouts, Heath risked all by calling an emergency general election for the end of that month: "Who runs the country?"

The 1974 miners' strike was not as confrontational as in 1972 - the NUM leaders restrained picketing so as not to harm Labour's electoral chances. Yet the movement of coal was still halted because other trade unionists were right behind the miners and respected even token picket lines.

ASLEF members refused to drive a coal train under one bridge with an NUM lodge banner draped over it but no pickets in sight! Such was the feeling of solidarity and confidence, such was the anti-Tory mood among workers.

This was enough to finish Heath off at the polls, but Harold Wilson's low-key campaign, which emphasised sound management rather than Labour's radical policies, failed to enthuse voters. So Labour, with only 37% of the vote, scraped in forming a minority government on 4 March. Within a week most of the miners' demands were met, they returned to work and the three-day week ended.

This period showed who had the power in the land and that workers really could run the country. However, for that to be realised requires not just struggle and solidarity, but also a conscious socialist leadership which can overthrow the capitalist system not just one of their governments.

 







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