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Arguments for socialism :: Workers
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AFTER THE successes of the council workers' and London tubeworkers' strikes, the media compared them to movements in the 1970s particularly the 'winter of discontent', the dirty jobs strike of 1979 against the Labour government.
However the capitalist press often hide the biggest industrial struggles and victories from the 1970s. Workers need to remember the nine months of almost constant strike activity by miners, dockers, car workers, engineers, railworkers and building workers 30 years ago in 1972.
Britain came within inches of a general strike which could well have rivalled that of France in 1968. Edward Heath's Tory government was humbled and its attempts to use the courts to control workers' activity shattered by mass defiance.
The Heath government had come to power with plans to control not just wages but, through their proposed Industrial Relations Act, the activities of the unions and individual workers.
They set up a National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) under the judge John Donaldson - this body featured time and again during 1972. The NIRC was to be the ultimate means of imposing wage restraint on the workers of Britain.
These were not the first attempts at such intervention - Harold Wilson's Labour government had first put the idea forward with the White Paper "In Place of Strife" but this attempt was quickly abandoned in the face of opposition by workers across the country.
This opposition continued after 1970 when the newly elected Tories put forward their proposals. Robert Carr. secretary of state for employment, told the TUC leaders that the government could not compromise - a statement he later said he regretted.
The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, an organisation set up by the Communist Party in 1966, agreed at a conference in November 1970 to call a one day strike on 8 December.
The TUC denounced this and strongly advised unions not to take part in any unofficial activities or stoppages of work. In the event between 350,000 and 600,000 stopped work in the biggest political strike since the 1926 general strike.
National newspaper production was stopped as print union SOGAT officially supported the strike, despite a court injunction. This forced the TUC to take up the campaign and the TUC demonstration on 21 February 1971 brought at least 140,000 onto the streets.
The Industrial Relations Act finally became law in August 1971 and would be implemented in stages, coming fully into effect on 28 February 1972.
THE 1971 miners' pay campaign started with an overtime ban. This had a dual effect of reducing stockpiles of coal and showing miners just how low their pay was without bonus payments. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) Executive committee gave notice that the strike would start on 9 January 1972.
The call was taken up and every pit was closed from day one. 50% of pits lost safety cover due to vigorous picketing. Only 38 out of 289 pits had cover after the first week of the strike.
The secret new ingredient was the flying picket - a concept which first emerged in the 1969 strike. Pickets could be dispatched, often in large numbers, around the country and picketing was taken up on a 24-hour basis.
Pickets appeared at power stations and coal depots across the land and on the Thames, Kent miners developed the miners' navy to picket the riverside wharves of the big power stations. An estimated 40,000-60,000 miners were engaged in picketing.
By February the CEGB declared itself in a state of siege. Supplies to the power stations hit by blacking included not just coal but oil and other essential materials for cleaning. Miners were assisted by other workers.
TUC policy was for no crossing of picket lines and in the power stations this position was assisted by the power workers' own work to rule and overtime ban in their pay campaign. Indeed the country came within a whisker of a power strike when power workers' negotiators tied on a strike vote.
The casting vote fell to Frank Chapple right wing leader of the electricians' union. He said: "Such dual action would be seen as a challenge to the state, tantamount to a general strike... Industrial action for political ends is alien to me and so far it is alien to the TUC".
Heath's government was terrified of the growing mood - there had already been voltage reductions, a prelude to power cuts. The following day a state of emergency was called.
On the railways the movement of coal was blacked - it would take only one or two miners to stop a train leaving the depot. Similar stories were told by lorry drivers. Vouchers were issued for emergency services and pickets would on occasions accompany deliveries to check they were not going to power stations.
A PICKET had been placed on the West Midland Gas Board Coke Depot at Saltley Gates following information from the local Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) especially supporters of Militant, The Socialist's predecessor. At first it made little impression so discussions were held with the local secretary of the Communist Party (CP), an ex-miner Frank Watters.
In 1972 the CP - despite its political weaknesses - still had around 800 members in the Birmingham area, many of them convenors and leading stewards in factories. This activist network was used to publicise the miners' case - a young Arthur Scargill from Yorkshire NUM was placed in charge of picketing.
Miners toured Birmingham workplaces and spoke at meetings. Birmingham Trades Council placed an advert in the local Evening Mail calling for solidarity and support for the mass picket that Thursday, 10 February.
The picket swelled through the week but with 1,000 police in attendance a higher level of solidarity was needed. As the mass picket loomed, the Chief Constable said that the depot would close over his dead body.
Scargill described the scene of 3,000 miners "then a single banner came over the hill... As far as the eye could see it was a mass of people. There was a huge roar from the other side of the hill ... they were coming from every direction."
From early that morning there had been meetings in the factories where stewards convinced members to support the miners. Police records claimed 15,000 at the peak.
Scargill goes on "everybody was chanting... some were chanting 'Heath out, Tories out, Support the miners'. I got hold of the megaphone and I started to chant 'close the gates' and it was taken up like a football chant.
"Each time they chanted it they moved and the police, who were four deep, couldn't help it they were getting moved in and the Chief Constable said 'close the gates' and they swung them to. Hats were in the air. Absolute delirium on the part of the people who were there."
The picketing continued but the government's resolve was broken. The settlement talks at Downing Street were appropriately held by candlelight due to a power cut. The Wilberforce report gave a substantial increase. The miners had emerged out of the years of accepting low pay and pit closures - in reality a new union was born.
THE DOCKERS' fight revolved around the Industrial Relations Act. Dockers were locked in a fight for jobs and against the effects of containerisation, which transferred many dock jobs inland. Between 1966 and 1972 20,000 dockers' jobs had been lost.
On 26 January a one-day unofficial strike was supported by 25,000 and on 7 March 14,000 London dockers struck. Workplace organisation was primarily unofficial, with the ban on Communists only being lifted after Jack Jones was elected TGWU General Secretary.
The main dockers' union, the TGWU, was on the front line against the NIRC and its members' actions brought the first fine. The TUC policy was for non-registration with the Court and non-attendance at hearings.
But this policy was coming under strain especially when a union of the TGWU's size risked fines or loss of its funds. It felt ultimately it couldn't support the TGWU because of threats to its own funds and those of other member unions.
TGWU members expected the national leadership to launch a national strike but they continued to drag their heels. Meanwhile on 1 May Southampton dockers struck against the fine while Preston and Merseyside dockers struck to celebrate May Day.
The national port shop stewards extended the blacking to two transport firms in each port. In Hull this lead to another court case which Walter Cunningham, chair of the Hull stewards refused to attend. A meeting in Hull saw him refuse to pay the fine and go to jail if necessary.
With the national unofficial campaign extended London docks stewards had selected Dagenham Cold Storage and UK Cold Storage. However few drivers were honouring the ban. It was decided to picket the depots directly.
Picketing began at Chobham Farm in Stratford, East London, where lorries turned away from the port had been diverted. A mass picket of about 1,000 started on 6 June.
Soon the number of lorries crossing the picket line were reduced and the company offered to do a deal with the union to take on registered dockers and gradually phase out non-dockers who were paid considerably less. The stewards insisted there should be no job losses amongst the existing workers.
The Chobham Farm drivers and warehousemen - also in the TGWU - didn't believe this and went to the NIRC for an order to stop the dockers picketing. The Court obliged naming the port stewards and three dockers but not the TGWU.
Militant at the time suggested a conference of dockers and Chobham Farm workers on the issue of containerisation to work out a common policy in opposition to the employers.
The court of appeal, anxious to try to uphold the legal system's increasingly fragile claim to impartiality, overturned an earlier judgement of the NIRC and reversed the fines on the union saying that unions weren't responsible for its shop stewards actions and that it was unjust for the union to be penalised simply because it was not registered.
Government minister Robert Carr called the decision "a torpedo below the waterline and effectively destroyed government policy." Redress could now only come against individual workers.
The NIRC now took out an order against the three pickets threatening them with imprisonment for contempt of court if they failed to attend the court by 16 June. The national stewards met and called for indefinite strike action if any of the three were imprisoned.
Strikes broke out across the country involving 35,000 dockers. These were joined by car workers at Longbridge. On the Friday the stewards joined the mass picket at Chobham Farm to await the court tipstaff who was to make the arrests. But no arrests took place.
A shadowy figure - the official solicitor - enters the scene. He instructed the TGWU lawyers to apply to the Court of Appeal to have the orders set aside on a technicality for lack of evidence to justify imprisonment.
Judge Denning explained "we were influenced by the state of the country, by the realisation that there would be a general strike, which would paralyse the whole nation." This merely delayed the inevitable by a couple of weeks.
At Chobham Farm a deal was signed to take on registered dockers while the existing workforce were given alternative jobs.
ON 4 July Midland Cold Storage applied to the NIRC for an order to stop picketing. The court summoned seven dockers to appear. They didn't attend so a court order banned them from picketing or encouraging others to picket the company.
They ignored the order and continued picketing. The dockers were convinced that the government was now on the road to confrontation. The company returned to court and on Friday 21 July Donaldson issued warrants for the arrest of five dockers.
After the decision there were immediate stoppages of work in London and a mass picket at Midland Cold Storage. Four of the dockers were arrested that day and placed in Pentonville prison. The fifth, Vic Turner, appeared in the picket line at the prison the next day.
The dockers shifted picketing to the prison itself. Strikes broke out in Liverpool, Manchester and Hull with the other scheme ports joining by Monday. 40,000 dockers were estimated to be on strike.
From the prison, delegates were sent out to argue for solidarity action. One group descended on Fleet Street, home of the national press. Through a series of impromptu meetings the papers were brought to a halt.
Across the country around 90,000 workers were on indefinite strike by the time the five were released on 26 July. 250,000 had come out for one or two days and the South Wales miners executive had agreed to call its members out. A demonstration to the prison attracted 30,000 workers.
In the light of this revolutionary wave the TUC, having argued against any solidarity action, were forced to call a one-day national stoppage for the following Monday. On the same morning 26 July the Law Lords overturned the Court of Appeal's decision and ruled that the TGWU was responsible for its members actions.
Thus the case against the five dockers collapsed and they were released from prison. The decision was rushed through at the start of the summer recess. The release of the five - Derek Watkins, Bernie Steer, Vic Turner, Con Clancy and Tony Merrick - was met by jubilant scenes. The next day the official national dock strike began.
1972 also saw the struggles of the Manchester engineering workers and a series of sit-ins or occupations of factories.
On the railways the government used first the 'cooling off period' provisions of the Industrial Relations Act and then forced a ballot on railworkers' pay which made this a contest between workers and government. The result was a resounding defeat for Heath and his incomes policy.
From August to September the building workers' strike showed a huge wave of action by members at the grassroots. Once again the use of flying pickets enabled a lot of sites to be pulled out on strike. A number of crane-top protests also brought publicity and increased workers' confidence.
The year showed the power of the working class once it's on the move and the ruling class's powerlessness in the face of such a movement. It showed the ingenuity of workers and the importance of organisation.
Thirty years on, the recent strikes involving up to a million workers, most of them low-paid, show that the effects of the 1990s and the baleful effect of the pro-Blairite trade union leadership are beginning to be sloughed off.
As we prepare for future battles the present generation of workers should learn from the 1972 strike movement.
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Article dated 26 July 2002
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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