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Historic events :: Winter of Discontent
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Winter of Discontent
THE 1970s was a decade of capitalist crisis. Heath's Tory government was brought down in the 1974 miners' strike, sending shock waves through the capitalist class.
For many years, the central political question was the power of the working class - in the early 1970s, opposition to Heath's Industrial Relations Act had ruined his anti-union strategy. Now workers' industrial strength had brought down his government.
The 1973-74 oil crisis which erupted in the Middle East sent oil prices rocketing. In 1976 Callaghan's Labour government bent the knee to the International Monetary Fund implementing public spending cuts, showing clearly that power lay with finance capital, not right-wing Labour prime ministers.
Callaghan again sided with the bosses, bringing in three rounds of pay 'restraint'. Every year from 1975 to 1979 inflation soared by almost 16% but wages could not go up by more than 5% - in real terms this was a pay cut.
At the 1978 Labour Party conference, delegates decisively voted down pay restraint. Ford workers - already on strike - ignored the 5% limit. Solidarity spread as dockers and London TGWU members blacked Ford goods. Within a month, Leyland workers, bakery and British Oxygen workers had all joined forces with the Ford workers in smashing the 5%.
This was not reflected in the tops of the unions. Right-wing union leader Frank Chapple, head of the electricians' union EEPTU, could not find time to talk to his members, instead denying them strike pay. 200 furious stewards occupied EEPTU headquarters.
One of them wrote in Militant, the forerunner of The Socialist: "What the hell is going on? ... Doesn't Frank Chapple take notice of his members or even his own officials any more?"
In the same week Militant reported: "A scarred face, bruised limbs, torn clothes and eight arrests: that is the price of the right to strike and picket after the first few days at H.W.Neill (a London bakery) ... boots and fists flying, the police got four vans out. Charlie Shepherd, branch secretary, was knocked to the ground and kicked."
Compared to some of the union leaders Sam Maddox, general secretary of the Bakers Union BFAWU, put forward a clearer class position on the front page of Militant: "To make industry viable it has got to be nationalised. The nation's bread would thus be produced for need and not for profit. Our call goes out to all trade unionists for support. Our fight is your fight!"
The call was answered within days. Workers at the GKN 'defence' company struck against the 5% on 20 November. Eight days later, 3,000 print workers demonstrated in Fleet Street and lobbied Parliament.
In December the oil tanker drivers announced a nationwide strike. Labour ministers were panic-stricken. Tony Benn wrote in his diary: "15,000 troops would be deployed... The PM wants an emergency committee made up of (mostly right-wingers)... There will be an operations centre and something called the OSG - Organisational Sub-Group ... We shall meet on a daily basis."
Benn protested: "We must not run this like a military operation against an enemy." In fact it was precisely that - a military operation by the capitalist class against its class enemy, the striking drivers.
On 3 January 1979 BP drivers walked out in Northern Ireland. The next day Texaco drivers announced an all-out strike. By 5 January Benn recorded: "The Texaco strike is worse and Manchester, the North East and parts of Scotland are running out of oil."
Thatcher demanded a state of emergency and the withdrawal of social security from strikers. While the Emergency Committee met with the oil monopolies, Benn noted that "about half the oil company plants are closed either by strikes, like Texaco, or by picketing.
"Oil supplies are down to 50%; one-quarter of all filling stations are closed, in Northern Ireland there are no deliveries, as in the north-west, where supplies are down to 5%." The strike ended on 11 January with pay increases of 11%-15%.
That very day, lorry drivers began official TGWU action. As Benn pointed out: "There is no point in having a state of emergency for the road haulage drivers because the troops couldn't provide emergency coverage of that magnitude." The truckers' strike ended after eleven days, winning pay increases of 15% to 20%.
In the next three weeks there were four one-day rail strikes, local authority and health service workers struck as did school caretakers and maintenance workers.
On 22 January Militant reported: "The most impressive display of trade union solidarity ever mounted by public-sector manual workers... 80% of the workers concerned supported the call." 80,000 marched through London "shoulder to shoulder despite the bitter cold".
Yet incredibly Callaghan claimed: "There is no legal or moral obligation on anyone not to cross a picket line" and said that he would scab himself. This, from the Prime Minister of a Labour government sponsored by the unions! Little wonder that a February poll showed a 19% Tory lead, with Thatcher, then the leader of the opposition, more popular than Callaghan.
Towards the end of February, a civil service strike brought out 75% of unionised civil servants. The government lost a "no confidence" vote in the House of Commons on 28 March and called the general election for May.
Five days later, half a million civil servants were on strike. The civil servants' union CPSA won a 9% increase although they could have achieved more. Union members accepted, but out of realisation that "the leadership do not have the will to fight on and that they must accept a compromise."
Today the bosses, through their media, their mouthpieces in the Labour and Tory parties, and through their supporters in the trade union leaderships, all tell us the same old lie: the Labour government was brought down by the strike movement, that workers' struggles were a "mistake".
The truth is that the Labour government lost to Thatcher because it betrayed the workers. Millions of workers abstained in protest. It was Callaghan - and after him Foot, Kinnock and Smith - who paved the way for Blair and his destruction of all the Labour Party stood for.
The role of Callaghan's Labour government in the 1970s was a shameless abandonment of workers' struggles. Yet this has always been, and always will be, the role of the right-wing in the labour movement at the critical moments in struggle. The majority of full-time union officials, prefer a comfortable life on fat salaries. The idea of industrial conflict terrifies them.
As Militant pointed out during the 1976-78 dispute at Grunwick's in London: "it would take just the lifting of the TUC's and Labour government's finger to ensure victory... Meanwhile they stand aside and let trade unionists get beaten up by the British police force... If the enormous strength of the trade union movement had been brought to bear on the company, the strike could have been won... The TUC did not use the enormous authority it has in the eyes of millions... Frankly the leadership of the labour movement did not match up to the membership."
Today Ken Jackson plays the part of chief strike-breaker with his "no strikes Britain" and all the accompanying treachery. Other union leaders, however, are not far behind.
The unions are crying out for a principled lead in the fight for their members' rights, pay and conditions. The election campaign of Roger Bannister for UNISON general secretary continues to show the growing support of organised workers for a fighting and democratic leadership, and workers' anger at those right-wing union leaders who accept the bosses' dictats.
The battle does not stop with the trade unions. Another mantra of the bosses, echoed by their supporters in the Labour Party and the unions, is that "unions aren't political". This is nonsense.
The Winter of Discontent shows us precisely that the workers' struggles against the bosses are political. Ultimately this is the greatest political struggle of all.
The unions founded the Labour Party almost 100 years ago, to politically represent the working-class. Today, the Labour Party is dead for that purpose.
The hypocrisy and kow-towing to the bosses of Blair, of his Cabinet, and of his dwindling supporters, is that of pale blue Tories. Workers need mass political representation, through a determined, democratic, fighting and principled leadership. The most important task today is the creation of a new workers' party for the millions of workers inside the unions and in the wider working class who are trampled on by the bosses.
A mass workers' party will give us the voice and the organised strength we need to take on the capitalists.
Today, it is the forces grouped around the Socialist Party who still espouse the ideas of socialism and class struggle. The working-class is starting to move towards these ideas again - inside and out of the unions.
But workers' struggles can ultimately only end in success if we transform society - from the stinking nightmare of capitalism to a democratic socialist society with working class control and management. That is our aim. Join the Socialist Party, and join us in the fight to end all the poverty and misery of capitalism - the fight for a new socialist world.
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Article dated 28 January 2000
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
Lessons from history
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