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Battle of Saltley Gate plaque

Battle of Saltley Gate plaque

On the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Saltley Gate, John Westmoreland recounts the tremendous events of 1972, when rank-and-file militancy and widespread solidar­ity struck a huge blow to the ruling class

As 2022 gets under way more and more workers are taking strike action in the face of a cost of living crisis presided over by a vicious Tory government.

In many ways this is similar to British workers in 1972 who came together from different industries to fight for better pay and defend their rights as trade unionists against the Tory government of their day.    

The workers in 1972 won some major victories! And that’s why the Tories refer to the 1970s as the ‘bad old days of trade-union power’. But we are not going to let our history be stolen from us. 1972 was a tremendous year for the workers and we remember their victories with pride, and so that we can learn lessons for today.

Confidence

When workers fight, having confidence in their cause is essential. From the end of the Second World War through to the late 1960s, British capitalism boomed. Profits were high, unemployment was low and that meant strikes over pay were usually short and successful.

As the 1960s came to an end, the boom petered out, and the bosses started to plead poverty. Both Labour and Tory governments wanted to maintain profits by redistributing national income in favour of the bosses.

Working-class resistance was inevitable. With 11,000,000 trade union members and 250,000 shop stewards, British workers were the best organised in the world. There was a clear understanding among militants – the most clued up section of the class – that any retreat would open the door to a wholesale employers’ offensive.

Then as now the money was there. Two huge victories, in the mines and one the docks, showed how to lead a fightback.

Rank and file leadership: the key to victory

In the fight to improve working-class living standards, then as now, the Labour Party had all the usefulness of a chocolate teapot. The ruling class obviously preferred the Tories. When Labour was in government they demanded that Labour must control the very workers who voted them in.

From 1964-70, the Labour government advocated wage controls and set out to limit trade-union power.  The trade unions, pushed by their rank-and-file members, refused to fall into line. Labour’s anti-union plan, called ‘In Place of Strife’, was killed off.

Working-class anger towards Labour saw the Tories get elected under Ted Heath in 1970. Heath continued where Labour left off. In 1971, the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act set out to impose legal constraints on trade-union power. It banned ‘blacking’: refusing to handle the work usually done by striking workers. It was to be backed up by the Industrial Relations Court that Heath hoped would terrify the union leaders, as it did.

However, the anger in the rank and file overcame the cowardice of the leaders. Throughout 1972, the union leadership tried to impose its will on the membership. They liked comfortable negotiations with the government and bosses. Without a strong rank and file, the leaders would have accepted Heath’s clamp down.

The miners’ strike

The key to the success of the miners’ strike of 1972 was that it was led by the rank and file. Contrary to popular belief, the National Union of Mineworkers was not a left-wing trade union. In fact, the miners’ leaders had swallowed the promises of the previous Labour government and this was disastrous.

In the six years Labour were in government, 211,900 miners’ jobs were lost while real wages fell. Thus the 1972 strike had built up in the pits as a fight for economic and social justice, a cause other workers recognised and supported. But sympathetic workers would never have been able to express their solidarity with the miners without meeting the miners face-to-face.

The miners had little need to picket the pits as the coalfields were solid. So the miners were sent out to picket industries that used coal, especially power stations. This gave rank-and-file miners the chance to put their case to other workers.

Solidarity can only be realised by asking for it. The London power-station shop stewards met with miners and agreed not to handle scab coal. The miners picketed lorry drivers delivering oil and acid to the power stations, and most drivers respected the picket line.

Transport workers, rail workers, and power workers responded to the call for solidarity brilliantly. When a scab lorry drove through pickets at Hackney power station, the workers responded by simply throwing the switches.

The workers developed a common understanding of the roles of the government and trade-union leaders through meetings and discussions. The BBC and the press were all against the strikers, calling them traitors who were holding the country to ransom. But because the miners’ pickets went out and asked for solidarity, other workers learned the truth.

The defining moment of the strike was when some 50,000 Birmingham engineers went on strike, and at least 15,000 of them marched to join miners picketing the Saltley Coke Depot. The massed ranks of the police were forced to withdraw. The miners’ victory was sealed.

The strike was about which side had the power to win. The government had the state: the police and courts. The miners had working-class solidarity, and this is a crucial lesson for strikers today.

Mass strikes free the Pentonville Five

Dock workers throughout their history had been forced to fight. By the 1970s they were a power with which to be reckoned.

Heath set out to break the dockers. The Industrial Relations Court found dockers in Hull and Liverpool in breach of the law and handed down a massive £55,000 fine. It enraged the dockers.

The Tories soon realised their mistake as dockers across the country came out. In panic, Lord Justice Donaldson quashed the fine, but only because he thought going after so-called ringleaders would be more effective. This was another huge miscalculation.

Dockers in Hull, Liverpool, and London met and together called a national dock strike that would stay out until all legal proceedings were dropped.

London dockers picketing Midland Cold Storage saw the company use the Industrial Relations Court.

On Friday 21 July, while their union leaders were in talks with the government, five rank-and-file militants, Tony Merrick, Con Clancy, Derek Watkins, Bernie Steer, and Vic Turner, were arrested and carted off to Pentonville prison. The legend of the Pentonville Five was born.

The Tories thought they were going to deal with the dockers in a courtroom, cut off from their mates. But rank-and-file dockers were having none of it.

Thousands of leaflets were produced and distributed at factory gates calling for solidarity strike action, or an unofficial general strike.

Fleet Street printers, Sheffield engineers, Inland Revenue workers, Scottish miners, and many construction workers walked out. British business was getting a taste of their own medicine.

It was too much for Heath who looked desperately for a way out that would save face. Within days the Tories invented someone called the ‘Official Solicitor’, who miraculously found that the Pentonville Five, as they were now known, had been wrongfully imprisoned.

The freed dockers were met with a mass of well-wishers and a huge celebration. The Tories’ Industrial Relations Act was in tatters.

Victory betrayed

The victories of 1972 were magnificent. Working-class strength thwarted the ambitions of the exploiters and privatisers.

But whereas the Labour and trade-union leaders did everything they could to discredit the workers and reassert their control over the movement, the bosses learned the lessons of 1972.

The result was the election of Margaret Thatcher who created high unemployment and used it to batter the trade unions, forcing down wages and losing whole industries that were deemed unprofitable.

Strikers today are confronting Thatcher’s legacy: low pay while the wealth of billionaires soars, anti-trade-union laws that shackle our democracy, and wholesale corruption in government.

Our answer is the rank-and-file leadership and solidarity that won in 1972.

Before you go...

Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!

John Westmoreland

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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