The ‘winter of discontent’: Lessons of the wave of class struggle in Britain 1978/9

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"Through press and parliament, television and trade union apparatus, all factions of the bourgeoisie are screaming with one voice: the lorry drivers, sewerage workers, ‘public sector' employees, Leyland car workers, dockers and dustmen are endangering the health of the ailing British economy with their strikes and militant actions.

It's true!

Just like the lorry drivers in Belgium, oil workers in Iran, steelworkers in Germany, miners in America and China, or the unemployed steelworkers in the north of France, the workers in Britain are answering the onslaught of capitalism's world-wide crisis by refusing to bow down before the ‘national interest', and are instead putting their own class interests first.

We salute these ‘wreckers' of the capitalist system!" (WR 22, February 1979)


Thirty years ago the working class in Britain launched a wave of militant strikes against crisis-ridden British capital in what became known as the ‘winter of discontent'. At its height this strike wave involved over 1.5 million workers in the largest work stoppage since the 1926 General Strike, and threatened to get out of the control of the trade unions; there was widespread use of the police as scabs and the army was put on standby.

For the British bourgeoisie, the ‘winter of discontent' has become a stark warning of what happens when ‘selfish' workers are allowed to fight for their own interests. Its propaganda about ‘the dead left unburied' and images of rubbish piled in the streets are wheeled out whenever trade unions make militant noises about pay claims.

For revolutionaries on the other hand, the ‘winter of discontent' shows very clearly that the working class can and must respond to the capitalist crisis; and that when it does, it will find itself facing not just individual employers but the full strength of the capitalist state apparatus. And above all it shows that when they wage their own struggle, the workers will confront the trade unions at all levels as an implacable enemy, forcing them to go beyond and against the unions and take control of the struggle themselves.

The ICC's section in Britain intervened actively in this strike wave, and this article draws heavily on the leaflets produced and articles appearing in World Revolution at the time.

The historical context of the ‘winter of discontent'

The winter of discontent was first and foremost part of an international wave of workers' struggles that shook the capitalist heartlands in the late 1970s. The key significance of these struggles was that they were primarily directed against the left and the unions.

After its right-wing factions proved poorly equipped to deal with the upsurge of class struggle in 1968-74, the bourgeoisie had made more and more use of its left-wing parties and of the trade unions in government, for example in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Britain, France, and West Germany. But after four years of implementing austerity measures, these left teams were becoming more and more exposed.

By the late 1970s the stakes were also getting higher for both classes. It was becoming clear to many workers that the capitalist crisis was here to stay: the bourgeoisie's economic ‘solutions' had been exposed as worthless and growing numbers of workers were refusing to go on accepting austerity measures which offered them nothing but a continual decline in living standards.

After 1974, the focus of class confrontation had shifted from the advanced centres of capital to the regions of the periphery. Throughout 1978 violent explosions of class struggle continued to occur in Tunisia, Peru, Brazil, India, and above all in Iran, but in the most decisive centres of world capital the proletariat also began to flex its muscles:

-in the USA, the militancy of a coal miners' strike inspired a rash of strikes throughout the summer on the railways, among municipal workers, papermill workers and in other sectors;

-in West Germany, strikes by printers, dockers and steelworkers shattered the Federal Republic's post-war image as a land free of social conflict;

-in Italy, the hospital sector was shaken by strikes which openly proclaimed their anti-union character;

-in France, elections were followed by a series of strikes in the car industry and among municipal workers. In Caen and Longwy demonstrating steel workers clashed violently with the police, and the unions and leftists did not hesitate in denouncing ‘irresponsible elements acting against the wishes of the unions' for daring to shatter the calm of the union-controlled demonstrations.

The resurgence of the class struggle in Britain

With less and less room for manoeuvre, economically and politically, the bourgeoisie increasingly needed to impose harsher austerity measures. Having picked off some of the weaker sectors of the working class and slashed the living standards of the petty bourgeoisie, the capitalist state had no option but to move in to attack the heart of the working class - the industrial proletariat.

In Britain, a Labour government had been working closely with the trade unions to impose austerity on the working class since 1974. Pressure was mounting from the working class for pay rises to catch up with inflation, which at its height in 1975 had reached over 26%. In an attempt to head off growing workers' anger, the TGWU union put in a claim for a 30% pay rise, and nationally the TUC took up a more militant pose against a further phase of pay limits. But the unions had lost a lot of credibility with the workers due to their collaboration with the government and their actions in isolating and undermining strikes. 

In the winter of 1978 the Labour government introduced a 5% limit on wage increases. The TUC rejected this and called for a return to ‘free collective bargaining' between unions and employers, so the unions could be given the job of policing wage cuts, agreeing productivity rises, ending restrictive practices, imposing no strike clauses and job flexibility, etc.

In September 1978, after they rejected a pay offer within the 5% limit, the Ford car workers became a test case to see how far the capitalist state could go in imposing the cuts demanded by the deepening crisis. If Labour succeeded in holding the Ford workers to the 5%, it could use this as an exemplary lesson to the rest of the class in the coming round of public sector pay claims; if the unions managed to break through the limit they would get a facelift and capital would get the money back through increased productivity ... with the whole package presented as a victory for the workers.

WR described the workers' reaction:

 "On Thursday 22 September, the toolmakers at Ford Halewood heard about the management's offer of 5% ... They packed up their tools and walked out. On Friday morning, 9,000 other Ford workers joined them; by Friday night it was 18,000 and soon after the weekend it was 57,000, following mass meetings at plants all over the country. All this with still one month to go on the last wages contract with its ‘no strike' clause." (WR 20, October 1978).

The Ford workers' action was unofficial. They were demanding a 25% pay increase and a 35 hour working week. The union ran to catch up and take control, making the strike official on 5 October. After negotiations between the union and the employers a 17% pay increase was agreed, but the shortening of hours was dropped. On the union's recommendation the workers returned to work on 22 November. 

There were also strikes at this time at other major industrial employers including Mackies, Reynalds, SU carburettors and Bathgate.

At the beginning of January 1979, fuel tanker drivers began an unofficial strike, after BP and Esso tanker drivers banned overtime in order to support a 40% pay increase.  Thousands of petrol stations were shut. Militant use of flying pickets ensured that the strike was effective, calling on other sectors of workers like the dockers to support the struggle. Picketing spread to refineries, ports, factories and even in some cases to entire towns which were ringed by determined workers. In Northern Ireland a state of emergency was declared and army called in. Again, the unions had to run to catch up. After just less than a month, with supplies transported by road brought to a virtual standstill, the drivers accepted a 20% pay deal.

In the weeks during and after the lorry drivers' strike, public sector workers, including low paid workers like gravediggers, also took strike action over pay. Several strikes of engine drivers and railway workers began, demanding 20% and a new bonus scheme. On 22 January a ‘day of action' organised by public sector unions saw mass demonstrations in many cities and 1.5 million workers out: the largest individual day's strike action since the 1926 general strike. Following the day of action many workers remained out on strike indefinitely. Some traditionally non-militant sectors of workers like the nurses and ambulance drivers also took action demanding pay increases.

By mid-February after weeks of negotiation the strikes officially came to an end with an agreement between the Labour government and the TUC. But many strikes did not end immediately and the strike wave only declined by the end of February, after a total of 29,474 million working days had been lost to strike action.

The trade unions: spearhead of the capitalist state's response

In its response to the strike wave, the bourgeoisie made selective use of repression, using the police and soldiers as scab labour, and putting the army on standby for use against the lorry drivers. Moves to strengthen anti-picketing laws were also put in hand. A relentless propaganda campaign was also orchestrated against the strikers, with all the media spreading the lie that the strikers were against the population, and against other workers, a selfish minority seeking to destroy the livelihoods of millions, and happy to watch the old and sick rot and die... As WR pointed out at the time, to create these lies, the bourgeoisie had only to describe its own attitude to society; in fact it was the capitalist state that was deliberately deflecting the effects of the strikes on to the population in order to mobilise opposition to the strikers.

But in the face of such strong militancy, it was the trade unions which acted as the spearhead against the workers' struggles. The unions had two aims: to maintain the isolation of different sectors from each other to prevent the strike wave generalising, and to curb the effects of the picketing to limit its extension. In the lorry drivers' strike, for example, regional emergency committees and patrols of union officials did their utmost to blunt the picketing.

Within the union apparatus a typical division of labour was revealed: the shop stewards were busy on the front-line trying to dampen the militancy of the strikes, while the higher echelons of the union machine attempted to tie down the struggles in a web of ‘negotiations' and agreements with the government and employers ... including a ‘code of conduct' for the class struggle! WR described how the shop stewards in particular helped to sabotage the Ford workers' action after the first spontaneous walk out:

"On the following Tuesday, the AUEW moved in to make the strike official for its 8,000 members, while the other unions dragged their feet. But although the union leadership took a bit of time to move in and take control of the situation, they had no need to worry. Their guard dogs on the shop floor - the shop stewards - had been quick off the mark. After the mass meetings called to back the walkout against the 5%, pickets were set up and everyone else went home. The whole momentum of the action was stopped like a billiard ball dropping into a pocket - the unions' pocket." (WR 20, October 1978).

The real lessons of the ‘winter of discontent'

For the British bourgeoisie, the resurgence of class struggle in 1978-79 showed the need for a new strategy that involved putting the Labour Party into opposition.

For the working class, the real lesson of the ‘winter of discontent' was that workers must spread their strikes across sectors and call on other workers to join the struggle, creating their own general assemblies and strike committees to coordinate the struggle outside of union control, including that of the shop stewards.

The defiance demonstrated by the working class in the ‘winter of discontent' amply reaffirmed the tendency towards self-consciousness and self-organisation within the proletariat's struggle. Despite a strong attachment to the trade unions as ‘their' organisations, the strike wave of 1978-9 revealed the increasing capacity of the British workers to challenge the unions' grip and take control of the struggle themselves, as shown in:

-the lorry drivers' so-called ‘secondary picketing' and their numerous refusals to acknowledge union dispensations

-the ambulance drivers' rejections of their stewards' calls to provide emergency cover

-the public sector workers' refusals to return to work after the union-organised ‘day of action'.

Above all, the strike wave in Britain in the winter of 1978-79 showed the real power of the working class to paralyse capitalism, and its potential to pose an alternative to a crisis-torn, decaying mode of production, as WR highlighted at the time:

"In the present wave of class struggle, the immense power of the working class is becoming an ever-more tangible reality. In Britain, the militancy of the lorry drivers' pickets threatened to bring the economy to a grinding halt in a few weeks: and it was the unions which saved the day for capital with their open attacks on the extension of the struggle. The frenzied response of the British bourgeoisie to these strikes was, in large measure, an expression of the real fear that the power of the working class instils in its class enemy. The present round of ‘industrial anarchy' proves beyond a doubt that only the working class has the capacity to paralyse the bourgeoisie and forestall its murderous designs." (WR 22, February 1979).

Thirty years on, while the threat of a third world war is not the same as it was in the 1970s, capitalism's ‘murderous designs' on the planet are even more apparent. And the need for the proletariat to exercise its power to paralyse capitalism is even greater. In the battles to come, the trade unions everywhere will once again be called upon to save the day for capital. The working class will need to draw the lessons of its past experience and take its struggle outside of and against the unions, and into its own hands.  

MH 26/11/8

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