‘Stuff your 5%!’ Is the UK facing a summer of discontent – and what can we learn from the winter of 1979?

‘Stuff your 5%!’ Is the UK facing a summer of discontent – and what can we learn from the winter of 1979?

Striking nurses and barristers in 1979 and 2022

Transport workers, barristers, doctors, teachers, nurses, civil servants: if they haven’t yet voted to strike, they’re likely to do so. The last time anything like this happened, it brought down the government …

The winter of discontent of 1978-79 happened so long ago. In some ways, Britain was very different then: in its familiarity with trade unions, its politics and work habits, its distribution of power and wealth. Some of the long-dead shop stewards and union leaders who led the walkouts that winter, and who considered what they were doing completely normal and justified, would probably be surprised that we are still talking about them.

But we are. For a lot of politicians, journalists, employers, trade unionists and voters, some of whom were not even alive when it happened, the winter of discontent remains a reference point: an infamous or celebrated episode, either something to repeat – a model for turning this year’s strikes into a “summer of discontent” – or something that must never happen again. In short, it is seen as one of the past half-century’s pivotal events.

The reputation is justified. In 1979, which included the winter of discontent’s most active phase, almost 30m working days were lost to industrial action – the biggest annual total since the 1920s. On their own terms, many of the strikes were successes. At a time of high inflation, just like today, they won wage rises that matched or exceeded the rising cost of living for millions of workers, many of them low-paid, many of them women. Care workers, cleaners, nurses, caretakers, traffic wardens, airline pilots, ambulance drivers, dinner ladies: the strikers were much more diverse and often more deserving than the caricature of greedy, macho union bullies drawn at the time and since by rightwing journalists and historians and by Conservative politicians.

Public sector workers march on parliament in January 1979

Yet the disruption also brought down a Labour government – and brought Margaret Thatcher to power. In effect, it ended the imperfect compromises between workers, employers and politicians that had made Britain an economically middling but steadily fairer society for much of the 20th century. Those compromises were replaced by the world of work we know now: employer-dominated, individualistic, often insecure and poorly paid, and disciplined by what Tony Blair described approvingly in 1997 as “the most restrictive [union laws] in the western world”. Although the cost of living crisis has been the trigger for this year’s strikes, it is this harsher employment culture that many walkouts are really about.

The winter of discontent lasted for only a few months. But, without it, Britain might have remained more like other European countries, with their sometimes more collaborative and less class-divided and hierarchical economies. Long before Brexit, it set us on a different path.

All the damage the winter of discontent did to the left and all the ways it helped the right – and the fact that these consequences were not intended – meant that trade unionists were cautious for decades about trying to stage anything similar. Meanwhile, Britain’s anti-strike legislation tightened relentlessly. Last week, Boris Johnson’s dying government still found the energy to pass a law allowing agency workers to replace strikers. Union membership has also declined, to about half its level in 1979. Large-scale strike campaigns have seemed increasingly difficult.

Yet, this year, the mood in many unions has changed. Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite, the biggest private-sector union, did not disagree last week when a BBC interviewer suggested that Unite and other unions were threatening a summer of discontent. Strikes are scheduled, or likely to be approved, by transport workers and firefighters, barristers and doctors, Post Office workers and teachers, council workers and civil servants, BT engineers and nurses. All the talk about a summer of discontent may turn out to be an understatement: the stoppages are likely to continue into the autumn and beyond.

The legal and political environment may be much more hostile to unions than in the 1970s, but many of their members are becoming financially desperate – and therefore more prepared to strike than for decades. Unlike in the 1970s, which was a generally good period for wages, average pay in Britain has been falling behind inflation for more than a decade – since long before the cost of living crisis was properly recognised. A majority of people in poverty are in a household where at least one person is working. These worsening trends have created the conditions for a return to workplace militancy. But this time it is a militancy born of vulnerability rather than strength.

Partly for this reason, so far the strikers have received a lot of public sympathy – much more than the government or most of the media expected. The polling company Savanta ComRes found that even 38% of Conservative voters considered the highly disruptive rail strikes to be justified. Among younger people, support was much higher: 72% of under-35s backed the walkouts. These levels of support are despite the fact that three-quarters of British employees and an even larger proportion of self-employed workers are not union members. The strikers’ complaints about worsening pay and conditions and workplace pressures reflect a wider dissatisfaction.

Ford workers come out on strike in September 1978.

The 4.6 million people who took part in the winter of discontent began their strikes in a very different context. Not only was Labour in power, but it had also won four of the previous five general elections. The unions were at their peak, in terms of membership, social profile – some of their leaders were among the best-known people in the country – and political influence. Since 1974, an agreement had existed between the unions and the government called the social contract, which committed the party to policies the unions wanted, such as the repeal of Conservative anti-union laws and more spending on state benefits, in return for the unions accepting pay rises no higher than inflation. Such agreements worked reasonably well in other European countries and initially that was the case in Britain. An almost constant dialogue took place between union leaders and ministers, which would be inconceivable in Britain today.

By 1978, however, resentments had built up on both sides. The prime minister, Jim Callaghan, wanted to make the social contract stricter on pay, while the unions wanted it to be looser. With inflation at 8%, the government told the unions that pay rises could be 5% at best.

In September, workers at the carmaker Ford – which until then had been close enough to Callaghan to employ his son as an executive – rejected a 5% pay offer and went on strike. More than 50,000 people stopped work. “Stuff the 5%” said their placards, suggesting that the strike was against Callaghan’s pay policy as much as Ford’s. After two months, the company offered the strikers 17%, which they accepted. A precedent had been set. “We’ve acted as a spearhead,” a triumphant Ford union official told the Communist party journal Marxism Today. The winter of discontent was under way.

Between November and March, strikes spread all over the country. Often they were spontaneous, almost anarchic, called without formal votes or even permission from union headquarters. “Traffic wardens disappeared from the streets this afternoon so that [they] can attend a mass meeting … to negotiate a pay deal,” reported the Evening Standard on 15 January 1979. The laws that today require strikes to be publicised well in advance and carefully controlled, right down to how much noise pickets can make in residential areas, did not yet exist.

In the 1970s, as for much of the postwar period, strikes were not seen as a separate and dubious category of political activity, to be barely tolerated if not banned altogether, as they have been seen by many Britons since. Strikes in the 1970s were often disruptive, sometimes resented and sometimes damaging to the country, but they were seen as part of everyday political and economic life – the workers having their say, as other interest groups did. The sudden interest this summer in the shrewd arguments made about our dysfunctional rail industry by Mick Lynch, the laconic general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), might just be the beginning of a public realisation that workers having a bit more say would be no bad thing.

Yet at times during the winter of discontent, in the most affected parts of the country, the strikers became not just one interest group but the dominant one. In the then isolated port city of Hull (the Humber Bridge had not yet been completed), a small number of union activists from the local trucking industry organised a strike so powerful in its impact that for five weeks they in effect controlled much of the economy and daily life of the city. Pickets all over Hull stopped lorry drivers moving goods. Meanwhile, a “dispensation committee” of shop stewards, sitting behind a table in the local union office, received a daily queue of businessmen and other supplicants and decided which goods could and couldn’t be delivered.

Mick Lynch, the general-secretary of the RMT, joins the picket line at King’s Cross station in London last month

Faced with the small, politely behaved pickets that strikes usually produce these days, it is hard to imagine such an expansive, almost revolutionary display of worker power. When I interviewed some of the former Hull strikers for When the Lights Went Out, a book about Britain in the 1970s, they had mixed feelings about what they had done during the winter of discontent. “In many ways … I’ve regretted it,” one said. “But it was so effective … The employers, they were so humiliated. It was the world turned inside out.” The strike also got the Hull truckers a pay increase of 22%.

An unusually cold winter sharpened the effects of the walkouts. Cargoes that had not been unloaded froze in the docks. Across the country, the sense of Britain grinding to a halt, which snow brings regularly, became hard to separate from the impact of the strikes. Schools closed, hospitals struggled, supermarket shelves emptied, fuming queues formed for petrol – and the rightwing press presented it all as dramatically as possible. There were strikes and other workplace disputes at several of these newspapers, which swelled the outrage of their editors and commentators at the walkouts in general.

A summer of discontent may feel less grim. As demonstrated by the lack of public panic – and even a slightly festive atmosphere in places – during the first RMT strikes this year, it can be easier for people to improvise around the obstacles that strikes create, or use the strikes as an excuse for skiving, when the days are long and the sun is shining. Also, thanks to Covid, the malfunctioning global economy, and the chaos and cuts of 12 years of Conservative government, Britons have got used to shortages and crises. Strike disruption this year may not shock or even register particularly strongly.

At least, not at first. Strikes can wear people down or gradually wind them up. During the winter of discontent, the opinion polls showed little change for the first few weeks, with Labour and the Conservatives roughly level. But in January 1979, as the strikes dragged on and Thatcher began presenting herself more forcefully as the solution to the unions being “above the law”, support for the Conservatives surged and support for Labour, which many voters now considered too weak towards the unions, fell steeply.

It did not recover. Anger at the strikers spread across the political spectrum, from the anarchist film director Lindsay Anderson, who attacked them as “materialist” and “sectarian”, to Philip Larkin, who called them “lower-class bastards” in a letter to his equally rightwing friend Kingsley Amis.

In late February and early March 1979, the strikes gradually subsided, usually thanks to the award of above-inflation pay rises. The idea that greedy unions had bullied the government – and that that was all the winter of discontent had been about – became fixed in the minds of many Britons and has remained there since.

Yet this year, when the Conservative party and its press allies have tried to compare the new generation of strikers to their late-1970s forebears, the connection has not resonated. Too much has changed. The Conservatives, not Labour, are in power – and are therefore at least partly to blame for any problems with what is still called industrial relations (British industry having been largely dismantled under the Conservatives). Large swathes of the economy are no longer controlled by “union barons”, if they ever were. To many voters, union-bashing no longer seems brave and iconoclastic but rather, given how much weaker unions have become, a form of bullying.

The winter of discontent still has things to teach us – about the liberations and limits of worker power and how rebellions can go wrong. But an earlier, less remembered 1970s walkout may prove to be more relevant. For the first four years of the decade, Britain had a Tory government, led by Edward Heath. In 1974, with inflation rising, the economy sinking, the Conservatives divided and Heath’s popularity falling, he tried to turn a strike by the National Union of Mineworkers to his advantage.

But the strikers did not misbehave on the picket lines, as the government had expected. Much of the public supported them. In February, Heath called an early election. In a special TV broadcast, he said that voters had to chose between his government, which would “fight strenuously against inflation”, and “one particular group of workers”. He lost the election. Any would-be union-bashers among the Conservative leadership contenders may want to take note.