Forty years ago this month, the power of the organised working class was demonstrated outside a West Midlands fuel depot. The lesson was not lost on both unions and bosses. The example of Saltley Gate remains as relevant today as ever in the face of renewed attacks by the bosses and their government on the working class. Terry McPartlan looks back at the events of February 1972.
For trade unionists today the events of 1972 represent a vision of what is possible with good organisation and a clear strategy. These lessons won’t be lost on the Sparks and the public sector workers. By 1970 it was clear that the world boom was coming to an end. The ruling class saw the need to confront the working class and drive down living standards in order to restore their profits. Their chosen instrument in Britain was the Tory government under Heath, elected in 1970.
But their plans unravelled once they actually tried to implement them. Waves of industrial struggle and unrest reached a pitch not seen since the General Strike in 1926. The 1972 miners’ strike represented the first national action by the NUM since 1926. Coal held huge strategic importance for power generation and domestic heating. In 1972 central heating was a luxury and “smokeless zones” were new fangled ideas. The miners had immense industrial muscle, even with a right wing leadership.
Inflation was high so the demand of the 280,000 strong NUM for a 47% pay rise was entirely reasonable. The right wing heavily dominated the union executive by 26 to 8. But younger activists in the areas had tapped into the militant mood. After a two month overtime ban and a 58.8% yes vote in a pithead ballot, the strike began on January 9th.
In Yorkshire, the idea of flying pickets had taken off as in the 1969 unofficial miners’ strike, extending nationally. Coal was quickly stopped as trade unionists in other industries, respected the NUM picket lines. Throughout early 1972 workers’ confidence was massively boosted.
Heath was clear what the government was facing: “Sure handling of the dispute was of critical importance in the government’s continuing success in holding down wage levels.” He contemplated using troops against the strikers. He told the cabinet, “It is important that the government is not seen to be weakening.”
But, the initiative lay with the NUM a top secret report explained: “If this sort of attitude is pressed too far, the social consequences are unpredictable.” The Tories were facing a potential social explosion, even a general strike.
The strike was completely solid and the miners turned their attention to the coal stockpiles. This was extremely effective, as the flying pickets had cars and other means of transport and were able to stop coal for power supplies. The NUM had hoped that the power workers would strike over pay but they settled at the beginning of February.
Widespread solidarity actions began to emerge. This was a sign of what was to come. The miners’ next target was the last open fuel depot in the West Midlands at Saltley Gasworks in Birmingham. Pickets began to gather, on Tuesday 8th February. 1,800 Midland car delivery workers came out on sympathy action. Next day Heath declared a state of emergency. The response was rapid; a shop stewards’ meeting called out 40,000 engineering workers in a sympathy strike and mass demonstration, finishing up at the Saltley depot.
Almost all the engineering workers in Birmingham came out and 10,000 joined the march where there were already 2,000 miners at the gates. The 1,000 police were powerless:
‘At first there were only ten of us, then twenty, fifty, five hundred and finally ten thousand. That is how the picketing built up outside Saltley coke depot. Men from Dunlop, British Leyland, Rover, Drop Forge, GEC, etc. were there. Birmingham industry was at a standstill and ten thousand people flooded the square outside the depot, stopping the movement of traffic. The police closed the gates for the day. Victory was ours. I cannot describe to you the feeling of joy, relief and solidarity that descended over all of us there. Leaflets I brought to hand out were taken out of my hands in bundles by total strangers, who distributed them for me – it was like what Petrograd 1917 must have been!’
Bob McKee, Militant 18/2/72
Arthur Scargill described what happened next:
“Some of the lads’ were a bit dispirited’ And then over the hill came a banner and I’ve never seen in my life as many people following a banner. As far as the eye could see it was just a mass of people marching towards Saltley’ Our lads were jumping in the air with emotion – fantastic situation’ I started to chant’ ‘Close the Gates! Close the Gates! And it was taken up, just like a football crowd.”
The game was up. The Chief Constable ordered the gates to be closed. Within days fuel supplies were so low that many companies were forced onto a 3 day week. The Tories were forced to back down. To escalate the situation, through the use of troops for example, would have been disastrous. As the Home Secretary Reginald Maudling admitted to the cabinet:
“Its enforced closure represents a victory for violence against the lawful activities of the gas board and the coal merchants. This provides disturbing evidence of the ease with which, by assembling large crowds, militants could flout the law with impunity because of the risk that attempts to enforce it would provoke disorder on a large scale.”
The Tories were panicked; they set up a court of Inquiry under Lord Wilberforce to settle the dispute. By magic the NUM were declared a “special case” and picketing was suspended when the Inquiry recommended a 20% rise. Cabinet Minister Willie Whitelaw admitted that ‘Even then further concessions were exacted by the NUM in Downing Street talks before a settlement was concluded.’ (The Whitelaw Memoirs, p.124, London 1989)
Heath was humiliated. The miners had smashed the pay restraint policy and had won a 21% pay increase together with other concessions.
The crisis in British capitalism drove the bosses to attack the unions to preserve their class interests. The miners won an important victory, even if their initial demands had not been met in full. Tory attempts to shackle the unions and impose pay restraint were shattered. They completely underestimated the miners combativity and the solidarity of other workers.
The strike was a watershed; a clear example to other sections of the working class, particularly with respect to the mass pickets. Some 46 years after the cruel defeat in 1926, the miners had taken their rightful place in the vanguard of the British working class.
This article was first published in Socialist Appeal
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This post was written by Terry McPartlan