Sat Feb 24, 2024
February 24, 2024

Lessons from the ‘80s

No trade unionist who seriously studies the political and industrial scene at the beginning of the 1980s and compares it with today can fail to draw the conclusion that the strength of the Thatcher Government and its capitalist policies has been solely due to the abysmal capitulations of the leadership of the trade unions and Labour Party.

By Bill Hunter – Britain (Posthumously)

It is a sorry tale indeed, but workers must not feel defeated but take lessons from this history and forge ahead today coordinating inter-union strike action – to build a general strike that the union and Labour leaders prevented in the 1980s.

From the time it assumed power, in 1979, the Thatcher Government began to consciously drive forward to what it hoped would be the final destruction of working-class strength. There was an economic recession at the beginning of the ’80s. Unemployment grew rapidly; closures took place on an unheard-of scale. The interests of steelworkers, car workers, miners, railway workers, dockers and other workers who were losing jobs were clearly linked. All were threatened by the Tory legislation which took away trade union rights won in struggles over many years. The burning task of leadership was to ensure a united struggle. Trade union leaders found themselves compelled to talk of joint alliances to defeat Government attacks. However, the “triple alliance” of coal, steel and rail unions which was set up never organised anything, and in the miners’ strike of 1984-1985, it ignominiously collapsed. There was no lack of opposition to the Government’s plans among trade union activists. In the first years of the Tory Government, hundreds of thousands marched against it.

The 1980s are a sorry tale of destruction by Labour Leaders of what could have been a mighty movement that could have shattered the Government. No trade unionist who seriously studies the political and industrial scene at the beginning of the 1980s and compares it with today can fail to draw the conclusion that the strength of the Thatcher Government and its capitalist policies has been solely due to the abysmal capitulations of the leadership of the trade unions and Labour Party.

In January 1980, a national steel strike began which lasted solidly for 13 weeks. It was the longest national strike, up till then, since the end of the Second World War. The steelworkers were demanding a 20 per cent wage increase. They were further incensed by the estimate at the beginning of 1980 that a quarter of a million jobs would be lost in the first three months of that year. The British Steel Corporation was planning for an initial loss of 52,000 jobs, with more to follow as productivity was increased. The Tory Government was beginning to push forward its main aim which was to destroy the strength of workers’ organisations. It was prepared to see the destruction of the British manufacturing industry, the foundation of the British economy, in order to destroy the organisations of the working class with militant traditions and strength. The ranks of the trade-union movement knew this and it was their feelings which were reflected in their leaders’ statements that they would be prepared to go to jail, rather than see their unions undermined and destroyed by anti-trade union laws. The next few years were to show how empty were those boasts. And yet we shall see in this brief chapter how the united struggle of dockers and miners alone, even after the TUC held back a unity of struggle in all sections, put the Government into desperate positions.

Union leaders oppose unity in struggle

When the working class began to develop unity in struggle, trade-union leaders were to show that their opposition to any united class movement equalled that of the Tories. In 1980 they prevented a general strike when there was a powerful solidarity movement developing from South Wales against the sackings in the mines and in the steel industry.

In face of the reaction of workers facing closures, the Welsh TUC declared support for an alliance in strike action of miners, dockers, railway workers and other transport workers unless steel and pit closures were halted. There was a united action of Welsh workers in a one-day strike at the end of the month that shook politicians and the press due to the depth of feeling it showed. As the following editorials show, there was a breath of revolution in the air as politicians, businessmen and the press faced the stark possibility of a general strike.

The Industrial Editor of the Daily Mirror commented on 29 January, “The unions fear, not without cause, that the explosion of fury which occurred in South Wales yesterday could spread throughout the country … That is why a powerful team of TUC leaders will see Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe later this week. Suddenly the scene has become more explosive and dangerous than anyone thought likely a few weeks ago.

The central desire of the TUC was to avoid sharp class confrontation. The Times of 30 January, commented on the anxieties of the trade union leaders as a general strike became a realistic possibility.

A general strike (said its main leader) “is essentially a revolutionary gesture and the leaders of the trade unions today are for the most part as far from being revolutionary as any group in Britain. The target of such an action would not be any ordinary employer, but the government, which holds the purse strings of the three industries most immediately involved. It would be a direct political challenge to the government’s ability to give effect to its policies in a major area of Britain. It is no wonder that the leaders of the TUC are frightened of losing control.

The trade-union leaders succeeded at that time once again in blocking the movement towards a general strike and then worked assiduously during the steel strike to undermine any unity in action. Leaders of the T&GWU, whatever their left reputations, practised the same policy. In March, dockers on Merseyside stopped work in support of 100 men laid off for refusing to unload imported steel. Dennis Kelly, chairman of Merseyside docks shop stewards, declared that the dockers were following an instruction of the T&GWU sent out the previous week, stating that its members should not move exports or imports of steel. By the next day, the Liverpool and Birkenhead docks were at a standstill. A mass meeting passed a resolution by an overwhelming majority calling for a national docks strike. Ancillary workers joined the strike and 9,000 workers were eventually out. A delegation of dockers went to meet T&GWU officials in London to demand a national stoppage. They were met by Alex Kitson, Deputy General Secretary, who told them there would be no immediate national strike.

In line with this, while the Merseyside strikers were given official backing, however, no further steps were taken by the union leadership to call other dockers out. The leaders of the union concentrated on settling the Merseyside strike as quickly as possible. Alex Kitson told the press that the postponement of the decision to call a national strike was because the union hoped fervently that talks in Liverpool might get dockers back to work. Merseyside was out for a fortnight. The steelworkers’ strike ended on 2 April. On the very day that the steelworkers took a decision to end the strike, the T&GWU withdrew support from the dockers.

During the miners’ strike of 1984-1985, other powerful sections of workers were in conflict with the Tory Government, railway workers, bus workers and dockers. The Labour Council of Liverpool was also in a sharp struggle with the government. The Thatcher Government defeated the miners because, with the aid of Labour and trade-union leaders, it isolated these sections from the miners, making small concessions on all these other fronts to forestall united action.

Soon after the miners’ strike began, the TUC, the Labour leaders and the leaders of the steel workers’ union were working to ensure that the Ravenscraig steel works in Scotland received a quota of coal. Eventually on 11 May agreement was reached to allow 18,000 tonnes a week into Ravenscraig by train. Meanwhile, the railway unions had called a work to rule. Jimmy Knapp of the National Union of Railway workers and Ray Buckton, General Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, whose unions were members of the alliance of steel and transport unions [1], made a defensive statement to the press denying that the action had been sanctioned as a result of requests from Mr A. Scargill. But the alliance of their unions with the miners had no purpose if it was not to answer each other’s requests for support. This was a denial that the alliance with the miners meant anything and a retreat before the concentrated offensive of the Tory Government against any unity of workers. We have to remember that these railway leaders were among those who made declarations of support for the NUM. Another member of the alliance—the steel union, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC), under the leadership of Bill Sirs, actively opposed it.

Knapp went on to say that the railway workers had their own dispute but added that there appeared to be growing unrest in the public sector against the Government. Surely a reason for jointly organising action? Militant rank-and-file railway workers were already refusing to move imported coal.

With no lack of cynicism, the leaders of the four transport unions —railway, road transport, and seafarers’ unions — met immediately, and made free with their words of support for the miners. They pledged renewed backing. However, although the miners had asked for sympathy stoppages, this was not agreed upon. Following the refusal of these leaders to pledge sympathy stoppages, and obviously not unconnected with their decision, Len Murray, the TUC General Secretary, increased the pressure against regional and unofficial stoppages in support of the miners. He issued a statement on 20 May disowning sympathy strikes, declaring that the actions of regional councils of the TUC in calling for stoppages of one day in support of the miners did not have proper authority. Nevertheless, on 21 May, thousands stopped work in South Yorkshire in a day of action, including bus crews, railway workers, local government employees and workers in engineering firms.

But the thoughts of the leadership were far from spreading the strike. On 1 September, Ron Todd, the general secretary of the T&GWU proposed talks to the British Steel Corporation to try to agree on quotas of coal. The British Steel Corporation management, having measured the mettle of the trade union leadership, declared dismissively that it was not interested in a deal to ration imported coal which had proved ineffective in the past.

The vacillation of the leadership meant that the strike, while still supported, was not getting the same widespread support as the stoppage a month before.

Bus and railway workers were in dispute over wages. We have heard Jimmy Knapp on the growth of opposition to the Tory Government in the public sector. The real linking of these movements of workers demanded a joint struggle. This, the leaders both of the Labour Party and the trade unions did not want. Quite the contrary, they consciously set out to destroy it. The Labour leader Neil Kinnock chose this time to make his sharpest attacks on Arthur Scargill to undermine support for the miners’ strike. On 16 September, he declared on television that Scargill was “destroying the coal industry single-handed” and that he was the nearest equivalent in the labour movement of a “First World War general.”

What a sorry tale of the destruction of movements of struggle and the wearing down of workers’ spirit by a conservative bureaucratic machine!


[1] – This alliance of three unions was sometimes called the “Triple Alliance”. It repeated the miserable history of the original ‘Triple Alliance’ of 1921, an alliance of the railway union, the transport union and the miners. The railway union and the transport union leaders refused the call of the miners for assistance on 15 April 1921. That day thereafter was known as “Black Friday,”

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