The Cabinet Papers banner

1960s and 1970s Radicalisation

In 1979 trade unionist and shop steward Derek Robinson (Red Robbo) demonstrates against his sacking by British Leyland.
In 1979 trade unionist and shop steward Derek Robinson (Red Robbo) demonstrates against his sacking by British Leyland.
©TopFoto

In the late 1960s government and unions began to grow apart. Strikes increased, and in 1970 over 10 million working days were lost through strike action, including those of nurses and electricity workers. A number of these strikes were unofficial and not supported by unions.

In the 1960s new technology put an emphasis on efficiency and productivity. Unions had to work hard to organise re-training for members made redundant by new methods and techniques.

Shop stewards

Adding to union militancy was the increasing importance of 'shop stewards' - employees but also union officials. They were especially powerful and influential in large industries, particularly those that were nationalised. Critics of trade unions saw shop stewards as dangerous activists who were eager to make trouble.

They were closely associated with the union practice known as the closed shop, which meant a worker could not be employed in a particular factory or production line unless he was a member of the relevant union. Another practice associated with shop stewards was demarcation - when one type of worker was not allowed to do the work of another. 

If we look back on union history we can see why unions acted in this way: employers had a long history of undercutting the job security of workers. At the same time, however, these restrictive practices frustrated employers.

Union reform fails

Trade unions were now very much part of Britain's political and industrial life. The new Labour leader, Harold Wilson, won the general election in1964. One of his reforms was the Prices and Incomes Act. The aim was that all wage and price rises had to be approved by a National Board for Prices, but in practice the idea was unworkable.

In 1968 Labour's Employment Minister, Barbara Castle, wrote a paper called 'In Place of Strife'. She suggested ballots before strikes and a 28-day cooling off period before action was taken. Her aim was to prevent the unofficial strikes and lightning strikes that stopped production without notice. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) rejected the idea and pressured Wilson into scrapping it by threatening to withdraw the unions' financial support from Labour.

Industrial policy and discontent

In 1971 a new Conservative government under Edward Heath pledged to tackle union power, and passed the Industrial Relations Act. This act outlawed the closed shop, made ballots before strikes compulsory and set up an Industrial Relations Court to judge cases where unions were supposed to have broken an agreement. The Act was challenged by unions, who saw it as a restriction of their freedom to negotiate. Some employers also criticised it.

Following Heath's policy of trying to keep wages and inflation down, in January 1972 a national coal strike began. The National Coal Board offered the miners an 8 per cent rise, but the miners rejected it. Bad weather helped their cause, and soon the country was faced with electricity cuts. The miners showed great unity, and by using flying pickets (men who moved from one site to another) they were able to strangle the movement of coal to power stations. After six weeks the miners had won a complete victory: they squeezed over £116 million pounds from their employers and the average miner's earnings rose between 17 and 24 per cent.

Social Contract

In 1974 Edward Heath called and lost an election, and Labour's Harold Wilson replaced him. Wilson made an agreement with the unions called the Social Contract. The new government scrapped the Industrial Relations Act and increased a number of benefits. In return, the TUC tried to keep wages down. But it was not a success. Inflation increased prices steadily throughout the 1970s, reaching a peak of 28 per cent. The influence of shop stewards in local negotiations increased the demand for higher and higher pay rises averaging over 26 per cent in 1975. Inflation and wages were part of a spiral, one causing the other. They also caused unemployment, which began to rise in the late 1970s. By this time, even the Labour government had become concerned by the actions of the unions.

Another of Wilson's actions was to set up ACAS, the Advisory and Conciliation Service to help resolve disputes. In 1975 alone it helped to resolve 2,500 disputes.

Winter of Discontent

In 1979 picketers demonstrate outside Felixstowe Docks in the unofficial lorry drivers' strike.
In 1979 picketers demonstrate outside Felixstowe Docks in the unofficial lorry drivers' strike.
©TopFoto

A new Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, took over in 1976. By this time the government was in serious financial trouble and had to cut back on spending, which brought it into conflict with the unions. From 1978 until 1979 Callaghan was faced with strikes from teachers, health workers and local government employees and the prospect of a new pay demand from the miners. This was known as the Winter of Discontent and forced Callaghan to call another election. Much of the electorate, and many trade unionists, were fed up with Labour policies on unions and wanted a government that would control the extremists. The Conservatives had a new leader who promised to do exactly that - Margaret Thatcher.