uk, 1978-9: now is the winter of our discontent (1980/2001)

the winter of discontent

1978 – 79

Taken mainly from a text written by Dave Wise and another text written by Henri Simon (and translated by Stuart Wise), with the whole thing put together by me. The introduction was a collective effort of myself, Red Marriott and Dave Wise.

sun cartoon

The cartoon above, from 1976, shows the rulers fears of general subversion coming from all sides during the 70s. This was two or three years before the Winter of Discontent, under the Labour government of Callaghan.

Preamble and Introduction: History & Class Consciousness in the UK: Now Is The Winter Of Our Discontent
1: Preparing the fire: The period up to the Winter of Discontent
2: The spark that lit the prairie fire: The Ford Strike (Autumn 1978)
3: The Fire Spreads: The Lorry Drivers Strike (Dec.’78 – Feb.’79)
4: Creeping flames: The strikes of the low-paid (Winter, Spring and Summer 1979)
5: Trying to extinguish the flames: the response of the Government, press and others and the contradictions of workers’ organisational forms
6: Bombing the class struggle: The Winter of Discontent and Terrorism in Ireland
7: Changing the fire brigade: The economic outcome of The Winter of Discontent and the Labour Government’s experiment with monetarism
8:Damage Assessment: The Labour/Capital Relationship of Force at the end of the 70s


The following text comprises two texts:

The first, an introductory reflection on history and class consciousness in the UK and on the changes in the UK since the Thatcherite counter-revolution which capital was virtually forced to undertake as a result of working class intransigence in the period up to the Winter Of Discontent, was completed in Spring 2001.
The second, describing and analysing the Winter Of Discontent, was initially composed of two articles, both written in 1979, shortly after the struggles described. The two have been combined, perhaps a bit clumsily, especially as they were written in very different styles. This has recently been re-organised a bit (in Jan.2005) for the sake of clarity, and a postscript has been dropped from this article (some of it might re-appear in a text on theory and writing).



(Written in April 2001)


“Social amnesia – memory driven out of mind by the social and economic dynamic of this society… The intensification of the drive for surplus value and profit accelerates the rate at which past goods are liquidated to make way for new goods; planned obsolescence is everywhere, from consumer goods to thinking to sexuality. Built-in obsolescence exempts neither thought nor humans. What is heralded as young or new in things, thoughts or people masks the constant: this society…Exactly because the past is forgotten, it rules unchallenged…Social amnesia is society’s repression of remembrance – society’s own past.” (Russell Jacoby — Social Amnesia).

Some intellectuals who consider themselves revolutionary, some of whom specialise in elaborating the facts and analyses of the high points of the old post-1st World War workers movements, or even of the 60s, pretend to themselves that nothing much has happened in the way of endangering capital in this country. For them, compared to other countries in other times, the struggles and ultimate defeats of the working class here seem trivial. Social amnesia has no limits. And yet a critical memory is the Aladdin’s cave within everyone’s reach, even ‘revolutionary’ intellectuals, but it would require a little critical distance from their own roles.


The Winter of Discontent, forgotten and repressed as it may be, nevertheless still haunts the memory of this society. The only time the politicians and media can bring themselves to mention it is as their ultimate horror scenario that must never be allowed to happen again. The occasions it is mentioned it’s usually accompanied by images of mile-high piles of rubbish in Leicester Square, crawling with rats. In this way, it serves as a warning of the destructive consequences and futility of any threatened strikes, blockades etc. After all, the ruling class won – not in the Winter of Discontent itself, which was partly a defeat for them, but in the few years after it ultimately turned around this proletarian offensive and defeated it, and that’s all they want us to remember.

We have concentrated especially on ‘The Winter of Discontent’ for four interconnecting reasons:

1. Most people know very little about it and yet it was the last great mass success of the class struggle for the employed section of the working class in this country (although it has to be said, that many of those who struck in ’79 lost or won very little, particularly the lowest paid).

2. It was the most decisive defeat for a Labour Government at the hands of the class struggle ever, and it marked the beginning of the new epoch – the Thatcherite counter-revolution, a decisive change of strategy for British capital.

3. It shows many of the historical reasons why Trade Unionism is so embedded in what remains of the rebellious sector of the British working class. In fact the very success of the strike wave, and the whole decade of discontent before it, a success which never broke with Trade Unionist ideology (even though it very often subverted the capitalist function of Trade Unions as a tool for integrating workers into the structures of exploitation) is one of the most important reasons for the subsequent failure of the struggles of the employed working class in the Thatcher epoch. What, at that time, was a sufficient –if limited – framework for workers to express themselves autonomously rapidly became an obstacle to autonomy.

4. It shows how “New Labour” is not at all a ‘new’ aberration.

As the culmination and climax of the whole post-WWII wave of class struggle in the UK, the Winter of Discontent expressed all the strengths and limits of that struggle – and, for the ruling class, all the problems needing to be resolved to make the UK safe once again for capital accumulation.

The majority of strikes in the 60s and 70s began as wildcats with unions reluctantly making them “official” – as a way of regaining control over circumstances that constantly seemed to promise a proletarian movement making a decisive break from the trade union form. But, despite a workers’ combativity often ready to take on factory and union bosses’ combined attempts to control them, this decisive step was never taken; not even in the Winter of Discontent, when a city like Hull was effectively under the control of shop stewards. Workers were willing to challenge the role allotted to them in society, but never to the point where it became a challenge to the very existence of class society.

Both strikes and riots have long been methods of collective bargaining in the class struggle – the forms that demands take in the conflict over the distribution of social wealth and power and the balance of class forces. At the same time as strikes began to decline through the 80’s (eventually reaching their lowest levels ever recorded from which they have so far barely recovered) mass rioting re-emerged as a form of struggle. But what would have been a crucial connection between the two was never made; the anti-work struggles in the workplace of the 60s/70s – wildcats, absenteeism, low productivity, sabotage, riots – never connected much with the anti-work and other struggles outside it — black, gay, womens’, tenants’, squatting, claimants movements, “drop out” culture, voluntary unemployment, free festivals etc. Similarly, the later more defensive strikes and urban riots of the 80s never came together, despite each possessing qualities the other lacked.

In much the same way, the riots never overcame their own contradictions.

“Proletarian shopping” looting certainly was, but still remained a form of shopping nevertheless, without it becoming a complete subversion of the commodity, as some imagined it to be (it couldn’t become a complete subversion without connecting to workers in their workplaces). A social movement never emerged from the riots with a clear consciousness of itself and its own potential. There was in any case a gradual deterioration in the quality of rioting. As the economic pressures and insecurities gripped tighter on individual lives, encouraging a more isolated competition for survival, this was reflected in the content of riots; muggings, rapes and other psychotic opportunisms depleted the festive atmosphere and solidarity present in the earlier riots. CCTV and other modifications of the urban environment and policing also had their effect. For the moment, the insurrectionary urban proletarian riot seems to have sunk without trace as a form of struggle (the recent riots on demo’s of the Do It Yourself/Reclaim The Streets type are a quite different phenomenon, emerging from another area of society, and in comparison perhaps illustrate the difference between protest and struggle).

The contradictions and ambiguities of the struggles of the period, that could have gone either way, all went the wrong way under the force of the ruling class counter-attack. This is the blind spot (become visible with hindsight) one sees when reading just about all the radical theoretical analyses of the period. Nowhere was there considered as a possibility the defeat that was to come and continues to be suffered.

Changes in the organisation of work have been used to isolate and individualise workers more than ever. Massive disinvestment in manufacturing during the early 80’s (with its relocation to cheaper labour markets such as Asia’s emerging ‘Tiger economies’) and the consequent growth of the service economy, casualisation and the end of job security have meant an increasingly mobile and fragmented workforce, with less people linked to one particular workplace or the long-term working relationships necessary to the development of trust, confidence and effective solidarity.

The unemployed have been forcibly put to work (New Deal, workfare, etc.) – staying on benefits has almost become a full-time job in itself, and the service economy (or crime) mops up the rest of the work-shy in temporary, casual and low paid work. From being the low productivity capital of Europe in the 60s – 70s the U.K. has become its long hours/low wage capital. A few years ago a South Korean company planned to relocate its factory to Wales because labour costs were cheaper than at home! (Productivity is still somewhat lower than countries like France, but nowadays this must have more to do with relatively poor investment in fixed capital, technology, etc.)

Those Tories who, in their younger days pursued their political careers through the 60s and 70s detached from, despising and fearful of the social struggles breaking out all around them, were to eventually reap their revenge during the Thatcher era. The rumours of preparations for a military coup by a faction of the ruling class that were occasionally heard during the 70s may have been genuine but the bosses eventually found a more effective long term solution to the problems of a class struggle growing daily more uncontrollable, more effective because a coup would have blown the whole show of democracy and consent. While the Left (and clean-cut punk Leftists like Tom Robinson) unrealistically whinged about the threat of fascism, Thatcherism was actually a far more efficient remedy for “The British Disease” of escalating industrial strife and low productivity: using a populist democratic framework to out-manouevre working class struggle and solidarity more efficiently than the blunt edge of dictatorship ever could. The economic squeeze of Monetarism with its massive cuts in public spending and mass unemployment destroyed what community there was at home and at work, but was cushioned by the promise of advancement within the brave new share-owning property-owning democracy.


winter of D anti-media

Photo from the late 70s showing an epoch when, unlike – for the most part – today, disgust and anger with the media were common feelings

“Keep warm this winter – Make Trouble!” – 70s slogan.

1: Preparing the fire: The period up to the Winter of Discontent

“The character of the English bourgeoisie and the freedom of all social relations make it probable that practical momentary solutions of the conflicts will be sought for, rather than fundamental decisions. ..In such a course of development, when at last the partial concessions should amount to an important loss of power, attempts of the capitalist class to regain supremacy by serious decisive class war cannot be avoided. Yet it seems possible that, if anywhere, in England the mastery of the workers over production may be won by successive steps along intermediary forms of divided rule; each step unsatisfactory, and urging further steps until complete freedom is reached.” – Anton Pannekoek, “Workers Councils” (1947 –9).

If Pannekoek had cut out “complete freedom is reached” and substituted this phrase with “a decisive battle between the forces of freedom and the forces of the Economy is reached” he would at least have kept his options open. But it’s a limit of the theoretical perspective of the traditional tendencies of past revolutionaries that an optimistic inevitability about the final outcome of the class struggle was often taken for granted. Apart from anything else, such determinism always minimised the weaknesses of this struggle because the determinists minimised the weakness of their own struggle, remaining blind to the limits of their critique. Perhaps writing in 1949 Pannekoek had reason to be optimistic. Showing a long-term vision one would expect of an astronomer, his scientific determinism prevented him from foreseeing the possibility of defeat in the unavoidable “serious decisive class war”. The “partial concessions” of which he spoke undoubtedly culminated in The Winter Of Discontent, and forced the hand of the ruling class: either these “partial concessions” would have to be rolled back, or “complete freedom” – an openly revolutionary conflict with a good chance of sparking off a global crisis – would be reached. It was left to that section of the English bourgeoisie led by Thatcher to inflict a decisive defeat on the working class, in particular on the miners, which has culminated in an unprecedentedly counter-revolutionary epoch in this country. Now, for the most part, the margin of freedom for rebels is at best almost purely theoretical. For the vast majority it’s just in the imagination. But, in the end, how much difference is there between imagination and theory if neither has practical consequence? Sure, there’s a difference between ideas that have no desire to justify the impotence of the intellectual role and ideas that continue to be relentlessly colonised and trapped in the complacency of discussion without consequences..

However, in The Winter of Discontent, the working class had good reason to be optimistic: the possibility of failure on the scale of today’s reactionary atmosphere didn’t even enter people’s minds. At that time, The Winter of Discontent saw slowly coming into focus, and moving through a dialectical process of disappearance/re-appearance, the painful yet joyful birth of an autonomous class movement becoming ever more so in open struggle.

The period ‘7l/’74 had seen an outburst of class activity in the UK which despite the defeats suffered by some strikes (e.g. the ‘71 postal workers’ strike) had been almost completely successful within its given limits. This activity was in fact over and above the general level of European class struggle in the same period, a factor which made its hidden presence felt in the spontaneous initiatives of the UK proletariat, squeezing them back into forms which were less audacious than the previous period in say France or Italy. Because of what at that time seemed like archaic concepts behind the Tories Industrial Relations Act (overt repression rather than manipulative, clever repression), the independent initiatives of the working class were continually smothered by trade union bureaucrats and Labour Party hacks in political opposition to the Tories.

In 1978, that musical darling of the Left and clean-cut punk, Tom Robinson, had outlined a pessimistic trajectory of increasing fascistic violence against gays, blacks and others in his L.P. track “The Winter of ‘79”. It didn’t turn out like this for a musical, doom and gloom recuperator, even though the Left felt dismayed, perplexed and saddened by what was to happen. But it was their doom and not those of the protagonists because The Winter of ‘79 suddenly became one of expectation and hope as the beginnings of a proletarian insurrection suddenly appeared.

In 1974, in order to buy off the workers after the big strikes of the early 70s against PM Heath’s Tory Government, the incoming Labour Government printed money in order to pay for the – virtually across the board – wage hikes of 30%. These hikes were not backed up by productivity deals and together with printing money, became a significant factor in the subsequent much higher inflation. This was against the backdrop of economic recession after the ill-fated Barber boom of ‘72/’73 and the OPEC oil price rises. The Labour Government cuts that followed (hospitals, schools etc) plus the increasingly draconian phases of the social contract (known generally as the “social con-trick”) which regulated wages were attempts by the Government to recoup their losses and also make the workers pay for the IMF loan to ‘save’ the UK economy.

In ‘74 too, a 36% pay increase was awarded to council manual workers by the Labour Government. Basically, the reality behind the general wage hike was a consequence of the 30% wage increase for the miners due to their unparalleled success in their two major strikes in ‘72 and ‘74.

The Winter of Discontent was in some ways an attempt to get back this kind of wage award and in many ways was successful in doing so. There was a kind of wage drift in the guerrilla strikes: Ford workers l7.5%, Tanker Drivers 15%, BBC staff 12.5% across the board but which effectively turned out to be 2l.5% etc. This wage drift, which was very damaging to capital accumulation in the UK, was also encouraged by social mores fixed in the know-your-place, stepping-stone hierarchy of civil society here. At Nottingham University for example, there were 50 grades for 900 manual workers. If one grade got a wage hike, others then clamoured to maintain their differentials, which was also at one in everyday life with a kind of petty snobbery.

In effect pay settlements had been leaky before this winter and aware workers took note of the fact. In a sense, the power of the UK working class was subtly but amply demonstrated through the outcome of the Fireman’s strike in the Fall of ‘77. Though the firemen were ‘defeated’, with the strike ending somewhat violently, with a few firemen attacking trade union officials because they only obtained the 10% wage increase allowed within the Phase 4 norm of the Social Contract, nonetheless within a year, firefighters were to become among the better paid workers. The Labour Government was fearful of this picket line anger, bitterness and disillusionment among firefighters after the strike ended, and quietly intervened in order to ‘buy off’ a more potentially dangerous situation which might have had untold consequences. A comparability payment was offered to the firefighters, which in reality raised their wages by a further 20% – and put their wages on a par with that of a craft worker in the private sector. Furthermore, firefighters’ salaries became indexed against inflation (running in big double figures) – a ‘privilege’ which had previously only been accorded to those mighty forces of reaction, the Army Chiefs, police and judges, ostensibly as a compensation for not being allowed to strike. But the firefighters now had one up on this reactionary crew as they still retained the right to strike! Yes, indeed, workers all over the UK took notice of such a successful ‘defeat’ and began to see how weak the State had become when challenged by a bit of heavy direct action.

All this – wage drift, social contracts etc. – were taking place against a unique backdrop. More than ever during the period ’74 – ’79, the unions became part of the State apparatus. The aim of the State (and the fuel blockades of Autumn 2000 show that in some ways it’s still there) was to make a Concordat, a kind of consensus solution between the three major contending factions in the State: the Confederation of British Industry, the Governing party in Parliament and the Trade Unions. In practice it wasn’t as simple as that. Over the 3 years from ’76 to ‘79, the CBI held back from tripartite meetings at Downing St on the grounds that the balance of power favoured the unions. Relations between them and union chiefs were conducted on a more informal level. The CBI’s reflections were right: the unions and the governing party were more powerful during this period than the bosses, particularly the bosses in the private sector.

Not that the unions were (or are) an homogenous body as they had appeared to be so in opposition to the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act of the early 70s. Large scale amalgamations were beginning to appear on the horizon, split into blocks with rightist or leftist ideologies. In the wings was a possible amalgamation of the A.E.U.W., the E.E.P.T.U. and the Boilermakers thereby reinforcing the ideological split between the ‘rights’ of the A.E.U.W. and the ‘lefts’ of the TGWU. Once they were the terrible twins ~ Scanlon and Jones. How the Tories of the early 70s shuddered! Then, under the ’74 – ’79 Labour Government, no longer. Under the left leadership of Hugh Scanlon, the A.E.U.W. helped defeat Barbara Castle’s ‘In Place of Strife’ (‘64/’70 Labour Government) and Heath’s Industrial Relations Act. But once postal ballots were accepted the rightwing took control with the appointment of John Boyd and Terry Duffy. Did it make all that much difference once real struggle broke out? When the toolmakers struck at British Leyland in ‘77, they were denounced by the A.E.U.W. big boys together with the Government and the press. These strikers were labeled reactionary (e.g. by the Left as skilled, craft conscious conservatives) by all and sundry. In what they were doing in messing up the Government’s plans, these strikers weren’t reactionary at all. To be more precise: the conservative identification between skilled workers and union bosses in the engineering industry was largely a cultural one and that link was broken when a bitter dispute broke out. The cultural symbiosis derived from a disappearing tradition of archaic craft unionism with a quasi-religious, quasi-masonic ritual, interested in ‘betterment’ (workers into oil painting, musical dexterity in a brass band etc). Also, with a kind of caring, charity outlook (unions and the St John’s Ambulance Brigade etc). Boyd himself joined the Salvation Army when young and ever since played the Tuba for one of their bands.

2: The spark that lit the Winter fire: The Ford Strike (Autumn 1978)

The Ford strike has hardly any history to it. One could encapsulate it in a classical schema. The unions made their demands, the workers went out on strike, the unions discussed with the bosses and decided to take a vote on a return to work. It is difficult to say what part demagogy played in the claims lodged by the unions: a 25% increase in pay and a 35-hour week, whereas the Government, in July 1978, had fixed wage increases at 5%. What mattered was that the rank and file, partly stimulated by the shop stewards, partly spontaneously, began to actively back up their demands in Halewood, near Liverpool, and in Southampton on 21st September ‘78. By Monday the 26th, assemblies called by the shop stewards launched the strike: 57,000 workers in the 23 English Ford factories stopped work. Really, it was a wildcat movement whose speed was surprising: the Dagenham plant was emptied in a quarter of an hour. However, frightened at seeing the movement in the hands of a committee of shop stewards more closely linked to the base, the unions (AEUW and TGWU) ended up by recognising the strike a week later (this implied strike payments, but also, and more importantly, their intervention as negotiators). On two occasions they then had to confront the workforce with proposals worked out in the negotiations. On the second occasion, having got a 17% increase, they recommended calling off the strike. Here was a classic example, about which a unionist could say that the union was supported by the mass of “its” workers, enabling it to impose on the bosses certain demands (one may note, however, that the demand for a 35-hour week had been wholly dropped in the same way as in the German steelworkers’ strike of that year). Those who didn’t hold to this view could scarcely understand how it was that the unions, who had no interest in toppling the Government – “its” Government – and still less of provoking a strike wave, had opened, at this crucial moment, such a breech in the social dam. They were, after all, one of the bulwarks.

The truth of the matter lies elsewhere – in the brief indications we have provided of class confrontation in the U.K. during this epoch. The Ford strike has no history because, setting aside the classical schema, nothing happened. There was no-one in the factories – not a single scab, practically no pickets because they weren’t necessary and no “flying pickets” because the active solidarity of all the English workers blocked all movement of components both on the motorways and in the docks. This degree of efficacy on the part of the base couldn’t be created by any leader, union big wig or shop steward. It did not provoke any polemical comment, unlike the more combative “flying pickets” or “secondary pickets” which appeared on the scene some months later. The formidable success of the Ford strike can be measured by the social and political consequences it was going to have:


It was this strike that caused the Labour Government to fall. Its formal political defeat immediately followed on from the ending of the strike at Fords. Work was resumed at the beginning of December when a 17% wage hike was granted. There was also a penalty clause designed to suppress rank & file wildcat strikes (a 5% wage reduction during the week of the strike). The Callaghan Government preferred to ignore its framework of economic sanctions rather than risk finding itself in a minority. Capital allowed the Government a temporary respite rather than risk a head-on collision which the Heath Government had, to its cost, attempted to do five years earlier. It was only a respite because capital had to find another way to keep wages down and try to cure the English disease. The Conservatives under Thatcher had to try it because the Labour Party’s way of doing it had been a complete failure.


This political failure masked a social failure – namely, management’s attempts to closely link wage increases to productivity. The first proposals put forward by Fords management – accepted by the unions – were rejected by the workers. They contained penalty clauses against absenteeism and wildcat strikes. In the final agreement accepted by the Ford workers, only the penalty clause against wildcat strikes was retained, marking a retreat from Fords’ original conditions.


Another consequence was apparent on the international level: the stoppage of a multinational on a European scale. Henry Ford said, “It was the worst strike I have ever seen”. The success of the strike made all attempts to break and isolate the strike impossible. The active solidarity of other English workers prevented other workers in Fords’ European factories from being strikebreakers against their will. Moreover, the division of labour between European States turned against Ford: the majority of European factories were prevented from functioning because of the lack of components or because components destined for English factories were held up. Thus workers in Fords’ European factories were able to directly assess in relation to their own work place, what kind of consequence a resolute struggle has and drew lessons from that for themselves.

Unable to use force, the Labour Government tried, without much conviction, to use the trade union apparatus, whose one and only wish was to continue to function in this way. Callaghan, who did not dare allow the police and the army to intervene for fear of even worse consequences, didn’t shrink from bravely declaring on TV, “I would not hesitate to cross a picket line if I thought it the moral thing to do.” One must remember that this was a country where workers never crossed a picket line: Callaghan clearly showed that his “morality” had nothing whatsoever to do with the workers’ morality. Union leaders tried to translate their morality into a “trade union code of conduct” which was put together by the TUC leaders and the Government and ratified by the TUC Congress in February 1979. In this document there was a long and detailed description of what constituted the proper conduct for a picket. It was precisely at this point in time when “secondary pickets” appeared: i.e. pickets of workers, most of whom worked at workplaces other than the precise firm on strike. This Trade Union code of conduct was nothing more than a very clear explanation of the activity of Trade Union bureaucrats at the time of the lorry drivers strike. An article in the Financial Times described the activity of one of the main leaders of the powerful TGWU – Alex Kitson, who “had attempted – and, in many places, had succeeded – to dismantle local wildcat strike committees. The general intention was to bring the strikes under the control of the regional trade union apparatus and to limit their activities to factories, docks and warehouses and to single vehicles belonging to transport firms.” The trade union code of conduct contained other elements concerning the intervention of Trade Unions in the economy – mainly, fixing the price of labour power. But it was on the question of pickets that the polemic developed into becoming a central political question at the time of the general elections, in the late spring of ‘79, with the Labour Party and the Conservatives agreeing on the need to put an end to the autonomous activities of the workers, but diverging only on the ways and means. The energetic political measures promised by the Conservatives in this sphere have seen the light of day, and extinguished it. The combination of the stick of so-called “anti-union” laws and mass unemployment with the carrot of popular property-cum-shareholding eventually inflicted an unprecedented defeat on working class solidarity from which the dispossessed in this country have yet to recover. But more of that later.

The strike at Fords was the high point of confrontation between capital and labour at the end of 1978 – it was both an end and a transition: the end result of a whole series of direct confrontations carried on for a number of years around the ratio of wages to productivity, and a transition between the constant attrition of individual acts and a more all-embracing form of confrontation. This process must be situated within the perspective of the ideological collapse at that time, which we will mention further on.

This last point seems particularly important in the Ford strike and we shall return to it because such solidarity and cohesion demonstrated that these things could only flow from a broad-based ignorance of “capitalist values”. That is, from a deliberate quest for one’s own interests and from a diffuse but clear feeling that everybody could do what they thought valid because they knew, at the same time, that others had the same purpose in mind. When strikes broke out this fact was often observed but never emphasised in everyday attitudes vis-a-vis work. However, it boiled down to the same thing in different circumstances and had a scope and profundity which can explain the most salient characteristics of the Ford strike. On the one hand, there was the sudden unleashing of the wildcat struggle synchronised in all the Ford factories throughout England. On the other hand, there was the active solidarity which made the strike particularly effective, obviating the need to deploy pickets or to use persuasive force.

This situation was by no means peculiar to the U.K. but it was in the U.K. where one could best observe the differing manifestations of this phenomenon and its developing dialectic over the previous years. Possibly this situation was the expression of the particular historical situation to which we have referred. The U.K. was from very early on a proletarianised and urbanised society in its totality.

For a lengthy period of time one could say that workers’ attitudes reinforced the dominant ideology, especially where English imperialism guaranteed to “its” workers a standard of liberties and political liberties that an extensive and intensive colonial exploitation allowed it to support. The situation gave then an idea, on a relative scale, of what could be the decomposition of an industrial capitalist society. But the constant crises of capitalism worldwide makes all speculation a hazardous business: though we know how capital restructured in the epoch immediately following the Winter of Discontent, any future restructuring, especially outside the U.K, will be no simple task for capital, because nothing is ever finally played out while it maintains its world domination.

What some at the time called the recovery of England (above all, with North Sea Oil) didn‘t explain the most profound realities of the capitalist situation on the national and international level:

On the national level, capital at the end of the 70s was characterised by a relative weakness because of the impossibility of re-establishing a relation of forces which would allow it to return to a more “healthy” situation from the viewpoint of the production of profits. National capitals were looking elsewhere for higher rates of productivity. This partly permitted national survival but it also impeded any national renewal and assured the perennial nature of the situation which class struggle, on the other hand, prevented any exit from. The weakness of political power in the U.K. was demonstrated by its inability to impose itself as representative of the interests of national capitalism – by, on the one hand, the rank & file movement of the class struggle, and, on the other hand, by the power of the multinationals, particularly the American multinationals.

The supercession of this contradiction constituted the rupture with capital on the national level. In fact, English capital invested everywhere where it could be assured of a rate of exploitation superior to what the weight of the structure and the class struggle could assure to them in the U.K. But the profits that they obtained were repatriated because of the necessity of maintaining a State which would assure, in terms of power, the representation of what were originally national interests, but in fact were (and always are) international ones. And this State presupposed the maintenance of an internal equilibrium which guaranteed its external power, and still does, almost by definition, regardless of whether we speak of 1978 or 2001. To the difficulties of resolving this double contradiction on the European plane, one can add those that are present on the world scale. These difficulties are increased by the class struggle which the industrial growth of the under-developed countries bring – a consequence of capital in search of greater profits.

The Ford strike showed how class struggle echoed the contradiction between the imperatives of international capital (in competitive terms, it was the second biggest car company in the USA) and national politics with its rigid structures and its particular relationship of force (Ford, which had played a role in England since the end of the second world war, had for some time tried to disengage itself from the rigidities of national structures). The wage freeze policy carried out by the Labour Government and the Trade Unions sought to guarantee the profits of a fraction of English capital. This, however, only interested Fords so long as it guaranteed social peace. At the European level, as part of a pragmatic strategy of profit and loss, Ford compensated each other – the continuity of production and productivity were more important than a percentage increase in wages limited to a single State. At a time and place when the Trade Unions were incapable of controlling demands and the Government incapable of imposing its political will, Ford had one single idea: paying attention to its world political strategy. At this time, it gave in quickly at the least cost to itself.

When the strike broke out, the impotence of the Trade Unions had been shown up by the continuation of the strike of 32 toolmakers at British Leyland. The union leadership had been unable to expel them from the union because of the threat of a total wildcat strike by all Leyland toolmakers. Because of rank & file pressure, the unions, in order to save face, distanced themselves from the wages freeze and rejected the renewal of the Social Contract of the preceding years. Even in relation to the bosses, the Government could only keep up a facade of economic sanctions against companies which gave pay rises above the norm, a norm whose force had been seriously drained by the strikes of the preceding years. and which the Ford strike wrecked completely.


If the merit of the lorry drivers’ strike, which followed the strike at Fords, posed the question of power in terms of open struggle, one should maybe ask if the incidents of the strike weren’t situated at a higher level. The total solidarity of the Ford strike rendered useless all attempts to repress it and its political consequences were immediately evident at Government level. In order to succeed, the lorry drivers’ strike had to be very combative in terms of confronting the forces of repression (whilst the Ford strike ignored them). The problem raised in the political debates about pickets thus became a false problem. If pickets were no longer necessary because each worker knew just what to do to make the strike effective, then any question of trade union or legal control became useless and pointless. Within these terms, it’s possible to view the next conflict, which eluded formal repression in this way.

3: The Fire Spreads: The Lorry Drivers Strike
(Dec.’78 – Feb. ’79)

The Ford strike ended at the beginning of December ‘78. For two weeks the political battle we mentioned seemed to occupy the limelight. But it could not hide the escalating social struggles. Tanker drivers came out on strike over the matter of overtime. They demanded their basic wage go up from £75 to £90 per week. The years’ end appeared to bring with it a respite. But already petrol pumps and garages were having to close because they’d run out of petrol. And the Labour Government threatened to bring the army in, in the event of a total shut-down. In spite of an apparent confusion, it was clear that the rank and file had transformed union instructions. Even before a strike had been declared, the strikes’ effects, without being able to attribute them to a definite movement, were visible. This was one of the characteristics of the conflicts which were to be in evidence over the coming months. On January 4th, tanker drivers belonging to Texaco and British Petroleum came out on a total strike, notably in the Midlands (Birmingham), the North West (Manchester), Ulster and North London. On January 8th the workers accepted a 13 -15% pay increase. However, the Texaco drivers continued with their wildcat strike, organising flying pickets to picket the depots of other companies where normal work had resumed.

Meanwhile, it was the truck drivers who were now being highlighted. Their wages were relatively low but thanks to overtime they could earn up to £100 per week but that could mean working up to 57 hours a week. But under Common Market rules they were not allowed to work longer than 54 hours and by 1981, 48 hours. Moreover, the introduction of the tacograph, in use in Europe, strengthened the control of the bosses. The truck drivers demanded a further wage increase from £43 to £65 a week, a reduction in the working week from 40 hours to 35 hours, guaranteeing to them the same amount of overtime.

Transport firms employing these lorry drivers play a big role in food, the chemical and automobile industries. Some firms possessing their own fleet of lorries frequently have recourse to them. All in all, there were around 170,000 lorry drivers (only a few were owned by their drivers unlike in France, for example). Negotiations didn’t take place at a national level but were split up into 18 different regions. On January 2nd, several thousand lorry drivers came out on strike in Scotland without a single instruction from their union. By January 4th 25,000 were on strike in Scotland and the North of England. They picketed ports and warehouses preventing fleets of trucks belonging to industry from moving goods. By January 8th, factories short of materials had started to close. Practically all the ports were blockaded. By the 10th, the number of strikers had risen to 50,000 and on the 11th the strike was finally made official by the union. Then the lorry drivers in the South of England came out. Obviously the union only made the strike official in order to control it and in order, especially, to curtail the picketing. Around the 13th shops began to empty and some queues had appeared. The Government, management and the unions did everything they could to break the strike – but without success. The number of strikers fluctuated between 70 and 100 thousand. Some firms ceded to their demand for a 22% pay increase. Some 100,000 workers found themselves laid off.

It was a totally effective strike. Never having really used their industrial muscle before and therefore never really knowing their own strength, these loner workers of the motorways, nevertheless quickly picked up on the essentials in winning strikes – means which had been practiced by other workers in the UK over the years. For instance, the flying picket – first effectively used in the St. Pancras tenants strike of ’64, later to be used devastatingly by the miners at Saltley Coke Depot, Birmingham in January ‘72 and the dockers in July ‘72. They hadn’t always been successful, however: using as an excuse a strike in the building industry, the practice of flying pickets was harshly repressed in Shrewsbury, Shropshire in 1973 (three building workers received jail sentences of 3 years, 2 years and 9 months respectively, for “conspiracy, intimidation, illegal assembly, threats” etc.).

For the lorry drivers of winter ’78 – 9, the practice of flying pickets spread at the same time as secondary picketing was maintained. Travelling in cars, strikers either through force or persuasion stopped trucks they came across on motorways. But it was not through the effort of union leaders or because of the threatened State of Emergency (troops were put on alert) that the pickets around January 25th began to ease up. Rather, management’s resolution to make common cause together had been broken and individual firms began to sign agreements, some of them guaranteeing a 22% wage increase. By February 2nd nearly all the lorry drivers had resumed work and once more the Governments’ wages policy had been smashed to bits.

For the lorry drivers, flying pickets had been deadly, relative to the local geography. The effectiveness of flying pickets often depended upon access routes into a town or city. Hull, a geographically vulnerable city caught in a bend on the Humber River, elegantly fell into the hands of the strikers and the strike committee. The one and only main access road into the city from the west – the M62 cross-Pennine route from Liverpool via Manchester, Bradford and Leeds – was blocked by pickets monitoring every vehicle into the port. This was possible because the minor roads from Beverley and the Yorkshire east coasts resorts like Bridlington etc couldn’t take the heavy juggernauts over the winding Yorkshire Wolds. The Hull strike committee had the seeds within it of a real town assembly and while it existed the City authorities had to increasingly recognise its power and bow somewhat before it. It was particularly this situation that caused The Daily Telegraphto foam at the mouth despairing about the fact that “workers were taking managerial decisions”, and which later led to Thatcher’s ideology of “managers’ right to manage”.

Elsewhere in Yorkshire, and Lancashire too, Hull’s audacity perhaps encouraged the very tough action by “the heavy gangs” who among other tactics, occupied union offices (maybe a way to use a free phone?). Sometimes, and obviously against the wishes of the union hierarchy, a “heavy gang” would phone up the boss of a local firm, threatening him with closure if he didn’t co-operate. It was almost as effective as picketing because the boss would know the presence of the heavy gang lay in the background.

However, it is always difficult to stop the many clever forms of strike breaking as the lorrv drivers pickets quickly learned, even in cities like Edinburgh which were largelv sewn up.

London once again proved to be difficult to picket successfully as many a militant has learnt from past experience. The vast conurbation of London is an urban area to get lost in/disappear/change identity, according to which urban village one moves through to another. London epitomizes the increasing social/personal schizophrenia and general loss of identity. London probably will never be controlled by strike committees, despite their dramatic local impact (e.g. in certain East End boroughs, Silvertown in The Winter of Discontent etc) but it is a city eminently suitable for wild, uncontrollable insurrection.

In fact, there was something of an overlap between flying and stationary pickets when flying pickets would go round to stationary pickets giving them pep talks to break down the sense of isolation. As one shop steward said in Edinburgh if this hadn’t happened, pickets “might start doing silly things like stopping a milk float or something just for the hell of it”. There were some bizarre incidents also. Elsewhere in Scotland, a kind of drunken, beer can ‘collective’ of semi-alckies spread across a road and on the tap, took some money from working drivers in imitation of the pickets!

During the strike, owner drivers were treated ambivalently by the strikers. On the one hand, the business-like, independent truckers joined the striking lorry drivers in Hull and referred to the power of the strike committee. On the other many independents openly said they were making a financial killing as they could charge what price they liked for moving commodities. Moreover, owner-drivers as far as is known, were not stopped from ferrying their wares by the pickets at the ports With the staggered ending of the strike, agreements were reached between shop stewards which allowed companies which had met the lorry drivers claim in full and individual owner drivers to use the East coast ports of Felixstowe, Harwich, Ipswich, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft on Monday, Jan 29th, ‘79..

The lorry drivers strike in the UK in The Winter of Discontent had possibly been the most effective truckers strike the world had seen up to this point. Macho, tough, womanising – such is the image of the trucker – though none of the heroic Hollywood, individualistic side was really evident in the strike. Compare the different images vls-a-vis the UK and the States in this regard. When Country and Western singer, C.W.McColl made “Convoy” in 76 which lauded the heroic ventures of the independent trucker taking on the cops and the Illinois National Guard, the Brits retorted with a piss take by D.J., Dave Lee Travis. It wasn’t the awe-inspiring tone of the American rider with his “swindle sheet” and CB radio calls – “this is Big Ben to Rubber Duck” but the ludicrous “plastic chicken to super-scouse” coming up to Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction where they were “bound to lose a few” of their convoy. That anti-self-mocking penchant in the UK proletariat breathes a need for collective action – even among its most necessarily isolated workers, which the work of the truck drivers has to be.

Finally, the lorry drivers strike was settled through the liberal, corporatist, “we‘re all in it together” ideology of the Industrial Society on Jan 29th ‘79. Union bosses figure in The Industrial Society but somewhat removed from their day to day function ~ which possibly made them a little more acceptable to the striking workers. One of its members, Ron Nethercott, a T.G.W.U. official appealed to the strikers with the now familiar ‘save the nation’ plea. Like Callaghan’s, it was more a desperate, empty call from a frightened union official worrying about his future career certainties, as the Industrial Society was forced to concede a near total victory to the lorry drivers and defeat for the State. Even so, such a victory was deemed unacceptable by some lorry drivers. In the North West (Lancashire etc) talks between the Hauliers Companies and lorry drivers broke down after the patchy nationwide acceptance of the agreement. The North West had, in fact, been the area hardest hit by the lorry drivers because it was there that the code recommended by Moss Evans (TGWU boss) was refused most by the pickets.

The Winter of Discontent was a combination of low paid workers and those who weren’t doing so badly at all – like the truckers. It produced a friendly mix and the lorry drivers assisted in a few daring acts of social egalitarianism. Many of the State sector workers on strike only received £10 per week from union funds. Having small savings, which admittedly are counterbalanced to some degree by supplimentary perks (cheap housing, free rent for some caretakers etc) they rapidly ran out of cash. Because of their precarious financial position and perhaps in some ways, being nearer the abolition of money and exchange, they had to look for more direct ways of getting food. In this they were sometimes helped by the truckers.

Liverpool was another city like Hull which practically countered the lurid apocalypse conjured up by the media of total chaos with no new order emerging through it. Food was requisitioned in Hull and Liverpool by strike committees (one would like to know more about their composition) and supplied to pensioners as well as – but more clandestinely – the low paid. Among such items was sugar in Hull and fruit in Ellesmere Port on the Mersey (as an adjunct to this, in other essential services, there were signs of something new in Liverpool: when chief Ambulance Officers in Liverpool declared a lock-out on Jan 23rd, striking ambulance drivers responded by organising a voluntary service of their own).

The essential conflict of the lorry drivers strike is to be situated on the terrain of direct confrontation with power. It is the reason why the question of pickets became a political problem: how to maintain “public order”. For close on a month it was obvious that on the motorways, in the ports and in the factories, it was the truck drivers who were the law and not the unions or the police. It is undoubtedly true that the success of the picketing was due to the energetic activity of the truck drivers and also to the truck drivers belonging to firms who weren’t on strike – and, of course, dockers. (A few lorry drivers attempted to cross picket lines but, apart from some smashed windscreens, there were few incidents, apart from the death of a picket in Scotland knocked down by a scab truck).

In the previous years, where they had made mistakes because of the limitations of the struggle, or through political manipulation, the pickets had met with legal repression and failure. We’ve already mentioned the jailing of the Shrewsbury 3 from Shropshire. In 1977-78 the Grunwicks’ strike demonstrated the limits of picketing when an attempt was made to convert it into an arm of politics. In ‘79 , some firms paralysed by the picketing, tried to get the “disruptors of public order” convicted and arrested. A businessman in York brought 9 workers before the courts. Safeways, the supermarket chain, accused a shop steward of having organised a blockade of one of their warehouses in Warrington. This was followed on May 2nd with the jailing of a journalist for 3 months after an altercation with police on the picket line. The difference between these situations lies obviously in the balance of force, which means that in certain cases power dominates through repressive organisations and in other cases isn’t able to use them. This happened in the lorry drivers strike which, as we have said, was directly posed in terms of a confrontation with the forces of law & order. Advice, however, was far from lacking. The Daily Mirror was able to write on January 24th, “It is up to the police to follow up complaints regarding intimidation, threats and violence. I hope the police will not shrink from its responsibilities.” To which a Police Chief replied, “…existing laws give the police sufficient power to deal with the crimes committed during the strikes.” But it is not just a question of getting arrests but of getting convictions (as we have seen, some employers used the law but it is just as necessary to get convictions). The weakness of power at this time, faced with this new assault on the States’ authority, was brought out by an exchange between Thatcher and Callaghan, the Labour P.M. Callaghan, replying to Thatcher, who had urged him to use the law against picket line “violence”, said, “I don’t want to see the country repeat the fatal errors of 1971 – 73”. As an American journalist wrote in “The Washington Post” of February 18th ‘79, “The most significant change is that the leaders of the union movement have lost control over their rank & file. The workers have taken things into their own hands”.

4: Creeping Flames: The strikes of the low-paid
(Winter, Spring & Summer 1979)

Even before the truck drivers strike had been settled, other big strikes were breaking out. It is impossible to mention them in any detail – they effected, in particular, the lowest-paid workers: water workers, hospital workers, municipal employers, grave diggers, ambulance drivers. Then, in turn, all manner of State employees, civil servants, post office workers, railway workers, teachers, etc.

Where conflict did not break out, it was because substantial pay increases were granted. These strikes were to extend from January to July, and some continued after this with sporadic outbreaks. In some sectors, like in the post office, it was even difficult to say when there was a strike and when there wasn’t. Millions of workers, at one time or another, found themselves involved in strike action or threatening strike action. It is possible to delineate a number of common characteristics:

– As in Fords, wage increases were between 14% & 20%, a long way from the 5% ceiling fixed by Callaghan.

-The majority of conflicts lasted a long time – from several weeks to several months.

– Whether they were recognised by the union or not, they successfully evaded their control in the same way as the lorry drivers strike (the refusal of union rules, the effectiveness of the picketing) or, in other less direct ways requiring a very coherent degree of self-coordination by the rank & file as expressed in selective strikes lasting a long time or, through intermittent work stoppages. Concerning the latter, it was impossible to say where they started and where they stopped. Often it was only possible to note their effects.

– Whilst the effectiveness of the Ford strike sprang from its cohesion and total solidarity expressed in a nearly classical form and whilst the effectiveness of the lorry drivers sprang from the, also classical, confrontation of pickets with the forces of law & order, the creeping strikes were much more in tune with the actual rank & file movement in Britain. They expressed three facets, which we distinguish for the sake of analysis, but which in reality were inseparable: acting for oneself, the refusal of work and the refusal of capitalist ideology.


What we call acting for oneself means that strike action – even considered as a means – was at the same time, before everything else, a way of gaining free time in order to do one’s own thing. The effectiveness of the strikes were linked to a near total disappearance of “militantism”. The methods of struggle were to take on partial forms – at times very fragmented – but they were effective. Generally there was no real strategy – on the contrary, they appeared to be very dispersed. The effectiveness sprang from the fact that some possessing the same work conditions were aware that, given the structure of modern capitalist production, after a while they could paralyse the productive apparatus. Some saw in this type of action the survival of trade union structures they regarded as anachronistic in the modern world. It is possible to discuss the adaptation of these structures, leading to an improved functioning of capitalism, but it doesn’t explain why these so-called obsolete structures were so effective. Precisely because the rank & file workers played off these structures against the apparatus itself, they were able to give them an entirely different significance and content. This ‘acting for oneself’ was relayed through individual attitudes or by way of small groups of workers possessing the same function in production. For example, in the post office strike, five women in charge of postal orders were able to hold up the distribution of stamps throughout Britain. Similarly, 100 telephone computer operators were able to hold up, for 6 months, the sending out of receipts, making any restocking impossible. Exceedingly corporatist movements, like the strike of 32 toolmakers in BL, which we’ve already mentioned, could cause havoc. But their strike was only effective because other workers refused to do work belonging to the strikers, not perhaps so much out of “solidarity” but because of “acting for oneself” (don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do unto you) furthering, in this way, other trade union structures regarded as obsolete. The survival of these craft unions meant no one was prepared to do work which did not belong to their particular category.

The exceptional length of the strikes in the UK (it frequently turns out that strikes involving tens of thousand of workers lasted for several weeks, even several months) can be linked to “acting for oneself”. In addition, there existed in the social security system at that time the chance of obtaining money for one’s wife and children in the advent of a strike (this formed one of the system’s small concessions which some revolutionaries thought were impossible for the system to take away)But what’s important is that during the strike the workers’ interests lay outside the workplace, devoting themselves to reorganising their lives temporarily beyond the bosses’ reach: holidays, work around the house to be done or work in the black economy, etc…It is possible to cite two extreme examples. There was, for instance, the strike at The Times against the introduction of new technology which lasted 11 months. Then, there was the strike in the steel industry, in which it was obvious that over a million workers took two days off work every week for 11 continuous weeks under Union protection, perfectly aware of the meaninglessness of their demands (we’ll return to the significance of this struggle later). At the extreme, it was even difficult to distinguish between striking and absenteeism. It was particularly true of the Christmas/New Year break, when, for several years, the bosses preferred to shut down rather than risk an uncertain situation very costly to themselves.

It seems clear that this notion of acting for oneself was closely linked to the refusal of work. Or, more exactly, to the form of work which capital wanted to see functioning efficiently at this point in time. Under this heading, one can classify very different phenomena – which we’re going to enumerate. Some appear to have had nothing to do with the struggles that year, but in reality they did because the strikes were often protecting an attitude hostile to the hours and speed of work:

– Arriving late and leaving early; leaving enough time to take tea together (which played a major role in the elaboration of rank and file resistance)Practices like these were so widespread that to all intents no one bothered mentioning them any longer. Capital didn’t even try to struggle openly against these practices. Rather it tried, often with little success, to control them in order to allay the damage (for example, big stores opened on a Monday morning between 10 & 11 a.m., often with all the counters nearly empty).

– Absenteeism at the beginning and the end of the working week (building sites and road works were generally nearly devoid of workers come 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon or on a Monday morning). We have noted how this absenteeism increased around Xmas time and New Year. One could say the same thing in a completely unpredictable manner about fine days in Spring and Summer. We shall now show how they made their appearance in particular struggles.

– The refusal to do others’ jobs – jobs other than what one is employed to do even if technically one could do it. It is possible to say that “acting for oneself” had been natural in the structure of the old craft unions, which were given a different meaning. Made use of by individuals or groups of workers having the same individual interest, they became major bulwarks in the struggle against managerial “reforms” to increase the intensity and productivity of labour. They were also a bastion against the introduction of new techniques, against any attempted reorganisation or restructuring of capital. Examples abound. Some 10 workers in the Linwood (Chrysler) plant in Scotland brought the entire factory to a halt when they refused to be moved some few yards down the production line. In Paddington railway station in London, a total strike lasting one day and repeated every subsequent week broke out because 50 baggage handlers refused to be temporarily to a new job because there wasn’t much for them to do in their usual jobs. The Post Office in Britain was plagued by strikes of this sort because workers refused to be moved to other jobs at the behest of management in cases of overmanning or the employment of Post Office casual workers (this is still one area of constant resistance to modern stress-inducing management techniques, but will probably culminate in a major confrontation quite soon). In this epoch, the London underground still employed a driver and a guard per train in spite of efforts to introduce automated transport. An iron ore terminal in Scotland hadn’t started working well after it was constructed, because of inter-union rivalries – in reality, because the matter of who does what hadn’t been sorted out. One could fill page after page. An extreme example – which has a bearing on the problems of productivity – was provided by the British Leyland factory in Park Royal in London. This factory made double decker buses and a new model had been commissioned requiring a good number of workers. It was estimated 630 workers would be needed to make, in the long term, 14 buses a week. In the short term, 7 buses a week were envisaged while the factory got into its stride. At the end of years of strife, so different as to be seemingly anachronistic, surprise surprise – the factory was turning out 2 buses a week. This led the ‘manager’ of British Leyland, Michael Edwardes, to decide to close the factory down – which didn’t seem to upset the workers especially. We shall return again to the threat of closures in factories where workers refuse to “work normally” and which was capital’s response to all these pratices of rank & file struggle.

The response of workers faced with factory closures because of the crises or restructuring of capital, appearing in the 70s as a weapon to break any resistance to increasing productivity. Up till Thatcher, it wasn’t possible to use unemployment – or the threat of being laid off – as a weapon. Unemployment had existed for such a long time in Britain and at such a high level that the threat of making do with very little was no cause for alarm, still less something to be ashamed about. On the contrary, for a lot of people it provided an opportunity to live “in another way”. On the one hand, it was a response by capital to its immediate problems, but on the other hand, it formed part of the “small concessions” whose consequences could be very important for the system in its entirety. Every time a firm layed off workers, the struggles that broke out were over the levels of redundancy pay. When voluntary lay-offs were asked for the number applying for them easily surpassed the number fixed by the firm. When the choice was posed – either be dismissed or call off any struggle – the response was always clear, preferring unemployment to accepting an increased level of exploitation. Clearly the workers opted “for themselves” rather than the firm and work at any price.

In this practice of refusing work, it was possible to situate the solidarity manifested during the course of the struggles. The refusal to do another persons’ job, if they happen to be on strike, is a solidaristic action in refusing to do any more work other than what one has decided to carry out (it is also an individualist vision of work, which we shall return to later in relation to the refusal of capitalist ideology). The refusal to even just occasionally cross a picket line revealed this same duality. The obligation to act in a solidaristic manner (the reasons’ why were never raised – from the moment a picket was mounted, it was obvious they had good reasons for mounting one) provided an opportunity to lighten the burden of work. This was the key to the formidable success of the strikes like the lorry drivers’ strike we mentioned earlier.

– The forms taken by the struggle could be characterised by other sorts of action, like the extension of absenteeism or the selective auto-reduction of work. The refusal to do overtime – carried out at present in a highly effective manner – epitomises these two aspects of the refusal of work. The refusal to do extra duties, if kept up long enough and if others refused to do them in the name of solidarity, could have a catastrophic effect. Thus the successful school teachers’ strike did not come about as a result of a classical strike but because they refused to take charge of kids at meal-times.

All these factors appear to be different but often direct the angle from which we consider them, leading to a synthesis, a critical examination of capital and its global function. On the one hand, in so far as the productive apparatus is concerned, one could say that, in a negative form, the workers controlled it themselves. Negatively, because this control, contrary to all those who talk about the conscious self-management of the capitalist firm, implied in one form or another a rejection of all interest in the capitalist firm. This is what drove bosses in England mad when faced with the attitude of workers, because they collided head-on with a systematic refusal, having nothing whatsoever to do with progress in the traditional sense of the term, and only explicable in terms of immediate personal interest. The result was that the productive average of English workers using comparable equipment was one third down on other industrialised countries. Meanwhile, the UK, in comparison with other West European countries, had a less developed system of co-management or factory committees, in spite of attempts to introduce them. On the other hand, there was a sort of recomposition of individual activities exterior to the firm. An article as long as this one would be necessary to explain all the manifestations of social life which contributes at the same time to Capital’s functioning during this epoch in the UK (including, that is, the crisis and the forms of resistance we have just mentioned) but which were essentially facilitated by an entire series of “small measures” of recuperation – providing also an opening – creating mobile and often temporary structures which clearly did not belong to this exploitative society anymore.

Finally, the refusal of work is no more than a particular aspect of the refusal of capitalist ideology. But it must be understood that this “refusal” has nothing to do with ethical responses, but rather it’s to do with individual behaviour which could be summed up as follows: “I don’t want to do this because I want to do something else”. Or, as the miners said in the 1974 strike, when they refused to carry out maintenance work – “We don’t give a fuck about the pits!”. In a way, acting for oneself is a rejection of “wage-earners’ voluntary cooperation” (which was previously the norm in the labour/capital relationship) because people have no interest in it, and not because of any particular political insights. In the past it went without saying that the “properly understood interest of the firm” implied the “properly understood interest of the worker”. In the situation in England in the 70s the workers particular interest (which could be very different, expressing itself in individual ways even if it manifested itself as a collective phenomena) came before any other consideration. Referring to the conflicts of the 70s one can cite the rejection of the national interest by the miners or the lorry drivers, the rejection of “public service” by State-employed workers, local government employees etc., the refusal of the notion of an “emergency” by the ambulance and hospital workers. Grave diggers refused to bury people in spite of the recrimination by all right-thinking people. Water came out of the taps dirty, carelessly treated, without any regard for “public health”. One snowstorm was enough to unleash a strike of workers employed to clear and grit the roads. Relief trucks sent in to distribute food to the old were attacked and emptied of their contents. Westminster street cleaners, once their demands had been granted after a strike lasting four weeks, refused to return to work unless they were paid an extra £200 to clear the piles of rubbish that had mounted up during the strike. They were followed, once the extra payment had been granted, by incinerator workers.

Another aspect of the transformation in outlook was the new way of tackling the destruction of purchasing power through price increases or dangling the carrot of increasing wages as a way of pushing for productivity deals. Doubtless, many conflicts sprang from classic objectives: wage increases linked more and more to increases in productivity. But in between these periods of open conflict (when price rises cancelled out wage rises and when the part of the rise caused by increased productivity was dearly paid for by increased exploitation) there appeared a cunning form of individual/generalised struggle, which could be summed up as “No money – no work.” The most typical example of this attitude was provided by the miners

Production declined even when, in 1978, productivity agreements were more or less imposed by union manoeuvering. The example we have cited of the Leyland factory in Park Royal is another example.

Related to this is the question of authority in the firm itself. Disrespect for rules and regulations which are an essential element in the smooth functioning of the factory in the interests of capital, was a quite commonplace practice. Strikes broke out whenever management attempted to impose their authority a little. There were several in 1978, such as the one in the Ford factory in Dagenham which stopped a worker being sacked for having struck a foreman. The Chrysler factory in Linwood stopped for several days until disciplinary measures against a worker caught smoking were dropped. What we said about leaving early and arriving late came equally from the self-same problem of authority. Attempts to discipline workers over these habitual practices or because of absenteeism often entailed conflict. It was this constant struggle which determined the shifting frontier of what we have called negative control of management. What mostly happened was that conflicts didn’t blow up because the bosses based their attitudes on this relationship of force in the incessant guerilla activity which made up the daily class struggle.

The particular features of the struggle weren’t new. They formed part of the everyday struggles in England over the previous 20 years. If we have dealt with them under the heading of the 1979 struggles, it is because these features took on a dimension and gave a new character and efficacy to the struggles that had only been seen outside the great struggles that had happened previously. One could gauge it according to the number of days lost in the first 8 months of 1979. Although the strikes did not effect major sectors of the economy, the number of days lost reached the 1972 total (the year of the miners’ strike under Heath). According to August ‘79’s figures, the number of days lost to capital through strikes were the highest since 1972.

It is necessary to point out that these figures give an imperfect picture of reality because they cannot be compared with the big strikes. The importance of selective strikes of groups of workers paralysing entire sectors (90 workers stopped the sending out of phone bills; women stopped the distribution of stamps, etc.) is not to be had from the statistics setting out the number of days lost.


5: Trying to extinguish the flames: the response of the Government, press and others.
Workers’ organizational forms.

During The Winter of Discontent (as the workers had partially intuited – re. the firefighters strike etc), the Government was to be found naked and very weak not daring to invoke a State of Emergency as the Tory Heath Government was want to do in the early 70s. They couldn’t appear to be as repressive as this seeing they’d staked so much on being different to the previous Government. Moreover, the States of Emergency under the Tories in the early 70s had provoked far more problems for the ruling class than they had solved.

Nonetheless, having got rid of the hated Tories Industrial Relations Act, the incoming Labour Government felt incumbent to bring in another, milder version of its own: the l974 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act. The Act was nebulously phrased in a kind of private creole jargon of legal terminology which could mean anything according to what interpretation one cared to put on it. The Act allowed industrial action “in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute” and the judges deciphered it as they pleased according to their own particular bigoted bent. Under it, judgements were brought in 1977 against officials of the Association of Broadcasting Staff and SOGAT printers. In 1978, it was the turn of the International Transport Workers and the journalists’ NUJ. In The Winter of Discontent, a writ for secondary picketing was brought by the United Biscuits company against lorry drivers in Silvertown, E. London even though it came to nothing. Justice Ackner said during this episode, re the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act that a “totally unlimited construction of these words would have meant that Parliament was writing a recipe for anarchy, a proposition I am quite unable to accept. There must be a presumption that Parliament does not intend to legislate to bring about its own destruction”. Criticism indeed of the Labour Government! Generally, throughout The Winter of Discontent, recourse to law by the State remained a dead letter.

In many ways, the only weapons (if one can call them that!) at hand for the Government were pitiful pleas to the workers and not the use of police or even worse. Prime Minister Callaghan, two weeks after Sunny Jim’s Guadaloupe conference of World Statesmen and his seemingly unflappable dismissal of the potential workers’ insurrection in the UK, had to grovellingly beg workers, pleadingly declaring “only rank and file trade unionists can save the nation” (Jan 23rd ‘79).

It is undoubtedly true that union influence in the Cabinet, tipped the balance against a declaration of a State of Emergency during The Winter of Discontent. In the Cabinet there were nine union sponsored members, six of them sponsored by the T.G.W.U., A.E.U.W. and the NUM. (e.g. Roy Mason at the Ulster Office and Eric Varley, Secretary of State for Industry, were NUM sponsored MP’s etc). At all costs the Labour Party had to uphold a dearly held belief, that TU chiefs could control ‘their’ membership.

Much of the same feeling was echoed by other voice-overs for the State. The Guardian newspaper was overcome with wish-fulfillment which completely misread the facts. For instance, they reported that the lorry drivers’ secondary picketing had been curbed by the T.G.W.U. leadership (in particular, by that gallant little follower – no longer leader – of the masses, Moss Evans) when secondary picketing was actually in the process of being intensified (e.g. the flying pickets at the port of Dover). Finally, by late January, realizing how insipid they’d been, The Guardian dropped its liberal facade and called for a State of Emergency.

Most people knew that the Trade Union bosses had no control whatsoever over the workers’ strike movement. An ORC opinion poll for a BBC TV ‘Nationwide’ programme screened after the 6pm news, declared that 7O% of those interviewed said the unions no longer had any control over their members. Even complete reactionaries like LBC’s George Gale, in one of his chat shows, knew that to be the case (even though he had the cheek to say he might be prepared to work for £1 an hour in response to a striking ambulance driver who’d phoned in)Bigots crawling out of the woodwork, as per usual, only read things through their own rabid ideology demanding that the TUC general council should be shot for treason! But the TUC general council – all 40 of them – were subverting nothing and were the voice of social democratic, little Englander nationalism, desperately hoping the country would not be torn apart!

Not that the Winter of Discontent was a totally anti-union response from the workers. Far from it. The organisational composition (e.g. the flying pickets and the strike committees etc) were generally, it seems, shop stewards or men and women of experience in union matters, Shop stewards had grown in number from 90,000 in 1961 to 300,000 in 1979. The movement was thus not clearly or consciously anti-union in form – although obviously its momentum was heading in that direction.

That shop stewards played such a part was somewhat surprising considering that during the period of the Labour Government, the shop stewards were regarded with hostility by many workers precisely because they were called upon by a social democratic coloured State to police the phases of the social contract on the shop floor. With some grumbling, a lot of them submitted to this hideous task. It was quite a turn around from the previous period under the Tories when the shop stewards were the main instigators of workers’revolts. Under Labour, the shop stewards were courted by the powers-that-be, like perhaps never before. Since 1975, shop stewards were encouraged to do work which used to be handled by full-time officials and a detailed system of consultation had been used to frame wage demands according to the requirements of the social contract. All in all, this process had been a massive attempt to derail and manipulate all that was authentic in the revocably mandated base of the shop stewards.

This was the general pattern but in specific cases other things happened whereby the shop stewards managed to maintain a distance from union diktat. Some aura of independence was kind of maintained. Sometimes, the central authority of trade union leaders was eroded by local management making deals with shop stewards over the heads of union officials.

It seemed, lackeying the varying tide, shop stewards suddenly had had enough of what they’d been manipulated into doing by ‘their’ social democratic State and in this Winter of our Discontent, bit the hand that purportedly fed them. In some senses though, the strikes of ‘79 didn’t make a break with an addled shop stewards apparatus as had happened in isolated, local strikes a year earlier. Because the stewards had changed their colours again, there was never, during The Winter of Discontent, a sustained critique in action by the workers themselves against the stewards “union on the shop floor” as had happened say in ‘77 in the Swan Hunter shipyards on the Tyne when striking outfitters disobeyed national and local union officials plus the shop stewards who together had tried to force a return to work. Interestingly too, about the same time, a strike of mainly black women workers at a Tottenham factory in North London elected a strike committee which threw out shop steward representation.

However, during the Winter of Discontent, there were a few moments though of this ‘unofficial’, unofficial movement, mainly in the car industry. In October ‘78, against shop steward advice, Ford workers at Halewood (or, Stormy Forest as it is locally known) spontaneously ran out of the car factory, buckling the factory gates in their haste, thus initiating the nationwide Ford strike which broke Labour’s 5% wage limit and ushered in the great, rebellious winter. Later, in the middle of February ‘79, there was an angry response by some workers at the British Leyland car plant at Longbridge, Birmingham, after the stewards and the convenor had recommended a strike the previous Friday but then called for a ‘disciplined’ return to work after other B.L. plants had failed to follow suit and go on strike. At the mass meeting on 15th Feb ‘79 some shop stewards were physically assaulted by car assembly line workers.

The Winter of Discontent in its scope and breadth defied all easy description that comes to mind. It was a movement of neither right nor left and even reactionaries were swept along by it. As one Economist article commented at the time, re. the striking airline pilots: their voting habits and sympathies “are to the right of Biggles”

The revolt of ‘78-‘79 threw up no popular leaders or figureheads to be courted by the media. It was leaderless and anonymous and in that sense perhaps the first really modern revolt in the UK. There wasn’t any one individual, unlike the early 70s industrial struggles, focussed around a somewhat glib anti-Toryism, people like Jimmie Reid and the comedian media star, Billy Connolly of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in, or Arthur Scargill and Dennis Skinner during the miners strikes of ‘72/’74. All these figureheads remained subdued and more or less bewildered during the Winter of Discontent, although some Trots called on the Parliamentary Left to give leadership! But, so much was the aggro against their opportunisms that it was reported that Dennis Skinner‘s brother (the surcharged and sacked ex-Labour councillor from Clay Cross, North Derbyshire) could barely bring himself to speak to Den.

The doom-laden patriots of the mediaat this time resignedly put out the True Grit Brit stiff upper lip message of “grin and bear it” but it was the strikers who were doing the grinning! Jokes flourished freely.

            N.U.R. – No Use Rushing

Question: What does A.S.L.E.F. mean?

Answer: ‘As ‘lef’ ma’ train in the depot.

Local working men’s club comedians had a hayday. Some, if not many, jokes also had a reactionary slant although they were somewhat ambivalent depending on your particular disposition. If you were hostile to work there was plenty to give you succour. One went the rounds in the Belfast clubs. A lorry driver crossed a picket line in Belfast and was immediately stopped by the pickets. He retorted, “Sorry lads, but seeing you were all standing around, I thought you were all back at work”.

The media’s real effect however was to try and instill a feeling of doom and disaster. It turned out to be a reasonably successful strategy in terrifying a fair number of people. For instance, media hyping of the empty shelves in supermarkets added to the panic buying – and, by the way, netted Tesco’s a £7 million a week sales bonanza (perhaps panic shoplifting would have been more appropriate in this contestation) It worked on survival fears and English obsessions at one and the same moment. Within a few days, the media reported on shortages of cat litter appealing to that heart-felt English sentimentality about animals. One letter to a tabloid newspaper said: “I can only conclude that the great British trade union movement is strong enough to starve rabbits!”. And, of course, encouraged by Thatcher, they emphasised all that was grizly in the gravediggers strike: crematorium workers leaving bodies in mortuaries and in Liverpool, bodies dumped in a disused factory formerly owned by Plessey’s. Perhaps the latter example could have been turned around by some imaginative tactics by a few of the strikers because bodies in Plessey’s also has a funny side and could have helped subvert all that Olde Englande crap epitomized in Gray’s Elegy and the country churchyard syndrome. In bourgeois society death is sacrosanct, life isn’t. The peculiarly inflected, English worship of death remained. At the same time as these events were unfolding here, across the pond, a group of striking mortuary attendants in Wayne County, Detroit, vandalised the mortuary and removed identity tags on the corpses.

Generally though, it was a pretty wild, unpredictable and exciting strike wave. Even the State was in some kind of way thrown into the movement. Midway during the strike wave, his patience wearing thin, Callaghan on Feb 1st ‘79 got verbally and poetically accurate, calling the strikers’ methods: “free collective vandalism”. These paranoid guardians of capital – in moments of crisis – often stumble on the truth and begin to express things clearly for once or, at least, in a smart turn of phrase. In the late 60s, Edward Stewart, another Labour Party hack and Minister for Education, called rebellious students “academic thugs”. Unfortunately, in both respects, the poetic description has been more than the reality. There wasn’t enough academic thuggery against universities/polys/art schools etc. in the late 60s, as now there was insufficient free collective vandalism.

The Winter of Discontent involved many workers who’d never been on strike before – like the Beefeaters in their medieval regalia standing no longer to attention outside the Tower of London. Mainly it was the State sector who were pushing: hospital ancillary workers, council workers, civil servants, social workers, airline and railway workers etc. In the private sector: oil tanker drivers, lorry drivers and car assembly workers. Two big and powerful groups, the dockers and miners, who had created so much havoc in the early 70s, didn’t strike

6: Bombing the class struggle: The Winter and Terrorism in Ireland 

Ulster was wrapped up by the strikes just like mainland Britain. Indeed, as one newspaper headline put it, the strikes in Ulster had done more damage to the economy of the Province than years of IRA bombs. Catholic and Protestant striking workers joined together. In fact, the first big rash of strikes after the victorious Ford strike was first felt in N.Ireland. Mainland UK was pipped at the post. Orange populism in the Province had to drop its brutal ways for the moment, changing its appearance and colour to a kind of red in order probably to keep some semblance of authority. The Rev. Ian Paisley, in a brief address to striking health workers in Ballymena, said that MP’s were prepared to vote to increase their salaries by £20 per week but then told the workers “you will get no more than £5”. The maniac was trying to ride the tiger and probably knew it!

From the other side, green went to Dublin in the red as The Irish Times in a gleeful editorial (Jan 27th ‘79) and full of a hidden Republican hatred, slantingly construed the strike as a kind of hatred of the British aristocrats. Well, that came into it but it was more, much more, than that. But as it said:”This is the first occasion for half a century that the plain people, non-U masses, the workers, call them what you will, have shown themselves determined on a very broad front not to play the game as laid down by their superiors…” All this was followed by objections to the “upper crust” and “aristocrats and their upper class executives”. It ended with: “Perhaps Tommy’s day has arrived…. Whether it will be a fine day or not is another matter”.

But The Irish Times neglected to say perhaps Paddy’s day too, because the knock-on effect of The Winter of Discontent encouraged activity in the Republic, which was experiencing a wave of unofficial strikes too (e.g. the largest being a national bus strike and a strike of Dublin postal workers).

However, amidst all this beautiful chaos and exhilarating confusion, the Provisional IRA, as to be expected by such an anti-working class terrorist organization, chose to go on the offensive in London in the week beginning the 15th of Jan, with an explosion in the Blackwall Tunnel underneath the Thames. There was also an attempt to detonate the vast complex of oil storage containers on Canvev Island, Essex.. Fortunately, the device failed but if it had succeeded, its effect would have been horrific, especially for the course of the developing autonomous class struggle. Not only would it have finished off the health workers strike but it would have made the bomb planted by the Italian State in Milan ‘69, in order to de-rail the struggle of the Italian workers, appear puny in comparison. Hundreds could possibly have been killed as the oil storage containers are situated right next to built up areas of housing.

7: Changing the fire brigade:

The economic outcome of The Winter of Discontent and the Labour Government’s experiment with monetarism

Not only was the Governments pay restraint in ruins, its prices policy was too. Once the workers were determinedly winning, it was necessary for the Labour Government to turn most of the heat on the bosses, local government and the middle class rate-payers to foot the bill. The Government had maintained during The Winter of Discontent a tight hold over the money supply and the Bank of England was expressly forbidden to print confetti money not anchored in real productivity (because it would stimulate further inflation). Thus, the ]IMF financially was not it seems unduly worried by the great wave of strikes. The pound remained relatively stable on the foreign exchanges, if only because the foreign markets were a lot more worried about the future of Iran, after the revolt which overthrew the Shah. One currency under pressure takes the pressure off other currencies. But economic fears were high and money was going into metals like plutonium and gold which were sold at all time highs. In a sense however, turning to gold expressed the general uncertainties about all currencies as gold never falls apart when all currency markets are unstable.

One has to be careful, considering the totality of world economic factors, not to overestimate the effect of strikes in the UK on sterling. At other times than the Winter of ’79, with much fewer strikes, the pound has catastrophically dropped in The City’s foreign exchange dealings. A good example is the toolmakers strikes at British Leyland in ‘76/’77.

On Feb 7th ‘79, the Government introduced a new minimuim lending rate of l4%, which, whilst aiding Finance capital and the Bank of England, put the squeeze on Industrial capital. It was high but not as high as the l5% Minimum Lending Rate of ‘76 (after the IMF loan). Translated into High St Banks, it turned into an interest rate of 13% which inevitably made it tighter for small businesses.

It was equally inevitable, but rarely recognised by insurgent workers, who, whether they knew it or not, were wrecking the monetary economy, that ruthless strike action ineluctably leading to a higher bank rate, were twin pincer movements which forced small businesses (those employing less than 200 workers) to the wall. Unemplovment therefore increased. Moreover, it was a process which had a long, drawn out effect. For instance, the real effect of the lorry drivers strike on business was felt after its conclusicn. Even before the strike wave of ‘78/’79 as many small companies went to the wall in ‘78 than four years previously. A nihilistic sense of hopelessness gradually crept into business dealings over the ten years up till ‘79. As one small businessman put it at that time: “Re-budget, re-plan and wait for the next strike to happen”.

8: Damage Assessment:
The Labour/Capital Relationship of Force at the end of the 70s

Despite the fact that the struggles of the working class from 1969 to 1979 had destroyed three successive governments, a definitive rupture with the exploitative system never happened. English capitalism remained intact largely because it came from a globally dominant position and because – in spite of a decline lasting more than 50 years- it remained the world’s second financial power. From its former Empire, the UK still retained economic dominance in areas as unlike each other as they were profitable – areas like Hong Kong, Singapore, India, South Africa. This position of strength was guaranteed especially by the military might of the USA (which explains the special relationship between the USA and England, at the heart of which, in contrast, a ferocious competition sometimes reveals itself, despite collaborations such as the bombing of the Balkans and of Iraq). These shreds of power had allowed, until the 70s, the purchase of the acquiescence of the working class, which, for a long time had acted as a support for the system, a system able to offer it a “privileged” situation. It is possible to say that a considerable part of the surplus value extracted by English capital, in its private hunting grounds of the olden days, served as a cover up for the inadequate levels of productivity within England itself. But such a situation couldn’t last forever: the world crisis accelerated the erosion of British capital’s external position, making the internal position much more fragile. International competition is, before anything else, a question of productivity – that is, of modernisation and increasing the intensity of labour. Depending on the situation, one can come before the other or both involve each other at the same time. It matters little whether one regards capital’s problem in England during this period as overcoming resistance to modernisation or as intensifying labour. English capitalism certainly has the same hallmarks as capitalism everywhere else in the world, as the Financial Times noted during a conference of bankers in Belgrade in ‘79: “The world is condemned to years of accelerating inflation, low levels of production and high levels of unemployment, while Governments and politicians can scarcely do anything about it.” The fact remains, nonetheless, that capitalists and governments, even as they career along on a day-to-day basis, have to make choices, and these choices (even if they’re bad in capitalist terms) imply a consistent orientation: they must increase the rate of surplus value extraction – that is, they must obtain more production for less money.

Where did the struggles carried on in the UK in the years up till 1979 get the working class? Despite the fact that there had been no classical revolutionary situation, these struggles had bound, hand and foot, a capitalism in a privileged position (with abundant resources to deal with its crisis and with the crisis in general) – bound it with a thousand invisible threads, invisible because the struggle wasn’t expressed in terms of a permanent conflict taking the form of violent confrontations. The net result for English workers in everyday terms was that, for a standard of living comparable to other European countries, they worked about one third less. Whereas nowadays, the situation has reversed itself: here we probably work about 50% more.

The fact that effectively three governments were subverted by the class struggle in 10 years, two of them quite clearly and overtly, severely weakened bourgeois democracy and marked the eruption of a social power into political power. The problem, which went from the authority of the boss via that of the union leaders to that of State power, became essentially, under all its aspects – even the most minute, a political problem because it involved the entire apparatus of exploitation and domination (one could draw a parallel, leaving out certain features, with what happened in Poland in ‘70 – ‘71 and in 1976). “Politics” in the traditional sense of the term – a change in the governing party – was no longer seen as a “solution” by the workers, but as something one can impose on and influence – not by voting or through delegation, but through a relation of direct force. Added to which, the relationship of forces was not expressed in terms of open confrontation but in terms of self and class interest and direct action to further these interests.

Peter Jenkins wrote in The Guardian (21/1/79): “If the country risks becoming ungovernable it is not because of the power of the unions, it is rather because they are powerless to control their members. The national leaders have lost all control. I have never seen them so unhappy as they are now.” Echoing this statement, Callaghan recently declared, “The Conservative Government has been elected through the ballot box and can only be defeated the same way…The danger lies in a social anarchy developing before the unions have decided on new wage demands.” It was the same situation that a leading article in The Financial Times defined as “stopping the rot”.

Politics is something that asserts itself either through force or persuasion. The difference between the Tories and the Labour Party at that time was that, though they sought the same solutions (one could say that all the remedies were indifferently applied by both during the course of the previous 30 years in order to get out of the impasse), the Tories constantly talked of force whilst having little ability to utilise it, whilst the Labour Party talked constantly of persuasion with little success, but resorting to force whenever they could. The problem for Governments was not so much passing laws (they promised a lot, especially in relation to pickets) but rather – how to enforce them. The Heath Government fell after having made several U-turns over the Industrial Relations Act, which was got up to tackle exactly the same problem as Thatcher succeeded in tackling. The problem for governments was not so much a problem of having, above all else, a good deterrent police force and a strong union structure endowed with extensive powers – but of making sure that the workers didn’t oppose their global social power to the repressive forces (this is what happened in 1974 and 1978 – 9 and it happens every time a conflict of authority effects the workers), of making sure that the workers don’t use “union power” for their own ends by diverting the institutions intended to contain them into formidable offensive weapons.

Capitalism is a dynamic system, and faced with this situation it will constantly attempt to adopt measures according to circumstances, rather than according to a long term political perspective (apart from the general perspective of defending capitalism’s interests). One could discern in the closures of factories which weren’t productive enough (and where workers resisted modernisation and speed-ups or demanded a corresponding wage increase) the outline of a new politics. But this also happened in countries not affected by the English disease – as a result of the worldwide restructuring of capital accelerated by the crisis. However, it seems that it was only here that there was a tendency to want to accelerate the crisis in order to break resistance in the most combative factories. But to this there also corresponded a fall in investment, not just in national enterprises such as British Leyland but also in traditional industrial sectors and increasingly in sectors managed by English capital abroad. Because of all these implications which we’ve tried to outline, the situation in England after the 70s could only be a specific and painful adaptation to a long-term restructuring, the process of which would partially escape the control of the capitalists themselves, a restructuring corresponding to the situation of English capital throughout the world. Before Thatcher such a situation carried with it two unknowns which rendered all speculation hazardous. The world crisis hardly opened up any direction for any form of capitalist renewal since it was encumbered as much by the problems we have described as by a ferocious international competition. Capitalism’s “weak links” allowed possible directions towards a new world and the possibility of a break to appear, which could have developed but were ultimately destroyed for this epoch mainly by repression.. The high level of struggle in 1979 was without a doubt a foretaste of other struggles, against which the Government and the unions sharpened their knives.

English capitalism had been the worlds’ first capitalism and its 19th century imperialist domination has had no subsequent equivalent. As the first country to undergo a capitalist transformation it did not follow that the U.K. should be the first to enter on the path of capitalist decomposition.

In his book “Autonomous Class Struggle in Great Britain” Cajo Brendel has precisely tried to show how the accumulation of “little struggles” and “little concessions” unfolded, bit by bit, into political confrontations having, as the end result, the fall of the Heath Government and the later events related in this text. This study shows how an “awakening of political consciousness” arose not in the traditional sense of the term but in the sense of a social consciousness. For some while, political illusions in the parliamentary left have disappeared: the Labour Party has always been a loyal defender of capitalism just like the Trade Unions to which it is closely linked. But this social consciousness has not been accompanied by constructing different organisations or by the struggle to transform old organisations: rather, it has expressed itself by the disappearance of the dominant ideology in social conflicts of every variety and it’s expressed every time workers directly concern themselves with stressing their individual interests or the social interests of their class above those of the so-called general interest. That’s why the struggles, in utilising the existing structures of domination, take on a different character. And why the conflict between repressive forces and autonomous action is not situated on the level of violence but on internal guerilla action in terms of power.

One finds in Cajo Brendel’s book, a detailed description of the ‘72 – ‘74 struggles, in particular the struggles of the miners and dockers, which brought about the fall of the Conservative Government. The strikes weren’t particularly directed against this government but in his attempts to suppress them, Edward Heath had to, on various occasions, make spectacular U-turns under threat of a spontaneous General Strike. Capital had to find a “political alternative”: the Labour Government, supported by the unions, now launched the new politics of “social contracts” putting the brakes on wage rises, whilst inflation absorbed the hefty rises obtained in ‘73 – ‘74. By means of wages/productivity agreements, it also tried to overcome the sickness of British capital: capitals’ low productivity was due principally to the workers’ resistance to “modernisation” and to speed-ups. In this close alliance between the social democratic Labour Party and the Trade Unions, some thought they saw there the affirmation of “trade union power”. What’s sure is that Capital “provided all opportunity” to the Trade Unions to attempt to introduce new structures to control labour. What happened in reality is that, within the extension of trade union rights (an extension made necessary by the increased influence of the rank and file in the preceding period), one saw, after a truce, a slow escalation of the same rank & file conflict that had presided over the fall of the Heath Government. It is equally certain, however, that the Labour Government – Wilson first, then Callaghan afterwards – could not obtain this truce and give some credence to the “social contract” without the cost of granting the multiple “partial concessions” of which Pannekoek had spoken. Once granted they would be difficult to get rid of – reinforcing the power of the rank & file they aimed to stem. One can say that this politics, faced with the power of the rank & file, failed precisely when the world crisis made it ever more necessary for capital to intensify exploitation.

It isn’t possible to define stages in the class struggle, only periods in which struggle accelerates and conflicts with the State take on a more overt form. Often there isn’t even any confrontation, everything passes off peacefully, but the political consequences are serious. At the time, much was said about the ‘79 January and February strikes, especially the lorry drivers’ strike. Yet it was the Ford strike four months previously, the most peaceful and “classical” strike, that had breached the dam of the Social Contract, demonstrating the failure of the Government on the social as well as political level. The conflicts that followed only underlined this impotence – and the dissolution of Parliament and the holding of new elections and the formation of a Conservative Government did nothing initially to moderate the wave of struggles that unfolded under forms that proved to be not sufficiently different from those that had preceded them.

To mention union power is justified by the fact that the great majority of them were union strikes – that is, “recognised” by the unions after quite a long time had elapsed from the time that they’d spontaneously broken out. For the most part they were led just by shop stewards or by “unofficial” shop stewards committees. In fact, judged from this angle, one can observe a difference between the preceding period, when many struggles were wildcat strikes and were in opposition to the union bureaucracy. However, nothing had changed as regards the outcome of daily struggles, whose effect was often as important as the “big strikes” (one example, which we’ll deal with later on, is the toolmakers’ strike at British Leyland). The relative speed with which the union “recognised” these “important” strikes did not spring from a change in political attitudes but, on the contrary, from a need – each time more obvious – for the unions’ role in society to constantly control rank and file actions with ever increasing urgency. This situation entailed a double dialectic: the power of the rank and file (trade unionist in a formal sense because of the closed shop) was questioning the notion of legality but legal reinforcements finally give ample scope to rank & file autonomy – which was able to assert itself even more. The strikes of the Winter of ‘78 – ‘79 demonstrated how “union power” can do nothing other than attempt to closely follow the rank & file movement in order to control it. According to the circumstance of each strike, the frontier between the unions repressive action and rank & file autonomy shifted:

In the Ford strike, the negotiating power the union threw up when it recognised the strike (in order to prevent the setting up of autonomous shop stewards committees) didn’t amount to the power to negotiate whatever it wanted. Trade Union control ceases to be once it attempts to defend “its” political viewpoint. They were unable to propose calling off the strike, other than by putting forward demands that corresponded more or less to rank & file demands and this only after each factory took a vote on it.

In the lorry drivers’ strike the battle lines were drawn up between the rank & file which, under the cover of the trade union, did what it wanted and where it wanted, and the bureaucratic apparatus which tried to “recapture the local strike committees” and impose a “picketing code of conduct”.

In the ambulance drivers’ strike, this dividing line lay in the flouting of what constituted an “emergency” and the utilisation by the Labour Government, with Trade Union support, of the police and the army.

In the postal workers’ strike this line lay in the impossible task the union had in preventing camouflaged strikes in which no one could say where they began or where they ended. Similarly, it was unable to impose productivity clauses which would, without a doubt, break the permanent self-defence against a modernisation whose raison d’etre is, above all, to break the informal autonomous organisation of the rank and file.

The dialectic of union power/rank & file power is ultimately nothing more than the expression of the capital/labour dialectic between two antagonistic elements which nevertheless are entirely interdependent. It is interesting to point out that the battle lines, shifting each time towards rank & file action, implied that rulings on apparently insignificant matters like those referring to picketing action resulted in being political questions of the greatest importance. Hence the myriad details comprising the “picketing code of conduct” elaborated by the Trade Unions and the Labour Government. The Tory Party under Thatcher was also concerned to translate this political question of the greatest importance into law. At the time the question being debated was whether it should be done in terms of civil or criminal law. One can, at the same time, gauge the fragility of the system created because, short of stationing a trade union cop or a real cop behind each worker, the system lacked efficacy. Callaghan, in a statement to Parliament on the 19th of January ‘79, was quite conscious of the problem: “Unofficial actions [the implication being non-union actions] are the main problem. Do the Tories want the Government to imprison several thousand people in order to stop them.” In fact, even the trade union reform promised by the Tories – “re-establishing law & order” – would have the support of all State apparatuses, provided they were effective and didn’t unleash even worse troubles than those they were seeking to prevent. After a meeting with Mrs. Thatcher, where this subject was raised, Len Murray, General Secretary of the TUC, declared the Tories had no intention of being radical in their reform of industrial relations. On the matter of pickets, he even emphasised that he had told the Minister of Employment, James Prior, to “think very carefully before advancing on this particularly sensitive area of labour relations.”

This political solution to labour/capital relations had, nevertheless, a disproportionate importance as regards other diffuse phenomena in English capitalist society: such phenomena can explain why these solutions, spectacularly put forward in response to certain dramatic events or confrontations, were rapidly shown to be as much use as cracking a nut with a sledgehammer. This connects up with what we said earlier about “politics”. These phenomena cannot be defined in terms of confrontation, although they encapsulated the daily confrontation of each and everyone with capital. This is not exactly what Pannekoek wrote, but it amounts to the same thing. The central element in all these phenomena was what we emphasised about the transformation of the workers’ way of seeing things vis a vis the dominant ideology. It’s not only the bosses who wanted to avoid a direct confrontation (as the statements we have quoted point out) but the workers also wanted to avoid “a serious and decisive class war”, which people continue looking for, taking the 19th century, or the post-World War 1 period as their reference. However, the domination of capital over production had been achieved up till this point partly because of the impossibility of adapting to the necessities of competition and profit through what then seemed like insurmountable resistances. An article in the “Financial Times” (2/2/79) about the Merseyside economy, specified the “number of firms suffering from a low level of productivity and a rate of absenteeism above the average.” This is considered as potentially more damaging from the firms’ point of view than strikes. The problems which come up in many societies can be resolved by good organisation but the danger is that these problems regenerate and perpetuate themselves. In this epoch, workers who were repeatedly made unemployed developed a “part-time work” mentality, which was translated into low productivity and a wilful resistance to all externally imposed change.

Political phenomena (the indirect consequence of the determination shown in the Ford strike, for example, or the lorry drivers strike) cannot, however, be detached from the social and economic phenomena affecting this transformation in the way workers viewed things. These were the direct confrontations which, particularly in the 70s, but before then as well, contributed to the transformation of consciousness, teaching each person to count only on themselves (which included recognising their own needs in others’) – like the perspective of turning the labour time dilemma against capital. It is this ideological change which rendered useless the traps set against direct action and which made proletarian solidarity such a fearful prospect. Autonomous action took place within trade union structures, sure, but it’s not by chance that working class action gave new life to an old tradition – pickets – equipped with an unformulated “workers’ code of conduct” which in practice was violently opposed to a “trade union code of conduct” (but not explicitly). It is not by chance, either, if union traditions have fallen into disuse through conservative traditionalism. This does not mean that other arms of struggle couldn’t reappear, rescued from oblivion. But it will have nothing to do with Trade unionism and its pretended power. On the contrary, it will have everything to do with rank & file action and with finding some way out of the tangled web of “realism” and media-manipulated “reasonableness”.


Hits on 3/1/17: 1850


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