On March 1st 1971, hundreds of thousands of workers (some reports suggest as many as 1.5 million people) across Britain took part in an unofficial day of protest against the government’s new industrial relations Bill.
More than 100,000 workers walked out on strike in London alone – although only about 2,000 joined a march through the capital.
The protest was the biggest demonstration against the bill, which included proposals for a strike ballot and a cooling-off period before any industrial action, as well as tighter controls on union agreements and membership.
Unions represented on the march included the boilermakers, printers and electrical workers. Postal workers, who had been on strike for six weeks, also joined the protest. No national newspapers were printed.
The Trades Union Congress didn’t officially back the strike action – although it had been campaigning against the bill. The protesters deliberately chose to march past Congress House, headquarters of the TUC, to demonstrate their opposition to the bill.
Many of the demonstrators carried banners calling for a general strike on 18 March unless the government backed down. However this didn’t happen.
The bill was approved by MPs in August 1971 but proved largely ineffective.
It was certainly a different era. In contrast to the last three decades, during the post-war period the union movement had grown in numerical strength, confidence and combativity. Workers had not suffered a serious industrial defeat for a generation. Growth in the economy and practically full employment had strengthened unions’ bargaining position, particularly at local level where negotiations on pay and conditions were conducted by shop stewards. Workers were able to take a bigger share of the wealth their collective labour had created. During the 1960s wages constituted up to 60% of gross domestic product (and by 1975 had reached 64.5%), compared to 53.2% in 2008.
The Conservative Party had won the general election of June 1970 against a backdrop of disenchantment with the previous Labour government, led by Harold Wilson, amid mounting difficulties in the British economy.
Throughout the 1960s, productivity had lagged behind its rivals because of the failure of British capitalism to sufficiently invest in industry. Heath’s Tory government was determined to make workers pay for this long-term economic malaise. At a time when rampant inflation and increased taxation were eroding wage levels, a key plank of its policy was wage restraint to restore the profitability of British capitalism.
The implementation of wage restraint was premised on the successful application of the anti-strike provisions of the Industrial Relations Bill, published in December 1970. The number of strikes had been on the up in the 1960s, the vast majority unofficial. The shop stewards articulated the developing militancy of the union membership.
During the 1960s Britain’s ruling class was increasingly incensed at the inability of the union leadership to prevent wildcat strikes, unofficial action organised by shop stewards but not sanctioned by the union leadership. In the late 1960s, the Labour government had attempted to introduce reforms to legislation attacking the unions and redusing rights regsarding strikes and collective bargaining, but had been forced ro back down by opposition from within the party and the unions.
When the Tories were elected in 1970, however, they pledged to complete what Labour had attempted. Their 1970 election manifesto was explicit that the aim of their bill was to give the trade union leaders the legal means to exert more central authority over rank-and-file activists to prevent wildcat stoppages: “We aim to strengthen the unions and their official leadership by providing some deterrent against irresponsible action by unofficial minorities”. Some TUC leaders had intimated to the Tories that they ‘understood’ the need for such legislation – they too wanted to regain control over the shop stewards movement – but could not state this publicly.
What became the Industrial Relations Act 1971 laid down that any dispute deemed to endanger the ‘national interest’ would be subject to a secret ballot and a compulsory cooling-off period of not less than 14 days. In an effort to encourage non-unionism it outlawed the closed shop (union only workplaces). Solidarity action in the form of sympathy strikes was also made illegal. Sweeping aside the legal protection in place since the 1906 Trades Dispute Act, unions would lose all immunity from being sued by employers in the civil courts if they were not registered and their union rule books had not been approved by the state. A National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) was established to hear cases relating to the act.
TUC leaders attempted to downplay the possibility of defeating the Bill, and refused to back strike action against it. Instead, the TUC merely backed a series of national, regional and local protest meetings. On 21 February 1971 up to 200,000 trade unionists participated in a national demonstration from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, the biggest since the Chartists’ protests 140 years earlier.
The March 1st strike was the last of four one-day unofficial ‘kill the bill’ protest strikes which took place from December 1970 to March 1971. The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) played a key role in organising the action, which received the backing of the AUEW. Established to oppose In Place of Strife, the LCDTU attracted militant shop stewards.
Despite attempts by the TUC leadership to handicap it, union opposition grew. But in the end, it was a series of disputes against wage restraint, most notably the miners strikes of 1972 and 1974, the railwaymen’s work to rule in 1972, and the dockers’ 1972 dispute over containerisation, not specifically strikes against the Act, which defeated the government’s plans. These struggles and others were conducted in defiance of the Industrial Relations Act – this is what rendered the act unworkable.
Pivotal to the industrial action that engulfed Heath’s government was the role of the shop stewards, who by the early 1970s numbered over 200,000. By 2008 their number had declined to 128,000 (although the overall figure for all union reps, including health and safety, equality and learning, appears to be no lower than it was in the mid-1960s). The role of shop stewards in the workplace has changed dramatically though over the last four decades, including the current lack of strong organisations at a rank-and-file level, as a result of management offensives and legal constraints.
Very real changes that have taken place in union membership and density, workplace organisation, and political consciousness.
SINCE THE 1980s the relationship of forces swung favourably to the capitalists, at a national level and in the workplaces, with the ground yet to be recovered. Even during the economic growth of 2001-08, union membership barely inched forward. More importantly, shop-floor representation and organisation continued its downward trend. The combativity and confidence of workers had increased throughout the 1970s, but the 1974 Labour government’s refusal to break with capitalism led it into a series of conflicts with workers, most notably against low-paid public-sector workers during the winter of 1978/79. The resulting disillusionment led to Labour’s defeat in 1979, which allowed Margaret Thatcher to come to power with an agenda to destroy militant trade unionism.
Thatcher’s vendetta against the unions in the 1980s was partly revenge for the battering her class received under Heath – to try and ensure that never again would ordinary union members be able to inflict such a devastating blow against the representatives of capitalism. Thatcher and her successor, John Major, eventually achieved, with eight shorter and specific pieces of legislation over a 13-year period, what Heath had attempted to enact in one go.
Thatcher’s anti-union laws remain a serious obstacle to organising effective industrial action, both locally and in terms of more generalised action. Workers can only take industrial action against their own employers, solidarity action and political strikes are unlawful. Defiance of such laws may prove necessary again where they act as a barrier to workers defending their livelihoods.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online