Posts Tagged ‘Metal Industry’

Anti-Union Propaganda and the Myth of the Strike-Prone Seventies

March 8, 2016

The Tories in their attacks on the trade unions make much of the supposed damage caused by strikes to public services and Britain’s status in the world. They hark back particularly to the 1970s as the era when the unions were totally out of control, wrecking British industry, already struggling from Socialist mismanagement by the Labour party, with irresponsible strikes and picketing. This, they claim, was a decade of social and economic chaos, when Britain was only saved from collapse by the timely election of Margaret Thatcher and her tough policy on the unions.

Eric Hopkins provides an interesting rebuttal of this received wisdom in his Rise and Fall of the English Working classes. He writes on page 131:

Other aspects of union activity which undoubtedly attracted criticism included the speed with which some union officials called men out on strike, often on the basis of a show of hands at a mass meeting (the ‘wildcat’ strike); then there was the practice of overmanning, and the persistence of inter-union demarcation disputes. Occasionally there was violence on the picket lines, when blacklegs or scabs were attacked. Middle-class prejudice against unionism was strengthened by films such as I’m Alright, Jack (featuring Peter Sellers as a self-important shop steward), and The Angry Silence, portraying the treatment meted out to a blackleg. A popular TV comedy, The Rag Trade, amusing and harmless in itself, featured Miriam Karlin as a militant shop steward in a small clothing workshop whose strident blast on the whistle and cry of ‘Everybody out!’ would bring work to an abrupt end, to the dismay of the bumbling and inefficient proprietor, played by Peter Jones. In fact, the majority of strikes were conducted properly enough, and were based on perfectly legitimate grievances; the real problem was the increase in unofficial strikes which did not follow the conventional procedures. Although the belief grew up at the time that England was particularly strike-prone, there is actually no reason to supposed that workers here went on strike more readily than workers elsewhere in Europe. Further, three-quarters of all strikes lasted less than three days for most of the 1960s. In the late 1960s this proportion was reduced but still remained at about half in the 1970s. Earlier, on the coal industry was more strike-prone than other industries – 70 per cent of all strikes between 1952 and 1957 were in the coal industry. Later on, the metal industry and the motor industry became the commonest industries for strikes. Yet even then, in the period 1971-3 there were no strikes at all in 95 per cent of manufacturing plants.

There were serious issues with union power in the 1970s, particularly with the three-day week and the National Union of Mineworkers’ battle with Ted Heath. It seems from this that Britain’s reputation as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ particularly beset by strikes has been very much exaggerated.

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