Britain’s century of strikes: the history behind today's industrial action
Recent months have seen thousands of workers – including nurses, railway employees and postal staff – go on strike around the United Kingdom. Richard Toye explores the nation’s history of industrial action, and the extent to which it has been driven by political ideology or practical concerns
The widespread disruption caused by the recent series of strikes in the UK – in which even driving test examiners have laid down their iPads – has led to comparisons with the 1978–79 Winter of Discontent, when large-scale action across a range of industries contributed to the fall of the Labour government led by James Callaghan. The current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was not yet born in 1979, and memories of its events are now fading. Nevertheless, they retain a powerful hold on the political imagination, and have eclipsed other periods of disruption which were of equivalent historical significance.
With important exceptions, the British trades union movement has focused on improving pay and conditions rather than on overtly political objectives. By the turn of the 20th century, after decades of struggle, the union movement had become well established, with more than 2 million members – including many unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Moreover, the Labour Representation Committee was founded in 1900 with the purpose of providing “a distinct Labour group in parliament” in order to promote “legislation in the direct interests of labour”. After a slow start, 29 Labour MPs were elected at the general election of 1906. They helped secure a Trades Disputes Act, restoring union rights that had been removed by the courts. Here was evidence that legal change could be achieved incrementally in the House of Commons; on the ground, unions could concentrate on bettering the positions of their own members via collective bargaining.
- Read more | What was the Winter of Discontent?
This focus on gradual improvement rather than a radical political agenda did not mean that unions were dormant, however. Tough economic conditions helped trigger the “Great Labour Unrest” that swept the UK in the years before the First World War. The first national railway strike occurred in 1911. The following year, the first national miners’ strike succeeded in securing an industry-wide minimum wage. In Liverpool, Llanelli and Tonypandy, strikes were accompanied by riots. There has been much debate over the role played by “syndicalists”: radicals who wanted to secure the control of industry by the workers. But though the situation was fragile, and tough for the Liberal government to manage, most strikers were likely motivated by bread-and-butter issues rather than revolutionary fervour.
The First World War swelled union membership further, and strikes were no rarity, including in the munitions industry. An unofficial strike by engineers spread across “Red Clydeside” in 1915, but the action did not succeed in its aims. Anti-war sentiment sometimes played a part in stoking unrest, but so did seemingly trivial issues, as when the Roway Iron and Steel Works in West Bromwich was hit by employees protesting a tax on ginger beer due to the drink being “essential to their work”.
When peace came in 1918, there was a vogue – in the wake of the Russian revolution – for “direct action”, or the use of industrial power outside parliament for political ends. The most celebrated example of this was the Jolly George affair of 1920, in which east London dockers refused to load weapons on to a ship destined for anti-Soviet Poland. But this phenomenon was short-lived, due to setbacks including the fragmentation of the Triple Alliance of three major unions on “Black Friday” in 1921. Mass unemployment further weakened union power.
The general strike of 1926, meanwhile, was quite literally a nine days’ wonder. It was called to combat mine-owners’ plans to cut wages and extend working hours, but in spite of a strong response by workers, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) leadership did not have its heart in the fight. After a court judgment that the strike was illegal, the TUC’s general council agreed to call it off, though the miners continued their ultimately fruitless battle for months. Above all, the TUC wanted to avoid being seen to engage in an unconstitutional challenge to state power. Only in the 1970s and 1980s did the TUC again call for national, coordinated “demonstration strikes”, and even these were merely symbolic, one-day events.
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The 1978–79 Winter of Discontent retains a powerful hold on the political imagination
There were, of course, plenty of other strikes in the meantime. The 1959 film comedy I’m All Right, Jack satirised postwar industrial relations, poking fun not only at indolent trades unionists but also at their greedy and complacent bosses. The communist shop-steward Fred Kite (Peter Sellers) is finally laid low when his own wife and daughter go on strike, refusing to perform their domestic chores.
Communists really did have disproportionate power within the union movement, not least because of their willingness to take on arduous organisational roles. But in 1966, Labour prime minister Harold Wilson drew ridicule when he tried to blame a strike by the National Union of Seamen (NUS) on “a tightly-knit group of politically motivated men”. Wilson based this suggestion of communist influence on evidence from MI5, but the militants were exploiting genuine grievances. In the end, the strike secured a transition from a 56-hour week to one of 40.
Collapse of consensus
Many of the conflicts of the 1960s and 70s were driven by the attempts of governments of both complexions to enforce incomes policies, which restricted wage growth to keep prices under control. Though some moderate union leaders were willing to cooperate, they could not always control their members. Public-sector unions expanded and became more radical, and the Winter of Discontent marked the collapse of efforts to govern by consensus rather than by confrontation. When the TUC rejected Callaghan’s pay policy in the summer of 1978, there followed a wave of action that set the scene for Margaret Thatcher’s election triumph the following year. Contrary to myth, the Labour government was brought down not by weakness towards the unions, but rather by its insistence on taking a tough line, at a politically inopportune moment, in the cause of reducing inflation.
Contrary to popular myth, the Labour government of 1979 was not brought down by weakness towards the unions
A dark time for the Labour movement followed, as the Conservatives introduced laws making it harder to strike, and even banned workers at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) from joining unions. The miners’ strike of 1984–85 was a last-gasp effort to assert union power. National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) leader Arthur Scargill not only wanted to halt pit closures; he sought to use extraparliamentary action to bring down the government. He failed not only because of ministers’ prior efforts to build up coal stocks, but because of his own abandonment of the NUM’s previous postwar pragmatism.
As recent events perhaps show, however, no matter how tough the union laws, workers are likely to turn to action when they believe their living standards are sufficiently threatened. Strikes can be defeated through government or business power, or they can be resolved through negotiation. But unless the underlying factors change they will not go away by themselves.
Richard Toye is professor of history at the University of Exeter. His books include Winston Churchill: A Life in the News (Oxford University Press, 2020)
This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine