Solidarity at Saltley Gate

Author: 
Jim Denham

February 1972. The miners were on strike over their pay claim against the Heath government. The Saltley depot was a crucial source of stockpiled coke for industry, and flying pickets from Yorkshire Area NUM had been , attempting, with little success, to stop scab lorries getting in and out.

The leader of the pickets, a little- known Yorkshire NUM official called Arthur Scargill, appealed to the Birmingham trade union movement for support: despite the indifference (or hostility) of ~ the national union leaders, Scargill's call won a magnificent response from the rank and file in Birmingham.

Arthur Harper, president of the East Birmingham AUEW, was crucial to the success of Saltley. He invited Scargill to address the AUEW District Committee which then put out a call for a solidarity strike. In addition, meetings were organised at all the major factories in East Birmingham to ensure that not only would the strike call be answered but also that the strikers would march on Saltley to close the gates.

Close on 50,000 engineers downed tools on the allotted Thursday (10 February) and a large proportion of them then marched on Saltley. Those who were present will never forget the scene: wave after wave of strikers came over the brow of the Saltley viaduct to swell the mass picket. Huge cheers and chants of "Close the gates!" went out as each new body of reinforcements arrived.
The police soon gave up the unequal struggle and the Chief Constable of Birmingham agreed to close the gates. Strikers from Fort Dunlop arrived just after the gates clanged shut and changed their chant to "Open the gates!", wanting the moment of victory to be relived in their presence.

Scargill and Harper addressed the assembled thousands from the roof of the dilapidated toilet outside the gates and claimed the Saltley closure to be a historic victory for working class solidarity. They were right: despite TUC codes of conduct and declarations of abhorrence of mass pickets by trade union and Labour leaders, solidarity action and flying pickets were reaffirmed as the cornerstone of effective working-class action by the Saltley Gates closure. The early 1970s were great years for the British working class. By every measure possible — numbers, duration and quality — the class struggle reached new heights. In 1972 there were more strike days than in any year in British history except 1919 (a year considered by many to have been a pre-revolutionary situation). Apart from the miners' successful strike, there was also the biggest building workers' strike ever (300,00 out over two weeks), the overtly political strike to free the five dockers jailed for defying Heath's Industrial Relations Act), and even strikes in support of old-age pensioners.

The second miners' strike at the beginning of 1974 was entirely illegal, as it was a claim for nearly double the government's legally-binding pay norm. The Heath government failed to impose its Industrial Relations Act in a series of key cases.

Because of the miners, the government was forced to impose a general lock-out throughout industry – the three-day week – to save electricity. Finally, Heath took the desperate gamble of calling an election under the slogan “Who rules Britain?” Labour won the election at a time of almost unprecedented class struggle, and solely on the backs of the miners and other groups of workers who had made Heath's continuing rule untenable.

It immediately repealed the Industrial Relations Act and scrapped statutory wage restraint. However, by the end of 1974 the Wilson government had produced the Social Contract – an incomes policy that would keep down wage settlements. It had TUC support and the backing of prestigious “left-wingers” in the AEUW and T&G. The Social Contract succeeded (in the short term) where Heath had failed. In 1974 there were 14.8 million strike days. The following year it went down to 5.9 million, and in 1976 it was 3.5 million.

Working-class living standards were attacked, and the promises to the low-paid and pensioners were not fulfilled. Planning agreements were nothing short of a débâcle. Chrysler simply broke its agreement with the government (after receiving generous handouts) by selling off all its British plants, and the government stood by and let them get away with it. This was the reality of trying to control capitalism without challenging the foundations of capitalist power.

How was it that the fantastic rank-and-file power of the early 1970s – the militancy that had brought down Heath – could be dissipated into the defeats, demoralisation, and betrayal of the Wilson/Healey/Callaghan years? How could it lead to a Labour government so miserable that it would be followed by four successive general election victories for the Tories? Because the labour movement never developed the politics to match its economic militancy. The problem still remains.