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The winter of discontent: what can we learn from history?

James Moher talks to Chris Bowlby about the industrial crisis of 1978/9 and considers whether we could be heading for something similar 30 years later

Published: August 13, 2009 at 5:59 am
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Some of the challenges currently facing the British government, like the credit crunch, may seem bafflingly modern. Others, like the threat of a new winter of discontent, with widespread industrial action, are hauntingly familiar.


The original ‘winter of discontent’, as it was dubbed in a line taken from Shakespeare’s Richard III, began in the autumn of 1978. Then, a weakened Labour government dithered over when to call an election, while unions vehemently resisted attempts to hold down pay in the name of fighting inflation.

The bitter disputes that followed were crystallised in the media and in modern memory by images of piles of uncollected rubbish and horror stories of grave diggers refusing to bury the dead. What is especially haunting for the unions and the Labour Party is the knowledge that all this was followed by Margaret Thatcher’s electoral triumph in May 1979 and her government’s introduction of major restrictions on trade union power.

So can today’s political leaders learn lessons from then? And what might a great union ‘baron’ of the 1970s have done now? Dr James Moher had direct experience as a union insider and is also a historian. Along with other leading union officials and labour historians in the History & Policy Trade Union Forum, he is re-examining past episodes to assist modern unions and public policy towards unions.

How far does the union discontent of the 21st century compare with that of the 1970s?
James Moher: Today’s manifestations of union discontent do not compare in scale or intensity with the disputes of the 1970s. There are some obvious superficial parallels – government pay policies, ‘bolshy’ union conference postures and so on. But those were very different times, when unions were really powerful and most Labour ministers and employers had to at least ostensibly ‘tip their cap’ to union leaders (or ‘barons’ as they were known).

Unions were very different bodies then. With a very high density of membership in Britain’s then significant manufacturing industry, they were the institutional expressions of a powerful organised working class collective culture, social as well as industrial. Unions today, even in the better organised public sector, are ‘thin on the ground’ and few are able to deliver sustained industrial action. In effect, this means that their traditional social rationale of counter-balancing the power of employers has been eroded, perhaps too far.

How far has the traditional strike gone out of fashion or become legally impossible?
JM: Certainly, statistics show that the number of days lost due to industrial action has plummeted since the 1980s. The main reason is that the more strike-prone industries, especially in manufacturing, have largely gone and today’s production units are much smaller and harder for unions to organise. So collective bargaining is no longer the main way in which pay and other conditions are determined in most of the private sector.

The restrictive laws introduced by Tory governments (and retained almost intact by Labour since 1997), have changed entirely the ground rules for industrial action, inhibiting spontaneous action by workers. Also, workers with large mortgages are not as inclined to lose pay for continuous periods and so the more common union tactics of shorter ‘days of action’ reflect their members’ new attitudes.

What might be the lessons from the 1970s for the government and unions today?
For most journalists and politicians, the blame for the disorderly strikes of low-paid public service workers in 1978/9 lay with the unions. In fact, that wave of strikes was as much due to the dam bursting after three years of voluntary pay restraint by the unions.

Lord (Denis) Healey, then chancellor of the Exchequer, has since admitted that the government’s pay policy limit was too rigid. “If we had agreed on a formula such as ‘single figures’… we would certainly have been able to avoid the winter of discontent”, he wrote later.

For governments, especially Labour governments, other broader lessons are evident. Today’s legal framework prevents the excesses of those times, but places excessive restrictions on the unions’ legitimate ability to exert pressures on employers.

Better ways are needed to reconcile the often conflicting demands of workers and the wider needs of the economy and general social progress. Centralised pay restraint policies are unlikely to be sustained for long in the face of the discontents they generate, even where some wider ‘social’ sweeteners (eg. new employment rights) are thrown in. The influential role of union representatives must also be catered for.

As for the unions, their proud record of service to workers should not blind them to past weaknesses such as petty demarcation disputes (industrial disputes between unions or members of the same union) and a crude if sometimes effective short-term strike culture. Many unions have long since taken on board those lessons, but there is still influential left-wing political resistance to doing so.

Pundit from the past: Jack Jones

What would the Seventies union baron make of workers’ rights in the 21st century?

Jack Jones is now in his mid-90s and no longer a public figure. But in the 1970s Jones, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and built his career with the Transport and General Workers’ Union in the Midlands, was the leading trade union leader in Britain. He was judged by a majority in one mid-seventies opinion poll to be “the most powerful man in the country”.

Jones was the main architect of the ‘Social Contract’, which underpinned Labour-TUC relations in the Wilson and Callaghan governments and persuaded a powerful generation of trade unionists to offer wage moderation to “a government prepared to tackle the problem of prices in the shops, rent and housing costs”. Jones feared hyper-inflation, which was, he warned, “no good to the working people of this country”. He also persuaded government to favour the lower paid and enshrine improved legal protection of workers’ rights – especially pensions.

Although it only held for just over two years, Jones’s model might, says Dr Moher, “still have some interest for ministers and trade union leaders today. His philosophy was that the rich should be expected to bear a bigger burden when governments were asking for sacrifices from other members of the community”.

The wealth tax Jones wanted is the kind of proposal that makes the modern Labour Party nervous. But Dr Moher wonders whether Gordon Brown, after bailing out the banking system with tax-payers’ money, might now “see how the ordinary saver or worker might well support some variant of Jones’s ideas”. While no one expects him “to squeeze the rich until the pips squeak”, as Labour chancellor Denis Healey was said to have threatened to do, “a government lead on restoring some fairness and proportion to senior executive and their employees’ pay could only restore some of Brown’s standing in the country”.

In return for such action, runs the theory, unions could be persuaded to moderate wage claims. But the danger too, as Jones knew well, is what happens later when pent-up pay demand explodes. In the late 1970s Jones’s calls for continued restraint – a shorter working week and workplace democracy instead of a pay ‘free-for-all’ – were defeated within his own union. He warned that the beneficiaries of such action would be Margaret Thatcher and “all the ilk of privilege”. Angst about Conservative rule hangs over today’s union strategists too as they decide how far to push a Labour government.

James Moher is a former trade union officer, and an expert in union history. He is author of Trade Unions and the Law: The Politics of Change (Institute of Employment Rights, 1995)


This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org.


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