11. The strike wave of 1968-74


By 1968, signals that the long post war boom was coming to an end were strong. In Bristol, despite the celebration of Concorde's maiden flight, 700 workers at Rolls Royce were made redundant. Shipbuilding in Bristol had virtually ceased. Notice of a national engineering strike to commence on 21 October 1968 followed a one-day national stoppage of engineering workers in May (The Bristol District's Report 1968-9 to The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, 1969 Annual Meeting, in Report of Proceedings of the thirty-fourth Annual Meeting, p. 356; The Employment and Productivity Gazette, 1969). Bristol in the early 1970s experienced acceleration in the shift from manufacturing to service employment. Between 1971-1978 manufacturing employment declined by 14.2 per cent while jobs in the service sector expanded by 14.3 per cent, the pace of change being greater than that experienced in the UK as a whole (Boddy, Lovering and Bassett (1986) p.175). Moreover, unemployment in Bristol between 1968-74 increased at a faster rate than the national average (see Figure 1 above).

The 1971 Industrial Relations Act

It took the advent of a new decade, the 1970s, before Bristol workers made their mark in a wave of militancy not seen in Britain since the 1926 General Strike. A period that saw union membership in the UK grow from 8,875,381 in 1968 to 10,363,724 in 1974 (Pelling (1976) p. 296). Opposition mounted against the Government's proposal in 1971 to introduce an Industrial Relations Bill, with Bristol engineering workers taking a leading role in local meetings and demonstrations as well as being strongly represented on the national demonstration against the Act on 21 February 1971 (The Bristol District's Report 1970-71 to The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, 1971 Annual Meeting, in Report of Proceedings of the thirty-sixth Annual Meeting, p. 347). However, there was some disquiet in the Southwest concerning the decision of the leadership of the engineering unions to call out its members again on 1 March without TUC sponsorship. Although the Southwest region of the sheet metal workers union estimated that about 90 per cent of their members supported this one-day strike, there was much concern that the continued pursuit of unilateral rather than multilateral action would weaken and not strengthen the campaign against the Industrial Relations Bill (UWE Minutes of the No. 6 District Committee of National Union of Sheet Metal Workers, Coppersmiths, Heating and Domestic Engineers, 6 March 1971).

Industrial democracy

Yet the fact that the attempt by the Conservative government in 1971 to transform industrial relations in Britain, through legislation, generated a class response in the form of political strikes opened a window of opportunity for policies developed by the left for radical social change. By 1974, one such development, the case for social ownership of the British aircraft industry, was firmly on agenda. Unions representing workers in this industry closely related this policy with the campaign for the continuance of the Concorde project, which was so important to the protection of jobs in the Bristol region (The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, 1974 Annual Meeting, in Report of Proceedings of the thirty-ninth Annual Meeting, pp. 40-48, 274-76).

It was November 1966 when the Bristol Siddeley Engines Combined Shop Stewards' Committee first established a working party to investigate the issue of workers' control and nationalisation of the aircraft industry. It concluded, however, that nationalisation and employee participation, such as the practice of co-determination in West Germany, where employees determine the selection of a significant minority of representatives to sit on the supervisory boards of companies with more than 500 employees, was insufficient. Only a socially owned aircraft industry under workers' control would suffice (Bristol Siddeley Engines Combined Shop Stewards Committee (1969), The aircraft industry and workers' control). This recommendation, however, failed to receive endorsement and union policy in 1974 was that the aircraft industry be taken into public ownership where 'there should be an involvement of workers' participation' the scale, scope and form of which would be thrashed out once the policy was accepted by the parties concerned, particularly the TUC and the Labour party (The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, 1974 Annual Meeting, in Report of Proceedings of the thirty-ninth Annual Meeting, pp. 40-48). Arguably this watered down form of participation sits well with Ramsay's (1977) cycles of control theory and served to disarm the radical left organised around the Institute for Workers' Control. Under the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act sections of the aircraft industry were nationalised in 1977. A commitment to promote industrial democracy was contained within the act (The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, 1978 Annual Meeting, in Report of Proceedings of the forty-third Annual Meeting, p. 249) but nationalisation as Smith (1987: p.116) records 'had little to do with 'workers' control'.'

Strikes in the aircraft industry

In the mean time discontent in the aircraft industry in Bristol between 1970-74 intensified. In April 1970, a strike by 215 store workers in the industry, seeking advancement in pay, disrupted production. More seriously, that same month 3,050 Bristol aircraft manual workers embarked on a series of token stoppages in support of a £4 week pay increase. The following year fights over redundancy and pay resulted in two major stoppages in the industry, both involving over 6,000 workers (The Department of Employment Gazette, 1971 and 1972). The Rolls Royce pay dispute began as an unofficial stoppage on 1 November 1971 but ratified as official over the following month by the six unions involved. It was nine weeks before the strike was called off on 3 January 1972, after a pay increase of £1.50 a week had been secured. The decision to both call and call off the strike was made at mass meetings of the membership of all the unions concerned (UWE Minutes of the No. 6 District Committee of National Union of Sheet Metal Workers, Coppersmiths, Heating and Domestic Engineers, 4 December 1971 and 26 February 1972). In 1973, TASS members in the industry fought and lost, after an 8-week lockout, a battle over representation rights on a pension committee(C. Smith (1987: Macmillan: London) Technical workers, class, labour and trade unionism, p. 124). In 1974, it was the turn of 2,300 aircraft clerical workers. Their ten-day wage strike in October resulted in the loss of 15,600 working days (The Department of Employment Gazette, 1975).

In the earlier phase of this strike wave aircraft workers, in 1970, demonstrated their solidarity with other workers, in response to a request from Fine Tubes' strikers, by refusing to handle or use products supplied by the strikers' Plymouth employer. British Aircraft Corporation had to find an alternative supplier for its Concorde project. In 1971, however, Rolls Royce (recently nationalised after being declared bankrupt) upped the stakes by obtaining a supply of Fine Tubes tubing, threatening workers with dismissal if they did not work normally. Over 2,000 workers walked out in protest. The State machine was quickly set in motion. The Department of Employment intervened and Anthony Wedgwood Benn, the local Labour MP, went to the source of the problem and attempted to bring about a change of attitude on the part of Fine Tubes management but without success. A compromise was reached, however, where part of the consignment was used on the understanding that no more orders would be placed with Fine Tubes (T. Beck (1974: Stage 1: London) The Fine Tubes strike, pp. 66-71).

Other disputes

Most stoppages in Bristol during this period were industry-wide. The main exceptions being the aircraft conflicts described above, strikes involving mechanical engineers in January 1971, 2,300 chocolate workers at Cadbury (formerly Frys) at Keynsham near Bristol in October 1972 and craftsmen in the tobacco industry in May 1974. Prominent national strikes embracing Bristol workers included dockworkers, hospital ancillary workers, postal workers, print workers, telephonists, teachers, tobacco workers, construction workers, railway workers, refuse collectors and gas workers (The Department of Employment Gazette, 1971-75).

One consequence of the fact that these disputes were official and industry-wide was that workers involvement and participation in the decision-making process concerning the running of a dispute was in many instances rather limited. Decisions regarding operations and organisation of national disputes often came from the top down stifling rank-and-file views and detaching workers from the living experience of a dispute. This seriously reduced the chance of raising trade union let alone class-consciousness. A good example in Bristol is the one-day national strike of tobacco workers examined by Anna Pollert in her classic study of women workers in Churchman' tobacco company in Bristol (A. Pollert (1981: Macmillan: London) Girls, Wives, Factory Lives, chapter ten).

Tobacco workers

'Like all oppressed groups,' argues Pollert 'women have the volatility of being able to break out of the most silent passivity into the heights of passionate militancy' (Pollert (1981) p. 238). However, in Churchmans' strike, part of a 24-hour national stoppage of Imperial Tobacco in July 1972, there was, after a membership ballot, a complete failure to mobilise the women behind the strike. Most workers, apart from the few, who had learned about an Extraordinary General Meeting in Bristol to take place on the day of the strike, were not approached to participate in action associated with the stoppage except to be told to stay away from work. Picketing, demonstrations, leafleting and so forth were notable by their absence. Unsurprisingly the strike experience at Churchmans 'was one of defeat, confusion and demoralisation.' But as Pollert implies this outcome was far from inevitable (Pollert (1981) pp. 205, 237-242).

Chemical workers

Another important study also gives a general picture of the disillusioned worker. At ChemCo near Bristol in the early 1970s, workers were alienated from their union as well as their work. Here workers' resistance occurred outside of institutional arrangements between capital and labour and usually took the non-militant form of what Nichols and Beynon called 'industrial spoiling' or minimum effort (T. Nichols and H. Beynon (1977) pp. 161-67).

Postal workers strike

The postal workers' strike of 1971, given the past inactivity and rather routine organisational capability of this section of workers, is also worthy of a brief examination. Their strike too ended in defeat although counter staff did obtain a shortening of incremental scales, a worthy concession. The union came under criticism in Bristol for the way in which it ran the dispute. But the men and women involved, apart from a few strike-breakers, were committed to the strike even though as the weeks progressed it looked increasingly likely that a settlement would not large enough to cover the loss of earnings incurred as a result of the conflict. The hardship suffered by the postal strikes, although varied, was real enough. The impact of this experience on the future conduct of this group of workers is hard to discern. Interestingly, however, in a less favourable industrial relations environment in the 1980s and 90s postal workers including those in Bristol have demonstrated relatively high levels of militancy (G. Gall (1995) 'Return to sender a commentary on Darlington's analysis of workplace unionism in the Royal Mail in Britain', Employee Relations, 17(2), pp. 54-63).

Print workers

The local experience of organised labour in the printing industry during this period reveals different problems concerning barriers that may have hindered mobilisation in an industry that was highly unionised but not strike-prone (Cronin (1979) p. 170). Before the prominent printing disputes of the 1980s (Warrington and Wapping) all-out stoppages in the printing industry were rare. The only major national post-war dispute was the fight by NATSOPA and NUPB and PW for a forty-hour week in 1959 (J. Moran (1964: Oxford University Press: Oxford) NATSOPA seventy-five years a history of the national society of operative printers and assistants (1889-1964), pp. 136-143). In Bristol both unions claimed a high level of support even though in the case of NATSOPA the membership had not been balloted (Graphical Paper and Media Union (GPMU), Bristol, NUPB and PW Bristol Branch Committee Minutes, 10 August 1959). One of the consequences of this dispute, however, was that in large firms increasingly labour problems were handled internally and the authority of the shop steward, which in the printing unions was called the Father or Mother of the Chapel (FOC/MOC), was enhanced. Clerical workers in the industry were attracted to trade unionism. And as before the war inter-union disputes were frequent


Robinson &Co. Printing Offices and Factory - Bristol Bridge

The modernisation of the production process and the introduction of new products gained pace blurring the lines of demarcation. Craft printing unions fought to hold on to their heritage. Disputes over operational rights were often settled at the expense of the most efficient use of production machinery. For instance in the early 1970s the Robinson Waxed Paper (RWP) company a subsidiary of the Dickinson Robinson Group (DRG) developed a new product for the medical packaging, which involved grid lacquering. The fact that the production of this material utilised an engraved cylinder led to the National Graphical Association (NGA) printing chapel claiming that the work should be done on a gravure-printing machine. However, it was cheaper to produce on lacquering machines operated by NATSOPA members. The dispute was settled by sharing the work equally between the unions despite the extra cost involved.

The printing unions in Bristol supported the TUC days of action in January and March 1971 against the Industrial Relations Bill introduced by Heath's Conservative government. Even the recently formed RWP clerical chapel supported the calling of a protest meeting on 12 January 1971 at the Central Hall in Bristol, although some members disagreed with the decision, including the FOC who resigned. None the less many clerical members left their place of work to attend along side printing workers across the city (Minutes of Robinson Waxed Paper (RWP) Clerical Chapel meeting, 7 January 1971; Minutes of RWP Clerical Chapel committee meeting 7 April 1971). It was somewhat of a shock, therefore, when due to a legal technicality concerning tax-free investment income, members of the NGA in a national ballot voted narrowly to register under the 1971 Industrial Relations Act to avoid prosecution under common law, which resulted in the NGA resigning from the TUC (J. Gennard (1990: Hyman: London) A history of the National Graphical Association, pp. 294-300). This action served to exacerbate the already cool relations between the NGA, NATSOPA and SOGAT (NATSOPA and SOGAT merged in 1967 only to split in 1972) in Bristol, which was not helped by the dissolution in 1974 of the union body the Printing and Kindred Trades Federation (PKTF).

There were industry-wide stoppages in June 1974 concerning the implementation of the NGA national pay agreement (The Department of Employment Gazette, 1975). But local differences between the NGA and DRG in Bristol over payments for machine extras in 1974 also disrupted production as the NGA took unofficial industrial action, including a stoppage of work for two shifts (GPMU, Bristol Minutes of the Bristol NGA branch committee, 22 April 1974) although a final settlement was only reached after another stoppage in April 1975 (GPMU, Bristol Minutes of the Bristol NGA branch committee, 6 January 1975). One of the problems DRG had in attempting to resolve the dispute was the maintenance of a wage differential agreeable to all the print unions, whose relationships as indicated above were at best strained. Other large firms in the Bristol area, such as Mardons and Purnell and Sons, also experienced similar difficulties.

A notable if rather isolated case of a politically organised presence in the workplace was an active CP industrial branch of seven members operating in one of Bristol's printing houses, St. Stephens Press, in the early 1970s. Members included Joe Selway, FOC of St. Stephens Press federated chapels, and Bill Wookerjee, Bristol branch chairman of NATSOPA and delegate to the PKTF. They built up a readership of The Morning Star and made monthly collections for its fighting fund. Selway went on to become the full-time secretary of the SOGAT Bristol branch. Interestingly, no NGA members belonged to this group a reflection perhaps of their insularity from politics and other print workers at this time. Although a factory branch of the CP in the printing industry in Bristol was unique, CP members and sympathisers served on the respective branch committees of NATSOPA and SOGAT at this time (Interview with former CP member Mike Vine, who worked at St. Stephens Press in the 1970s, and served on both NATSOPA and SOGAT Bristol branch committees, 7 December 1990).

Banner of the Bristol & West branchof the Society of Graphical & Allied Trades

While the experience of the printing workers and their unions in Bristol contrasts with the inertia of ChemCo workers there is little evidence to suggest that there was a huge gulf in consciousness between these two sets of workers. What differences existed have much to do with the organisational ability of the printing unions and their tradition of rank-and-file democracy expressed through the chapel. However, sectionalism based overtly on skill and covertly on gender, was a long standing hurdle to unity among print workers in Bristol and in the UK which arguably was not straddled until the decision to amalgamate the printing unions was ratified by ballot in 1990. The existence of sectionalist militancy may also have acted as a deterrent to the emergence of radical objectives (See J. Kelly (1988: Verso: London) Trade unions and socialist politics, pp. 128-146, for a full discussion on the question of sectionalism).


After decasualisation in 1967, dockworkers in Bristol, as elsewhere, were on the defensive as demand for dock labour declined. Traffic, excluding fuels, through Bristol's ports fell as a percentage share of total traffic in Great Britain from 3.98 per cent in 1967 to 2.60 per cent in 1973. The average employment register in Bristol and Severn ports fell from 1,829 in 1969 to 1,378 in 1973 (J.W. Durcan, W.E.J. McCarthy and G.P. Redman (1983: Allen and Unwin: London) Strikes in post-war Britain A study of stoppages of work due to industrial disputes, 1946-73, pp. 293 and 297). In 1971 the City Council made a decision to invest heavily in construction of a new dock at Portbury near Bristol in an effort to revitalise industrial development in the area, which maybe why locally initiated stoppages in the industry were rare. However, Bristol did not escape the national dock strikes, the first being in 1970, which Wilson argues quickly focused on solidarity action against 'the march of technology' with its threat to long-term employment prospects (Wilson (1972) pp. 276-277). The second, in 1972, concerned the conflict over containerisation where traditional dock work was being shifted outside of the ports' jurisdiction and resulted in a three-week national stoppage (Duncan, McCarthy and Redman (1983) p. 311).

The State and industrial relations

Clearly one of the main features of this period of labour protest is the involvement of the State in industrial relations issues. This is not new of course but the State was between 1969-74 extremely active as a legislator, law enforcer, employer and economic manager. But forced by the world economic crisis and the strength of the labour protest its perceived role, as some sort of neutral body acting in the interests of society as a whole avoiding conflict and containing pressure (See K. Middlemas (1979: Andre Deutsch: London) Politics in industrial society. The experience of the British system since 1911). was increasingly exposed. The political strikes and demonstrations against the 1971 Industrial Relations Bill reveal the class nature of the struggles, which occurred under Heath's Conservative government. It was those workers either employed by the State or where the State had a significant input, politically and economically, in their industry that were most likely to view the State as an instrument of class rule. However, it would probably be more accurate to say that many workers viewed the Conservative government as their class enemy rather than the State.

Trade unions in Bristol representing aircraft workers for instance were pushing for the nationalisation of their industry using their local Labour MP Wedgwood Benn as a voice in parliament to achieve this end. Moreover, the viability of the industry relied heavily on government orders and subsidies. Thus trade unions, particularly those representing aircraft workers, saw the State as having a positive reforming role that could be advantageous to workers given a Labour government. Contradictions in Conservative policy, which resulted in the nationalisation of Rolls Royce to save it from bankruptcy, bolstered the view that the State could act in the interests of workers. Thus the great confidence the trade union leadership had in the Labour party to deliver public ownership of the industry when next elected to govern served to obscure the role of the State and the servility that previous Labour governments have shown to capitalist interests. Thus mobilisation, despite its anti-capitalist rhetoric, was geared towards the election of a Labour government entrusted to increase public ownership, repeal the 1971 Industrial Relations Act and strengthen the corporate structures for collective bargaining.

Unfavourable and favourable conditions for collective action

Factors hindering mobilisation in Bristol centred again on sectionalism (print workers), weak union democratic structures coupled with the failure to encourage workplace union activity and membership involvement in the decision-making process. However, what is very apparent is the existence of a sense of injustice in Bristol's major industries between 1968-74. Rising unemployment, poor wages, the introduction of anti-union legislation and the advent of new technology served to fuel workers' grievances. More significantly that the movement for workers' control had significant roots in Bristol's aircraft industry reveals workers' a leap in the class-consciousness of an important section of workers. Moreover, the ability of the CP to sustain an active branch of several members in a small printing company as well as hold prominent lay positions in the printing unions, illustrates the possibilities that existed for developing class-consciousness and providing a leadership to actively take up workers' grievances. But the industrial policy of the CP was more in tune with the right wing of the Labour party and the TUC than with pushing radical alternatives. This opened the way for Trotskyist groups who began to build up a following in Bristol during the early 1970s. One group a breakaway faction of the International Socialists (later to become the Socialist Workers Party) managed to break the CP's monopoly of the Bristol Trades Council for a period using it as a platform to promote and distribute issues of its publication the Bristol Socialist (J. Sullivan (1998) 'A secret strategy: Roy Tearse and the discussion group, 1971-1988' in What Next? 11, 1998, 29-34). But factional fighting among the 'left' served to deter workers from actively engaging with groups such as these for any length of time.