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Between October 1978 and February 1979 Britain experienced a wave of strikes on a scale that hadn’t been seen since the General Strike of 1926. First Ford workers, then lorry drivers, council workers and NHS staff all walked out causing severe disruption to public services. This series of events came to be known as “the Winter of Discontent”. This phrase, borrowed from Shakespeare’s play Richard III, and the events it described continue to have considerable impact on British culture even now. Politicians are still launching arguments, particularly about the role of trade unionism and socialism in British history, based around a folk memory of the period. Newspaper commentators and politicians often invoke the spectre of the 1970s via images of uncollected rubbish piling up in Leciester Square or references to a gravediggers’ strike that affected Liverpool and Tameside for two weeks in 1979.
The work done by these recollections is peculiar in lots of ways. The Winter of Discontent has come to stand for a wider narrative about the 1970s as a period where everyone was constantly on strike, electricity was rationed and the unions ran the country. Yet, the actual events of 1978-79 undermine that story. The industrial protests of that winter became a crisis precisely because most of the groups involved hadn’t previously been strike-prone. With the exception of the Ford workers’ strike in Autumn 1978 all of the other groups were well below average in terms of how often those workers went on strike. Previously the relatively weak collective strength of public sector unions and lorry drivers had seen those groups of workers’ living standards hurt badly by rising inflation. Far from their tyrannical unions running the country, their actions in 1979 reflected a howl of protest from some of the most marginalised and worst-paid workers in Britain. Their actions were disruptive and perceived as a crisis precisely because they were abnormal for the period, not because they were typical of it.
This was certainly true of National Health Service staff who participated in strikes during this period. NHS ancillary staff, who worked in support roles like catering, cleaning, laundry and portering services, began the 1970s with average pay not only lower than the average manual worker but lower than the average unskilled worker. Between 1975 and 1978 attempts by the Labour government, led by Jim Callaghan, to rein in inflation by holding down pay had only made this situation worse. Real wages for NHS and local council employees dropped 19 per cent in this period, pushing many further into poverty.
Prior to the strike, health service workers were telling anyone who would listen about their experiences of poverty. Penny Hibbins, a single mother to four children, working as a domestic at Starcross Hospital in Devon, told The Guardian of her poverty wages of just £39.50 a week, almost half the median weekly wage for men and less even than the median wage for women manual workers. She calculated that after loan payments, utilities and food, she had just £5 a month left for clothes for her and the kids, as well as any other expenses.
“At the weekends we make do with a small chicken and I make a pie. I can’t afford a Sunday joint. I can’t afford to take the children on holiday or anywhere else. My eldest daughter wants to go into nursing when she leaves school this summer. I just hope I can get her a grant because I won’t be able to help.”
When these workers were offered another below inflation pay rise, it was the final straw for many.
After rejecting the government’s low wage offer, NHS and local authority staff resolved to take action to win better pay. This began with a large demonstration in London on 22 January 1979 and continued with partial strikes at various hospitals. Stephen Williams and R.H. Fryer’s account of the dispute describes how cleaners at Westminster Hospital took action by refusing to clean rooms designated for private patients. Six women were suspended as a result and in response workers walked out across Central London’s hospitals.
In many parts of the country ambulance services were withdrawn for up to 24-hours with the army drafted in to provide a skeleton service. Elsewhere, many hospitals were forced to offer an emergency only service, as ancillary staff and ambulance drivers engaged in partial work stoppages. In some places managers managed to provoke all-out strikes by disciplining staff for taking part. In Early February, 1700 workers at Singleton Hospital, Swansea, including cooks, cleaners and boiler stokers, walked out when a handful of porters were suspended. Selective and partial strike action reduced half of Britain’s hospitals to an Emergency Only service by the end of January 1979.
The action even affected David Ennals, the Labour government’s Health Minister. Admitted to Westminster Hospital to undergo tests related to leg thrombosis, Ennals was promised full medical attention from the hospital’s nursing staff, but the local branch of the National Union of Public Employees decided to deny him his morning cup of tea, newspapers and mail. One of the hospital’s shop stewards, Jamie Morris, who became a bit of a hate figure in the press, largely due to his willingness to issue combative statements on the union’s behalf, responded with bullishness to questions about this “mean-mindedness” :
“Don’t you think he has been mean-minded? People who work in hospitals like this have to fight for a decent living wage, but the miners can walk into an office and be given 15 per cent just like that. He has attacked ambulancemen and called them names and he has victimised others.”
All this disruption to the operation of Britain’s hospitals inevitably brought negative press. National newspapers reported extensively on any real or potential effects of the strikes, casting the protests as the work of callous union militants and accusing strikers of targeting amongst others sick children. Many NHS staff were shocked at the vitriol they received even where trade union members were careful to mitigate any adverse effects from their actions. Striking workers at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in East London pointedly displayed placards at their pickets declaring that “no kids suffer here, it’s the staff who suffer”
The NHS dispute would drag on into the Spring. With the government continuing to try and hold back pay in the public sector. In March more than 130,000 NHS workers in the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) voted against an offer of a 9 per cent pay increase, although their colleagues in the Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE) voted to accept. Ambulance drivers were particularly opposed to the deal in both unions. In Williams and Fryer’s history of NUPE they detail how the union continued to organise selective strike actions, starting in South Tees, Cardiff, Yorkshire and Glasgow, timed to affect different regions at different times. This continued until the end of March but the government became increasingly intransigent as it neared collapse in Spring 1979. NUPE, isolated from the other unions, eventually decided to accept a slightly modified version of their early March pay offer.
This period of collective mobilisation has generally been remembered negatively in the stories Britain tells about itself, as a crisis precipitated by over-powerful unions. In that effort, the experiences of those involved, many of them involved in collective mobilisations for the first time, has been rather forgotten. Photographs of the dispute reveal how hard public criticism hit many of the poorly-paid, marginalised workers who took part, undercutting some of the popular 1970s narratives about heartless trade union monsters. They also show the diversity of participants and reveal how in the NHS (and elsewhere) the Winter of Discontent was one moment in British history where women, and women of colour in particular, took a leading role in workers’ struggle, fighting to establish better pay and conditions in the often exploitative National Health Service.
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