Six million working days were lost to strikes in the first six months of 1970. Successive Governments tried and largely failed to curb the runaway power of unions in the era. It wasn’t until Thatcher took on the NUM in 1984 that the tide was truly turned against them.
Their power in the 1970s was absolute.
There hardly seemed to be any business that wasn’t prepared to down tools when there were issues to be fought over.
Even the staff of the nearby Fiesta cabaret club in Sheffield walked out in 1976 – Conisborough crooner Tony Christie had to cross picket lines to perform!
In 1971 postal workers went on strike for the first time ever.
But nothing compared to the miners’ strike of January 1972. They came out in protest against a £2-a-week pay offer by the Coal Board.
The miners were well organised and the Government ill prepared (unlike Thatcher who stockpiled coal in readiness for a strike the following decade).
By the middle of February 1972 the miners had succeeded in shutting 14 power stations because of coal shortages.
The actions were unprecedented. Backed into a corner, the Conservative Government under Prime Minister Edward Heath declared a state of emergency, and a three-day week ensued.
The miners returned to work and the state of emergency was lifted a few days later but union issues were by no means over.
The Government introduced a statutory prices and incomes policy as inflation was running at a staggering 25 per cent. But in May 1973 the powerful TUC called a strike against it and got the support of 1.6million workers.
Though the situation started to ease in the summer, things took another turn in the direction of crisis because of the Arab-Israeli war which was causing a worldwide oil shortage and soaring prices at the pumps.
Petrol ration books were issued and a 50mph speed limit introduced.
The miners, choosing the moment when Prime Minister Heath was at his most vulnerable, then demanded a pay increase of more the Government maximum. The miners also introduced an overtime ban and power and railway workers quickly followed suit.
In December another three day week was introduced; if shops wanted to open on non-electricity days they were free to do so but had to use lamps or candles for lighting…
Television programmes ended at 10.30pm to encourage people to go to bed!
Libby Jones said: “I have two abiding memories: being a hairdresser and having customers sitting in semi-darkness with wet hair in rollers waiting for the power to come back on so they could under the dryer and at home boiling a kettle on the open coal fire to make up my baby’s feed!”
Malcolm Sergeant said: “As a trainee engineer in mid-1970s, I remember changing a toilet roll when working at our Chesterfield factory and being seriously worried that someone might find out and accuse me of doing somebody else’s job! My predecessor had almost caused a strike by helping to sweep up some rubbish. The union’s grip was total, and the atmosphere was poisonous. I don’t agree with all that Margaret Thatcher did, but I can’t deny something had to be done.”
Caroline Jordan said: “Crazy days! I remember the three-day week; we had to go to school in groups, all wearing luminous yellow bands on our coat sleeves so that we could be seen in the dark. Then we’d come home and huddle round the gas cooker for heat. Then there was the heatwave in ’76 when we had severe thunder storms, and water shortages. I developed my love of ice cream that year! The winter of discontent caused a lot of disruption through all the strike action but to a teenager who cared for little else but music, fashion and boys, most of the politics just passed me by! I do have fond memories of the seventies, but then I didn’t have any worries or responsibilities.”