The Winter Of Discontent: Beginnings

Alan Hardman Cartoon- Worker's placard says A living wage is all we ask
Alan Hardman Cartoon- Worker's placard says A living wage is all we ask

Chapter Fourteen


THE GRUNWICK dispute, which by April 1977 had lasted more than six months, entered a key phase. 

Efforts were made to ensure that after the Easter holidays a mass turnout of workers on the picket line each day would increase the pressure on the Grunwick management. The TUC had done nothing to mobilise such support. 

Moreover, the earlier solidarity action by the post office workers (UPW) had been dropped because of the use of the courts by the employers. The TUC did nothing in defiance of this decision or to mobilise the labour movement behind this key dispute. Militant pointed out:

Any attempt to use the law against the UPW would immediately provoke other UPW branches and also the local trade union movement, who have already shown solidarity, to take action in support of the local postal workers and would force the TUC to move. (1)

Nothing had been done by the government to punish Grunwick for breaking company law. On the other hand, one of the leaders of the strike, Jayaben Desai, had been arrested outside the gates of the factory and charged with threatening behaviour after an argument with the managing director, George Ward. Mrs Desai, was only four foot ten inches high and yet she has also been charged with assaulting a director of the company. (2)

At the same time, ex-police Inspector Johnson had been taken on as a personnel manager at Grunwick and other former police officials were also employed to conduct ‘security’. These developments enraged the active workers in the labour movement and pressure grew in May and June for action. Increased pressure at the factory gates led to over 100 pickets being arrested in early June. London postal workers then applied a total boycott of mail going to the factory. Militant reported that on the picket line the police

ruthlessly moved in, fists flew in the air, and senior officers made the first arrests. A girl was dragged across the road through mud and puddles, others were pulled by the hair and punched in the ribs… Such was the brutality that many rank-and-file constables were themselves shocked at the tactics of their superiors!

In a lesson which workers today should heed, Militant reported:

The London postmen decided to wait no longer for the go-ahead from their national officials who have refused to take action for fear of the courts. They have said to hell with the bosses’ courts when workers’ rights are at stake! (3)

The ruling class had no doubts as to the importance of the Grunwick dispute. Thatcher’s guru, Sir Keith Joseph, declared: “Grunwick could be all our tomorrows… it is a litmus test.” (4)

It became clear as the strike progressed that Special Branch officers had mingled with pickets. Militant reported: “When challenged the police claimed that plain clothes men were local constables looking for pickpockets and people carrying offensive weapons.” (5)

Yet, despite the clear evidence of police intimidation, Labour Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees, attacked pickets for “violent behaviour against the police force”. (6)

And in an echo of the 1966 Seamens’ dispute under the Labour government of 1964-70, Attorney General Sam Silkin also referred to ‘politically motivated’ pickets. His statement was greeted with rapture by the Tories in the House of Commons. Moreover, Gorst, the Tory MP for Hendon North, rode in a bus with scabs as an act of ‘solidarity’ with them.

APEX leader Roy Grantham, an extreme right-wing trade union leader, called for no more than 500 to turn up to the mass pickets. And the demand for a one-day strike of APEX members in London was defeated by 43 votes to 38 with 16 abstentions at the APEX London area conference.

The crunch confrontation during the dispute came with the mass picket. Commenting on the day’s events, Militant’s editorial stated: “The tremendous 11 July march outside Grunwick’s provided just an example of the mighty strength of the working class.” (7)

The report of the events was headlined “Workers halt cavalry charge.” The cry of “the workers, united, will never be defeated” was “the chant that confronted the phalanx of 36 mounted police brought in to intimidate and break up the picket.” In scenes reminiscent of Saltley Gate, the workers confronted both the police and the scabs who were attempting to enter the factory. Militant’s reporter described the mood:

As the chanting changed to “We shall not be moved” so did the police faces, from one where in a few moments they could bash on our heads with their long clubs to one of demoralisation. Their ultimate weapon, the horse, could not be used without enormous bloodshed, or even deaths.

The workers firmly expressed their power and will to the mounted police with the chant of “Cossacks out!” and “Company police”. At the same time they calmly offered their hand to those who were sent to do the dirty work of the ruling class by demanding “Police right to strike – now!” In other words, you can’t beat us, so why not join us? (8)

Moreover, “when a blue double-decker bus was seen approaching carrying the scabs the cry, ‘The bus!’ went up, with the resulting effect of doubling the pickets’ efforts. Eventually the bus backed away and the police called a humiliating retreat.” 

Victory was within the grasp of the Grunwick workers but the APEX leadership bent its efforts as did the TUC to make the movement ‘respectable’, that is, to disarm it. APEX threatened to disown the strike committee unless they followed the directions of the APEX leadership and the TUC.

But as August approached, the first anniversary of the struggle was prepared for with further mass pickets. However, the police, learning from previous clashes, kept 4,000 demonstrators away from the factory. The APEX leaders together with the postal workers’ leaders had also succeeded in forcing the Cricklewood postmen to lift their blacking of Grunwick mail.

The ground was prepared for a defeat of the Grunwick workers. But this was not before further massive clashes on the picket line. In November, we reported:

108 arrests, 12 pickets with broken limbs, 243 pickets treated in hospital. These are the shock statistics behind what the Grunwick strike committee described as ‘utterly sickening’ police action last Monday. 

The mass picket was attacked by a gigantic show of police strength, including 4,000 officers, over 200 SPG [Special Patrol Group] officers plus 38 mounted police. (9)

In the teeth of all of this the TUC did nothing. Yet Militant commented:

It would take just the lifting of the TUC’s and the Labour government’s finger to ensure victory. Meanwhile, they stand aside and let trade unionists get beaten up by the British police force. (10)

The frustration of the pickets was summed up in the slogan on their placards: “We are starving for action, we are sick of promises.” And yet the TUC actually threatened to support suspensions from the unions if mass pickets continued.

This emboldened the ruling class and gave Thatcher the idea of pursuing similar tactics in the event of the Tories coming to power. The Grunwick’s strike was preparation by the ruling class for the mighty miners’ strike of the 1980s. At each stage, Militant had put forward a sober, fighting programme which could have ensured victory. Timidity and outright cowardice had been the methods of the right-wing general council of the TUC.

Left leaders, like Arthur Scargill, had attempted to mobilise their members from below. Rank-and-file postal workers and others were prepared to put their own jobs on the line in defence of workers under attack. Their resolve was not matched by the summits of the labour and trade union movement.

Nevertheless, the Grunwick setback did not discourage other workers from coming out on strike for increases in pay and in defence of conditions. The bakers, for instance, came out on strike on 16 September. A Militant supporter, Joe Marino, was a member of the bakers’ union executive. In the course of time, Joe Marino was to become the general secretary of the union. Writing in Militant he commented:

The bread strike is over. The owners of Britain’s big bakeries who took on the workers in an attempt to cow them by force have themselves been dealt a blow. The unity and determination of the bakery workers has forced the bosses to concede most of the workers’ claims. (11)


A bitter dispute of the firefighters also broke out. The Labour government was refusing to concede to their demand for gross pay to be ten per cent above the average industrial wage. This had been generally accepted in the past but was being reneged upon by the Labour government. The strike was solid, with about 99 per cent supporting the strike. Militant threw all of its resources into supporting the firefighters. It pointed out that despite the claims of the capitalist press that ‘they were greedy’, in fact; “when a vast majority of firemen have picked up their wages they then have to apply for free school meals for their children, rent and rate rebates, and in some cases supplementary benefit.” (12)

During this strike we met Terry Fields, a leading firefighter on Merseyside.

The press once more attempted to play the same sickening game of blaming workers for some people who died in fires. And yet the attempt to blame the firefighters cut no ice with workers. The high regard in which firefighters were held resulted in tremendous support from the mass of the working class. This was despite the fact that the government decided to use the army and the ‘Green Goddesses’ for ‘emergencies’.

Despite this, the strike ended in victory for the firefighters. As a result of our intervention in this dispute, a number of firefighters in all areas of the country came closer to Militant. Subsequent experience was to demonstrate that it was necessary for them to join Militant’s ranks. 1977 had witnessed the number of strikes increasing three times compared to 1976. This showed that the ‘Social Contract’ was bursting at the seams. Events, in which Militant was to play a decisive role, were to shatter this in the course of the next year.

Fascists attack our HQ

In September, an attempt was made by fascists to burn down the offices and factory at Mentmore Terrace in Hackney, where Militant was produced. A special article reported: “A wad of rag soaked in some inflammable liquid had been stuffed through our letter box and the remainder of the liquid poured down and around the doors and then set alight.” (12) 

This was not the first time that such methods had been used by the fascists. Attacks had been made on the nearby Bethnal Green Labour Party rooms. The attack on the Militant offices was fortunately unsuccessful. But it was a warning of what the fascists were capable of.

The furious opposition to the National Front had manifested itself in big clashes in Lewisham in August. Despite the fact that 4,000 police had been mobilised to assist them to march through the area, the fascists received a bloody nose. The official organisers of the march, the All-Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, dominated by Labour lefts and the Communist Party, had opposed any attempt to physically confront the fascists. Fortunately a significant section of the demonstration, with Labour Party Young Socialists and Militant supporters like Brian Ingham playing a key role, decided to stop the fascists.

Nick Bradley, on behalf of the LPYS at a meeting before the demonstration, “explained that only the united action by the working class on the lines of Cable Street could defeat the fascists.” This is what the demonstrators proceeded to implement, with spectacular results. Police charged the demonstration and this infuriated the anti-fascist marchers. Bricks and other missiles were used against the fascists after the police had deployed horses, batons and riot shields against demonstrators.

Such was the NF’s fear that at least a quarter of their supporters refused to march. Militant reported:

The LPYS, in particular, can be proud of the role played by its contingent. Undoubtedly the most disciplined section of the counter-demonstration, positioned where the police charge began, it set a shining example of how to organise effective anti-fascist action. (13)

Meanwhile, back in Newham

The Newham Prentice saga continued to unfold. Two right-wing members of the Newham party, Julian Lewis and Paul McCormick, staunch defenders of Prentice, had decided to take the Labour Party to court. It was subsequently admitted by these two that they were ‘infiltrators’ into the Labour Party on behalf of the Tory Party. Militant’s headline on 15 July denouncing their action was entirely accurate: “Infiltrators take Labour to court”.

It was not a coincidence that they were using the same solicitors who were acting on behalf of Grunwick management against APEX. When an injunction was served on Andy Bevan, by this time vice-chair of the CLP, at a constituency party meeting, he ripped it up. Yet despite this, when the case came to court in November, Militant could report:

Newham victory… total victory! Complete vindication! All seven members of the Newham North-East Labour Party have had the cases brought against them by the High Court dismissed… Costs, which will probably amount to between £7,000 and £10,000, were awarded against Milsom (a right-wing member of the CLP), whose expenses have been underwritten by the anonymous backers of Lewis and McCormick. (14)

Meanwhile, Prentice’s position became more and more untenable and in October, following the Labour Party conference, Prentice drew the logical conclusion from his position and defected to the Tory Party. The 181 Labour MPs who had supported him were rewarded with the statement: “If I blame myself for anything it is that I did not leave the Labour Party earlier on.” Right-winger Neville Sandelson stated: “I am astonished we tried to help him. I am disappointed.” (15)

Labour Party conference in October recorded a further significant growth in the support for Militant with over 500 delegates buying copies of the Militant and more than 200 turning up at the Militant Readers’ Meeting. Ted Mooney, standing for the Conference Arrangements Committee as a Militant supporter, received 424,000 votes. The 1977 conference, however, was a relatively tame affair representing somewhat of a pause between 1976 and 1978. The retreats of the government were being pondered over by the ranks of the movement.

Sixteen Pages

Only a few months into 1978 Militant once more expanded to become a 16-page paper. By this time our organised supporters had increased to 1,140. A number of leading left figures welcomed the expansion of the paper.

I welcome the enlargement of Militant as it is necessary that every view within the labour movement is widely discussed. Militant plays an important role, especially among the youth… (Eric Heffer MP).(16)

Sid Bidwell MP stated

The paper will, I know, concentrate on stripping fact from fiction and presenting these ideas in an unvulgarised way. In this country the Labour press generally is weak. It is therefore good news to hear of your step forward… and perhaps I could contribute from time to time. (17)

From the unions, Walter Cunningham, chair of the Hull Docks Shop Stewards Committee commented:

I have taken the Militant for over four years, because apart from the persistence of your sellers, which is to be admired, the Militant has always strived to be honest and responsible in its reporting of local issues and in the docks industry. (18)

Events were to soon demonstrate how important an expanded paper was.

In the early months of the year, despite the massive demonstration at Lewisham, the fascists once more raised their heads, this time in Birmingham. Militant reported in February ‘Young Socialists Rally Thousands’ to confront ‘Birmingham NF meeting’. A massive demonstration marched through the streets of Birmingham led by the Labour Party Young Socialists, where “thousands of working-class shoppers, immigrant youth and football fans joined in a magnificent demonstration of revulsion and anger at the National Front youth movement who were meeting in Birmingham last Saturday.” (19)

The Birmingham demonstration was followed by an Anti-Nazi League demo of 80,000 followed by a rally and concert in London in May. All of these events combined to finish off the National Front. Their leaders admitted later on that the determined resistance of 1977-78 in effect smashed the attempt of the fascists to gain a foothold in Britain. In general, the lead was given, not by the organised labour and trade union movement from above, but by activists from below, in which the Marxists around Militant, along with others, played a key role.

And yet the fascists were not to sink into the background before carrying out murderous attacks on the Bengali community in the Brick Lane area of Tower Hamlets. After the murder of Altab Ali, a factory worker, 20,000 came out in a protest march. 

The fascists had been responsible for creating the atmosphere where, for instance, Bengali brewery workers in the area had been brutally attacked by car loads of thugs as they left work. With the fascists selling their vile literature – trying to intimidate the local people – at the end of Brick Lane, Militant reported: 

About 2,000 people occupied the end of Brick Lane in a determined and successful attempt to prevent the National Front from selling their fascist scribblings on this, their traditional site. (20)

These incidents demonstrate that time and again, despite the setbacks for the fascists, they will inevitably return unless the labour movement is vigilant and above all changes society.

But the increased role of Militant in these battles once more resulted in an attack on its premises. In July “fascist thugs smashed two windows with bricks that landed in a first-floor office. ‘Hackney YNF’ and ‘NF’ were daubed on the walls outside.” (21)

The battle against the fascists had rekindled an interest in politics amongst black and Asian youth in Britain. Militant was the most successful organisation, then and now, in drawing this layer, particularly working class blacks and Asians, into active involvement. 

Contrary to the distortions of its opponents, who characterise us as having a ‘crude’ approach to the battle against racism, and particularly the struggle of blacks, it has always demonstrated a principled but also flexible approach. The need for a common struggle of black and white against racism is obvious. 

At the same time, and at an early stage, Militant recognised the need for specific organisations which could involve black and Asian workers in the struggle at the level that they were at. Under some circumstances, this necessitated special organisations, which black and Asian workers controlled and at the same time also acted as a bridge to the broader struggles of the labour movement. 

Accordingly, Militant supporters were instrumental in setting up a branch of the People’s National Party Youth (UK) in Britain in which Bob Lee and Colin DeFreitas played a vital role. The PNP, under Michael Manley, had just won elections in Jamaica on a radical programme. The first conference was held in June 1978 with over 100 young blacks attending.