The Ford Strike of 1978 was one of the most significant strikes in British history. Beginning when 57,000 workers in Ford plants across the country walked out over a measly pay offer in-line with government pay policy, it ended with a substantial pay increase for British workers, the Labour government’s pay policy in tatters, and a cabinet in crisis. With the current Conservative government in disarray, the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, and strikes happening in numerous sectors, it is imperative to look back at how people challenged both government and employers over pay and working conditions in the recent past, and compare their disputes with the issues we are facing today.
Initial walkouts at Ford occurred at Halewood and Southampton on 20 September 1978, with more the next day, including the main Ford plant in Dagenham. On 22 September, the two biggest unions involved in the dispute, Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) and Amalgamated Engineering Workers’ Union (AEWU), would make the strike official with a pay claim of 30%, along with increased holiday allowance and a reduction of the working week from 40 hours to 35 hours.
There were several arguments put forward for the pay increase, the main argument being that the flat-rate incomes policy mandated by the Labour Government from 1974 had slowed their pay growth as Ford made huge profits in the 1970s. The management of Ford responded to these pay claims with offers within government policy, which at the time was 5% as the government suppressed workers’ wages to control inflation. If Ford went over the 5% threshold, the business would be exposed to government sanctions.
The Labour government, led by Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, loomed large in the dispute due to the pay threshold. With thresholds throughout the 1970s being lower than the rate of inflation, most workers had experienced a real-terms pay cut as the majority of businesses and unions settled for wage increases within the threshold. In this context of declining living standards, the new threshold of 5% was exceptionally low. It would not make up for years of below-inflation wage increases and instead would lead to a further deterioration in living standards, with inflation at the time running at 8%.
Whilst the dispute was ongoing, Ford was losing an estimated £10 million per day. The strike was also affecting Ford production in Europe, causing severe delays. Trade unions in Europe refused to do work that was usually undertaken by the striking workers at Ford, with Bosch workers refusing to produce electrical components for Ford. Before the dispute, Ford had been making a healthy profit for several years, with pre-tax profits more than doubling from £121.6 million in 1976 to £264.1 million in 1977. Perhaps for this very reason, the chairman of the company, Sir Terence Beckett, was awarded an 80% pay rise, with his salary increasing from £30,457 to £54,843 (approximately £152k to £275k today).
Wages for Ford workers varied, with the magazine Big Flame in October 1978 printing a pay slip from a Ford worker working full-time with no overtime earning £46.94 a week. Ford could certainly afford to pay their workers more. Without the threat of sanctions for businesses, it is possible to imagine a straightforward negotiated settlement. Sir Terence Beckett himself, in a deleted passage of a speech, called government intervention in pay policy a ‘species of tetanus where one set of muscles goes rigid, pulling against another and the patient becomes paralyzed’.
The Ford strike was effective. Management realised it was cheaper to negotiate a settlement than continue to lose money in a strike that showed no sign of ending, even if Ford faced government sanction. On 9 October, Ford agreed to negotiate in the spirit of collective bargaining, ignoring government wage restraint. With weeks of increased offers, Ford workers accepted an offer of 17% in November, smashing the government’s meagre pay policy. The government proceeded to sanction Ford to intimidate other businesses from agreeing to pay claims above the threshold. These sanctions were up to government discretion and included the loss of government subsidies, contracts, and grants.
These penalties had the intention of being more than strictly financial. A Cabinet meeting from December talked about creating ‘a moral climate in which the main penalty on such a company was loss of reputation.’ However, a massive blow for the Government occurred a week before Christmas after the Conservatives forced a vote on sanctions in Parliament, which voted to reverse the sanctions by 285 to 279.
Key to this defeat was the abstention of the left-wing Tribune Group of Labour MPs, who disagreed with the pay threshold. MPs in Parliament argued for the return of collective bargaining and challenged the legality and credibility of government sanctions, with Conservatives seeing arbitrary sanctions as punishing businesses, rather than trade unions. With government sanctions defeated in Parliament, financial penalties against Ford were withdrawn. The Labour government had effectively lost its power.
The strike by workers at Ford and the eventual settlement of a 17% pay increase produced a domino effect. By the end of November, manual workers, NHS auxiliary workers, miners, factory workers, and bakers all wanted wage increases. The defeat of government sanctions in December was a further catalyst for workers fighting for pay increases. In the new year, oil tanker driver strikes involving Esso, Shell and Texaco and lorry driver disputes were having a massive impact on the country with shortages. By the end of January, around 1.5 million workers took part in a National Day of Action, one of the biggest strikes since the General Strike of 1926. Strikes in January and February involved much of the public sector, most famously NHS workers, waste collectors and gravediggers in Liverpool. Eventually, these series of disputes would wind down as unions and employers agreed on settlements way over the policy threshold.
The importance of the Ford Strike to this wave of strike action cannot be understated. The wage increase for the workers in Ford was a significant impetus for other workers to demand greater pay increases and not accept another year of declining living standards. An important legacy of the strikes during the winter of 1978 to 1979 are how they continue to be used and discussed in political discourse today. This strike wave has retrospectively been dubbed the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and has become a key part of the social memory of the United Kingdom. The origin of using the term ‘Winter of Discontent’ to describe the strikes is credited to Larry Lamb, the editor of The Sun from 1969 to 1972 and 1975 to 1981. In an editorial for The Sun on 3 May 1979 urging voters to vote for the Conservatives in the General Election, the words ‘Winter of Discontent’ were splashed across the front page, with Lamb reminding voters of the ‘long cold months of industrial chaos that brought Britain to its knees’.
The dominant narrative of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ depicts Britain under the throes of union barons using their power to control society to demand excessive pay increases for their members. There are many examples of this narrative being used by the media today, with strikes in the railways, Royal Mail and NHS creating newspaper headlines reminding voters about the dark days of the late 1970s and the problem of trade union power. To some, this strike wave is a second ‘Winter of Discontent’ and invokes the memory of ‘the wage-price spiral’ of the 1970s. This memory of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ is connected to a more general memory of the 1970s as a decade of political crisis, with high inflation (26.9% at its height in 1975), industrial militancy, and slow growth holding Britain back. The term ‘anti-growth coalition’ used by Conservatives against their opponents today summons up this memory of low growth and crisis and is used to deflect criticism of government policy and demonise protests. This so-called ‘coalition’ includes many people, such as trade unionists and social democrats, with the Conservatives aiming to emulate Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, by fighting against them.
However, this narrative has become increasingly challenged. In terms of the number of days lost through strikes between 1970 and 1979, Britain lost fewer days than countries such as Germany, France, and Japan. It is even possible to see the 1970s more positively. David Edgerton argues that the 1970s was the high point of British social democracy, with inequality and poverty at their lowest and social mobility at its peak. Indeed, despite newspaper headlines worrying about a return to the 1970s, the economic situation was in many ways better back then than it is now.
2023 is a very different world from the late 1970s. Trade union density was at its peak during the 1970s and workers were organised enough to dispute insufficient wage increases. The ‘Winter of Discontent’ was a testament to this. Since 1979, union density has fallen and unions have become heavily regulated. Anti-trade union legislation was passed by the Conservatives in the years that followed Thatcher’s rise to power, removing many of the tools at unions’ disposal, such as solidarity action which allowed workers from another workplace to take action in support of other workers.
Britain also deindustrialised rapidly due to Thatcher’s macroeconomic policies in the 1980s, with deindustrialisation continuing well into the turn of the century. The loss of industrial employment and strong unions associated with it was replaced with service jobs which were poorly unionised and underpaid. New Labour governments from 1997 to 2010 did not reverse this and more anti-strike legislation has been passed since to stifle trade union activity. All of this has culminated in a lack of power for workers to fight against decreases in their standard of living. There has been some good news, with current Labour leader Keir Starmer pledging at the Labour Conference this year to repeal the 2016 Trade Union Act, which restricts trade unions by making it harder to take industrial action. In the same speech, Starmer also pledged to stop zero-hour contracts and end ‘fire and rehire’ practices. However, Starmer has been disappointing in his reticence in supporting the current strikes, with one example being his refusal to back nurses in the NHS demanding a pay rise.
With the cost-of-living crisis today, we have seen a revival of the Labour movement, though anti-union rhetoric is as prevalent now as it was in the past. Accumulative strike action is the main weapon workers have against employers and the government to ensure people have decent working standards and earn a fair wage. Members of trade unions also provide the best argument against narratives about workers being greedy for asking for fair wage increases. We see this now with people such as Mick Lynch, Eddie Dempsey and Dave Ward making convincing arguments in the media for a fair pay rise.
The impact of trade union action does not limit itself to wages. Unions have been crucial in advocating for policies on sick pay, maternity and paternity leave, bereavement, health and safety and many other important aspects of work life. We should assist organised labour in any way we can to help unions gain substantial wage increases that are necessary for their workforce, unionise non-unionised workers in the private sector and put pressure on the government to repeal draconian trade union laws that make it harder for unions to withdraw labour in negotiation with employers. The Ford Strike of 1978 was a demonstration of power from workers who refused to suffer continual decreases in living standards without a fight. With strikes to protect living standards now occurring across Britain, past struggles become more important to show that declining living standards are not inevitable and are a political choice by a government which prioritises business over workers.
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