British Steel Workers defend wages against threatened decrease, 1980

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Timing
Time Period:  
2 January
1980
to
3 April
1980
Location and Goals
Country: 
United Kingdom
Location Description: 
Throughout the country
Goals: 
To win a working contract with a 20% wage increase from the British Steel Corporation.
 

In Britain, steelworkers were historically among the highest paid skilled laborers. The British steel industry enjoyed a profitable and harmonious relationship between the management and the workers until the 1970’s.

This began to change due to accelerating steel production in other countries and slowing global demand, forcing the management of the British Steel Corporation (BSC), a nationalized company, to adopt the Beswick plan of plant closures, reduced output, and improved productivity in 1975.

Steelworkers opposed the plant closings as well as reduced annual wage increases; steelworkers had fallen from third to eighteenth in wages relative to other British industrial workers. Relations between the unions and management began to deteriorate. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. She stated an intention not to intervene in labour and enterprise relations, proposing a manifesto to “reform” unions.

On 3 December 1979 the British Steel Corporation (BSC) announced to the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC) Union of 90,000 steel workers that it could afford only a base raise of 0- 2% for the next year, and that workers could negotiate raises of up to 10% on a local plant-by-plant level depending on the plant’s productivity. The national inflation rate was 17%.

Then on 6 December, the management announced a reduced 1980 production target of 15.2 million tonnes, down from an estimated 18.3 million in 1979. This decrease in production would allow a reduction of 52,000 employees in the work force of 160,000. On the following day, 7 December 1979, the ISTC called for a national strike beginning 2 January 1980.

The strike began, as planned, on 2 January 1980 when the 90,000 members of the ISTC and the 14,000 members of the National Union of Blastfurnacemen began picketing at local plants. The goal of the union leadership was to stop all movement of steel.

A smaller number of ”flying pickets” traveled throughout the country to ports, steel stockholders, steel producers, steel users, and the BSC headquarters. They gained allies from the National Union of Railwaymen who refused to transport steel on 24 January.

The union leadership found it difficult to organize the many local chapters of the union and decided to rely on mass pickets to wage the campaign. On 16 January they called ISTC members working at private plants to strike, with mass pickets starting 27 January.

On the day before the strike was to spread to private plants, a court injunction declared the strike illegal. The ISTC complied, stopping the strike until the House of Lords later overturned the injunction.

A new crisis began on Sunday, 10 February. Union members from the Hadfields plant, a large production plant, voted to return to work.

The union leadership organized a mass picket at Hadfields on 12 February to prevent the workers from entering the plant. At 6:00 AM on the morning of the 12th, 350 pickets arrived at the plant gate for the 7:00 AM opening. The number rose to 620 pickets later in the day.

The police stopped the pickets’ attempts to obstruct the road, which allowed management to keep the plant open all day. Police arrested 64 pickets.

The following day 300 pickets went to Hadfields, but police again prevented them from closing the plant. Police arrested 10 more pickets.

The next day was the largest mass picket in the campaign: 2,000 pickets blocked the entrance to Hadfields. Workers in the plant voted to join the pickets, closing the plant. The successful mass picket became known locally as ”St. Valentine’s Massacre.”

Following the success of the picket, the union leadership hoped to continue their momentum, creating a list of plants to close by mass pickets. On 20 February, they planned to close Sheerness Steel in Kent with a mass picket. Locals met the pickets with hostility refusing them service at restaurants and bars, and the police blocked them from the plant, keeping it open.

On 11 March, the BSC offered a settlement of a 14.4% raise, including local productivity deals. The ISTC leadership stood by its slogan “20% - no strings.”

The mass-picketing campaign was losing momentum, and some members of the ISTC were returning to work. The union leadership called for a mass picket on 13 March at Hadfields in an attempt to repeat the February success and revive enthusiasm about the mass picketing campaign. However, they failed to disrupt plant operations. After the failed picket some unions, including the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Union, ended their participation in the strike.

The strike continued, but on 17 March the high court ordered the National Union of Railwaymen to release steel blockaded in their ports. On 21 March, the Liverpool Dockers Union voted to strike in support of the ISTC, but the Transport and General Workers Union refused to endorse the strike.

The campaign was winding down. The British economy was suffering from the effects of the strike. The ISTC resumed negotiations with the BSC and agreed to a 15.5% increase in wages: 11% through a basic increase and 4.5% through local deals. Including benefits and vacation, the total package value negotiated was a 17% increase. The thirteen-week-long strike ended on 3 April.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Apple. R.W. “British Reach Pact in Long Steel Strike: Tentative Proposal by Arbitrators Would Settle Costly Dispute at Nationalized Company.” The New York Times. April 1, 1980. Accessed 22 February, 2013. http://search.proquest.com/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/121304859/pageviewPDF/13C69F2BB751AD30465/1?accountid=14194

Hartley, Jean, John Kelly, and Nigel Nicholson. “Steel Strike: A case study in industrial relations.” Batsford Academic and Educational Ltd. London, 1983.

Apple, R.W. “British Steel Strike a Tory Test: New Talks To Strain Policy Free-Market Policy at Issue.” The New York Times, February 8, 1980. Accessed 22 February, 2013. http://search.proquest.com/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/121141003/13C6A1F0D7F587227C4/5?accountid=14194

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Jonathan White, 22/02/2013