The Good and Bad Old Days - The Whinger

Paul Petard cartoon

The following notes look at various developments in employment, unemployment, and industrial struggles, mainly in the UK, through the period of the sixties, and up to the mid-seventies.

Submitted by Red Marriott on December 26, 2007

These notes are not revolutionary, they don't even claim to be radical,... I_just nicked them and adapted them from an old seventies cyclopedia I found in a charity shop!. But they do tell a story, and they illustrate a big process of change at a critical turning point.

From; The Whinger - Irregular journal of hysterical madterialism; No. 6, Oct 2007.
For more Whingeing and radical cartooning, see; here


The Good and Bad Old Days

In 1932 there were 3 million unemployed in the UK.
In no year between 1919 and 1939 were there fewer than a million unemployed in the UK.
In most post war years up to the end of the sixties less than 2% of the working were unemployed - contrasting with 11% for 1937 and 22% for 1932.
By the mid-seventies, after 30 years of general rapid growth and unprecedented prosperity for the western economies the prospects for growth became much less favourable.
-growing open militancy in workers struggles
-big jump in oil price

The low unemployment of the post war years was not maintained in the late 60s, and by January 1972 unemployment touched I million; 4% of the labour force. According to bog-standard capitalist economics, "full employment" is defined as about 1 - 1.5% unemployed. Of the 603,000 people on average unemployed in 1970, 514,000 were men, 89,000 were women.

Britain:- Annual average-------------------l----% of total
unemployment in thousands-------------l------workforce
1932 - 2829-----------------------------------------22.1

1958 - 457---------------------------------------------2.1
1960 - 360---------------------------------------------1.6
1962 - 463---------------------------------------------2.0
1964 - 381---------------------------------------------1.6
1966 - 360---------------------------------------------1.5
1968 - 564---------------------------------------------2.4
1970 - 603---------------------------------------------2.6
1972 - 922---------------------------------------------4.1
1973 - 609---------------------------------------------2.6

In England in 1965 there was a serious critical labour shortage in the south and in the midlands! But by 1970 the situation had already turned round to the extent that the incoming conservative government of Ted Heath already wanted to achieve a big "shake out" of "underemployed labour".

It also needs to be remembered that large pockets of unemployment still continued to persist during much of this period in parts of Scotland and the North East of England. Throughout the whole period there was heavy unemployment in the North of Ireland, particularly for those workers from a catholic background.

Between 1955 and 1970 basic wage rates rose by 102% and total earnings for workers by 150% (this is if you add on overtime, piece rates, bonusses, etc.... ). The advance in wage rates was only a little bit higher than the rise in retail prices in the period - which was 70%. But earnings rose considerably more than prices, so the main source of the extra real income of workers is to be found in the widening gap between earnings and rates.

1969 - 10 million trade union members and over 500 different unions.
1970 - there were 3,900 strikes in the UK, 1.8 million workers were directly involved, 1 1 million working days lost to the employers.... a big year for strikes. But; growing unemployment, growing inflation. Worse industrial relations after 1967, increased incidence of work stoppages in Britain.
1970 - Britain: 740 days lost through strikes per 1000 persons employed!
1970 - U.S.: 2200 days lost through strikes per 1000 persons employed!!
In the Industrial Relations Act of 1971 the conservative government laid down new laws for the regulation of industrial relations and for the curbing of strikes. However the act was repealed by the incoming labour government of March 1974 under Harold Wilson. (Meanwhile; October 1973 onwards - world oil crisis).

1960 - boom
1961-1962 - minor recession
1962-1966 - upswing and boom
1967 - emerging stagnation
1968 - slight reflation shortlived
1969-1971 - recession and growing unemployment
1972-1973 - sharp upswing but high inflation
1974 - oil crisis, stagnation, re-emergence of continual mass unemployment
Near full employment was maintained between early 1964 and early 1966.
(wage rises had to be restrained to some extent by government incomes policies)

By comparison, 1974 saw a simultaneous failure to meet all four main government economic objectives: adequate economic growth, full employment, stable balance of payments, stable prices.

Production in the first quarter of 1974 fell by 5.5%, affected the three day working week, temporarily imposed by the government in response to the overtime ban and then strike in the coal mining industry. The miners' strike was settled and full-time working was restored by an incoming labour government in 1974. By 1975, the labour chancellor Dennis Healey was announcing big cuts in state spending and rises in taxes. Unemployment continues to grow....

"Inflation" after 1967 had also began to grow, and by 1970 came the "wage explosion". This could not just be attributed to pressure of demand for labour as by 1970 unemployment had already risen to quite a high level compared to the "full employment" of the mid sixties.

The wage explosion appeared to reflect a general increase in militancy by the rank and file of the trade unions angered by the near stagnation of real earnings and real disposable incomes between 1967 and 1970, and was also influenced by militancy in other countries. Once begun, the wage explosion was further maintained by the growth of expectations that prices would continue to rise rapidly.

1972 - "Wage-price spiral" in full swing, both wage and price increases accelerated. In November the government tries to intervene with a pay and price freeze, followed in 1973 by a "price and pay code"

Ted Heath etc.: In 1970 the conservative government had disbanded the National Board for Prices and Incomes. To curb "inflation" it started by maintaining the economy in recession, and squeezed company liquidity to encourage lower wage rises and more layoffs. It also attempted to resist wage demands in the state sector at the cost of provoking long strikes, e.g. in electricity supply, the post office, and in coal mining. The miners' strike of 1972 was particularly strong, and successfully won big gains. The post office strike ended in more of a compromise.

The government measures were by no means a sure rernedy for the "inflation spiral". Even its strategy of deterring high wage demands by maintaining high unemployment was dropped in the reflationary budget of 1972. The government switched to placing its faith in the infamous Act for the Reform of Industrial Relations, to try and solve the problem of wage inflation.
1972 - Marked increase in the number and seriousness of strikes. The national miners strike accounted for 10 million of the 24 million working days "lost" in 1972. Main cause of strikes: pay claims. In the six months between the first and third quarters of 1972 average weekly earnings rose by no less than 7%. Even the expectation of an impending government freeze only encouraged further wage and price increases!
Jan 1974: The National Union of Mineworkers, feeling strongly that their relative pay had fallen, but also recognising their new bargaining power resulting from the oil crisis, refused to settle under the governmnt's price and pay code. A national overtime ban had begun in Nov 73 which in Jan 74 became a new national strike. In Nov 73 the government declared a state of emergency, and in January 74 introduced a three day working-week (!!!) for industry, and periodic power cuts, in order to conserve coal and coaldependent electricity.
The government was effectively forced to call a general election. The pay board reported just after the election, they recommended that an additional increase be paid to the miners on the grounds that the long-run contraction of the industry would in future be reversed and that higher relative pay would be necessary to recruit and to retain more miners (!). The pay increase and recommendations were accepted by the incoming labour government.

The Labour Party came to power pledged to deal firmly with prices, but to abandon statutory wage controls. It took early action on rents and food prices by means of controls and subsidies. By July 1974 the pay board was abolished and the policies of compulsory wage restraint ended.

During the February 1974 general election, an agreement between the TUC and the Labour Party had been announced known as the SOCIAL CONTRACT. The hope was that, in return for the repeal of the 1972 Industrial Relations Act, the TUC would be able to persuade its members to cooperate in a programme of voluntary wage restraint. In this way it was hoped to avoid the strains caused by formal incomes policies which appeared to trade unions to leave them without any particular role to play. Under a voluntaty system they could still do their job of bargaining about wage rates.

By early 1975 it was feared the Social Contract was failing.
If the government continued to reject a stutory incomes policy, it was argued, the only alternative would be highly restrictive budgetary policies - monetarism etc
Before anyone starts blaming "Thatcher" and "Thatcherism" for so much of the hung over current misery, let us remind ourselves that it was actually Dennis Healey and Jim Callaghan who first went cap in hand groveling to the International Monetary Fund and introduced full on monetarist policies into the UK. The Tories subsequently built on what the other lot had started.

By the end of the seventies the constant set piece industrial showdowns, culminating in the "winter of discontent", between employers and organized sectors of labour in both private and state sectors, who still had entrenched collective bargaining power, were becoming increasingly stuck and deadlocked. For the majority who were not directly involved in these collective struggles in industry, the experience was increasingly one of stagnation, service interruption in the community, and the perception of a growing "chaos".

The Grunwick's dispute, which began as a small local dispute around a photo processing laboratory in north west London was then seized on by wider organized bosses' forces and the state and turned into a laboratory exercise for designing and testing the archetypal lock out entrapment model for breaking other strikes.

Come the end of the seventies, millions of working class people were sufficiently bored and pissed off with the stagnation and atmosphere of chaos to join large numbers of the middle classes in voting for Thatcher. She promised a radical way out of the deadlock, and appealed to workers' aspirations for individual rather than collective advancement.

Part of our mistake at that time was that we still did not fully understand what the real agenda of the ruling elite had become. Many of us still thought that they just wanted us to be more patriotic, more loyal to industry, more hardworking, and to work for lower pay without tea-break in order to boost britain's industrial efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness, so they could sell more manufactured goods to the world.

What we didn't fully realize was that many of the big bosses and capitalists in the UK were already completely fed up with the whole game of continually having to argue at home over productivity with industrial workers. Whether the workers were being a little less productive or a little more productive, the whole ritual of arguing about it had become a time wasting drag for them, and they wanted to free up their capital globally. Behind the scenes their real agenda had now become to smash the majority of the industries, shut them down, reduce their immediate dependence on them, and push them abroad. Domestically they wanted to shift mainly to a service economy, and a financial bubble economy centred on the city.
Thatcher began by pushing unemployment up to over 3 million, putting down a wave of inner city revolts, staging a small patriotic flag waving war over the Falklands, and testing and improving Grunwick-style strike breaking techniques in the Warrington printworks dispute.

Then came the war on the miners, an attack that had been ten years in preparation. Thatcher didn't just shut a few mines. Some mine closures had slowly been going on since the sixties and before, and the majority of mines aren't particularly healthy places anyway. What she did, out of bitterness and class hatred, was to ruin and destroy whole miners' communities, destroy their social fabric, destroy their strong rebellious spirit, and their material ability to sustain themselves. At the time this was going on I joined in local picketing at Didcot power station, participated in support demos in London, and went to the usual benefit concerts and events. But as most of the "action" was hundreds of miles away I remember having to spend most of the time at home watching the events unfold on the telly.

Two years later, with King Coal slain, my political education progressed with support for the regular picket line battles outside Murdoch's newspaper printworks at Wapping. This was a pre-arranged set up that descended from tragedy into farce.

Rather than "winning the cold war and bringing it to swift end". Maggie's love-in with Reagan deliberately prolonged the cold war with the Soviet Union by another ten years, threatening Europe with cruise missiles. It was at this point that the seeds of Al Quaeda were originally sown with the west's covert but large-scale support for islamist mercenaries bringing terrorist sabotage to undermine the secular bureaucratic state in Afghanistan, and in doing so drawing the Soviet Union into a snare.

To celebrate her demise, some people are calling for a party in Trafalgar Square London the evening that Thatcher dies (she might hang on for another ten years or more). I'm not enthusiastic about this idea myself. If Thatcher dies a natural death it means she will have effectively gone unpunished, so we will be celebrating her victory. In any case, the war crimes of Blair and Brown, with their own love-in with the sinister post-shachtmanite-trotskyist-unipolarist neocon neoimperialists, and the Bush-Cheney grab-it-while-it's-there peak oil gang, are measurably worse than anything Thatcher did. Anti-toryism and token anti-toffism in the british context too easily becomes a default cover up for the Labour state, and for the British imperial labour corporatism that helps keep it going.