Commemorating the Battle of Saltley Gate
Fifty years ago, on 9 January 1972, the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike, the first time Britain’s miners had taken official national action since 1926.
In 1926, the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain found itself betrayed by the TUC who insisted that they and not the MFGB itself should conduct strike action over miners’ pay and hours.
The “General Strike” lasted for nine days during which Britain’s embattled miners and other trade unionists brought the country almost to a complete standstill.
On 11 May, the TUC General Council reaffirmed its support for this united strike action – but less than 24 hours later, four General Council members – Arthur Pugh, TUC President; Walter Citrine, TUC General Secretary; Jimmy Thomas, General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen and Ernest Bevin, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union – held a private meeting with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin at which they told him that: “this General Strike is to be terminated forthwith”.
This betrayal was then endorsed by the TUC General Council and left the miners to fight on alone for a further nine months until they were forced back to work by hardship and isolation.
It’s a betrayal that haunted the entire trade union movement for decades and it was against that background that the NUM took its decision to strike in 1972.
As the NUM began the 1972 strike, the trade union and Labour movement was by and large supportive - yet, despite declarations of solidarity from individual unions and the TUC, national union leaders in key sectors such as energy and steel wouldn’t call on their members to support the NUM with solidarity industrial action, while in road transport, scab lorry drivers carried on transporting coal and oil to power stations.
Faced with this, miners deployed flying pickets to power stations, ports, wharfs and non-union transport companies, confronting self-employed scab drivers. In many cases, this picketing was successful, but the miners were nonetheless battling without sufficient local solidarity action from other unions in all parts of the country.
The British State felt fairly confident of the outcome. Right-wing journalist and former MP Woodrow Wyatt wrote in the Daily Mirror: “Rarely have strikers advanced to the barricades with less enthusiasm or hope of success…..the miners have more stacked against them than the Light Brigade in their famous charge”.
Saturday, 5 February 1972
It was against this background that a telephone call came into the Barnsley (South Yorkshire) NUM strike headquarters early in the afternoon of Saturday, 5 February.
At the time, I was a rank-and-file member of the Yorkshire NUM Executive Committee and picket organiser for the Barnsley Area, who happened to pick up the call, which came from Jim Wheeler, the Research Officer at the NUM’s national headquarters staff in London.
It was an urgent request: could Yorkshire send pickets to Birmingham, to help a handful of local Midlands miners outside a coke depot in the centre of Birmingham?
Within two hours, we had organised coaches and 400 Yorkshire miners were on their way.
Before setting off, I had spoken by phone to my comrade and friend Frank Watters, the Communist Party’s organiser in Birmingham, who assured me that the Yorkshire pickets would be looked after by the local Labour movement.
Star Social Club and Labour Party HQ
By the time we all arrived, Frank and Moira Symons, Secretary of her Constituency Labour Party, had virtually sorted out accommodation for our pickets with Birmingham families who took us in and looked after us for the next tumultuous five days.
Alan Law and Nicky Bridge of the TGWU and Arthur Harper of the AEU were among those providing beds and food for the Yorkshire pickets – and more, because we would be joined over the next couple of days by miners from South Wales, Durham and Scotland
Sunday, 6 February
Under Birmingham by-laws, Saltley had to close by 4:00 p.m. each day, opening at 7:00 in the morning. Shortly after 6:00 a.m. on the Sunday, the Yorkshire miners joined the handful of local NUM pickets who had been battling in isolation outside the coking plant for several weeks.
What isn’t generally known is that, together, we actually closed Saltley for all of that day. We achieved this because the police hadn’t expected the forces that had come down from Yorkshire, and we outnumbered them.
Monday, 7 February
Not surprisingly, on Monday morning, more than 1,000 police were gathered at the plant’s gate; they were under orders from Sir Derek Capper, Chief Constable of Birmingham and Chief Superintendent Arthur Brannigan, to ensure Saltley was kept open.
Battle commenced. The police were ruthless, clearly carrying out orders to thwart the pickets at all costs. Large numbers of miners – and supporters who had joined them – were injured, and arrested.
I myself had a close encounter with Chief Superintendent Brannigan who arrested me – only to release me later without charge.
Tuesday, 8 February
By Monday night, it was clear that we would need far more support than the accommodation and kindness we had been given by Birmingham’s trade union movement: we needed solidarity strike action.
With the help of Frank Watters, Moira Symons and the Trades Council, arrangements were made for me to meet with and speak on Tuesday in the evening to local and regional leaders of key trade unions of the day, including the TGWU, AEU, NATFHE, Vehicle Builders, NUR, UCATT, the GMW, the FBU and groups of shop stewards from other unions – about 13 meetings in all.
In each discussion and at each meeting, I argued as passionately as I could that what the miners needed wasn’t money or messages of support.
I said: “We don’t want your pound notes. Will you go down in history as the working class of Birmingham who stood by while the miners were battered, or will you become immortal? I do not ask you – I demand you come out on strike, and join us on the picket line at Saltley”.
We needed solidarity action – and we needed it in less than 48 hours, on Thursday, 10 February.
One by one, the various leaders, committees and representatives agreed to give the support the miners were asking for – but I certainly didn’t know – nobody could know - what would actually happen.
Thursday, 10 February
What happened on 10 February 1972 remains a lasting symbol of what workers united can achieve. On that morning, 30,000 Birmingham women and men came out on strike and 20,000 marched to join the miners on the picket line at Saltley Gate.
That day, they marched into history.
Chief Constable Capper closed the Gate and instructed that the plant remain closed until the conclusion of the strike – coke would only be moved out for hospitals, schools and welfare care with certificates signed by the NUM.
Ironically, on the morning of 10 February, the then Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maudling had declared that the Saltley depot WOULD remain open.
Two hours later, word reached Maudling and the Tory Government that Birmingham’s working class together with the NUM pickets had closed Saltley Gate. Their actions secured a turning point in the national strike; the closing of Saltley Gate was central in winning victory for the NUM’s national strike.
Our class enemies were shaken to the core; today, 50 years later, they remain terrified of what the working class of Birmingham showed could be achieved by workers uniting in struggle.
As Margaret Thatcher writes in her autobiography “The Downing Street Years”: “In February 1972 mass pickets…forced the closure of the Saltley Coke Depot in Birmingham by sheer weight of numbers. It was a frightening demonstration....”
That battle and the miners’ strike as a whole marked the beginning of a year of historic trade union struggle. In July 1972, there was the London dockers’ strike and the incarceration of the Pentonville Five, whose release from jail was forced by massive trade union campaigning and action.
In October 1972, building workers were involved in a strike against exploitation in the construction industry, organised by men like Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson. Six months later, a number of pickets were stitched up on a charge of conspiracy, with Des and Ricky receiving lengthy prison sentences. It has taken 50 years – March 2021 – for the Court of Appeal to accept that the Shrewsbury 24 were wrongly accused of conspiracy in their struggle for basic trade union rights.
The Shrewsbury 24 never stopped fighting for justice.
Lessons to learn
We must act on the lessons from these struggles. Today’s tribute will only be useful if trade union leaders look to the lessons of Saltley and understand that they cannot succeed in any dispute without a fight, including a fight against anti-union laws.
The terrible economic and social problems facing working-class people, whether in work or unemployed are only going to get worse. What are we going to do?
Our National Health Service is in crisis; it needs a minimum funding of £250 billion per year.
Our Education System needs a minimum of £100 billion per year.
Our dire housing situation needs at least £100 billion per year.
State pensions must have the triple lock restored and occupational pension schemes must not be handed over to private insurance companies.
As Leader of the Socialist Labour Party, I want to make clear that the vicious policies of the Tory Government cannot ameliorate the austerity caused not just by the COVID pandemic but by the capitalist system cutting public expenditure and imposing further misery on working people.
As Socialists, it is up to us to make those responsible pay for the crimes they have committed.
How can we collaborate with any government which supports capitalism? We want an end to a system which has caused unemployment zero-hours contracts (better known as modern slavery), homelessness, cuts and privatisation of our health and social care systems, education and pensions. Today, we are a nation relying on food banks.
The only way Britain can rid itself of the austerity caused by the capitalist system is for the British people to own and control the means of production, distribution and exchange. Take economic and political control out of the hands of corrupt multi-nationals and place control of our nation’s future in the hands of all its citizens.
There are those who would suggest that this is revolutionary and they would be right. Compromise with crooks is no solution. It requires the removal of the small elite who control Britain’s economy, employment, health service, education system, pensions and social care systems.
A dangerous world
Life for our people is not only threatened by the economic disasters of capitalism. We’re living in a world of danger with armed conflict and the threat of further armed conflict unless we conform to USA and NATO policies.
The mad obsession with the production of nuclear and conventional weapons of war, designed to destroy life, should be replaced by a commitment to save and improve the quality of life for people everywhere.
Today’s world is wracked by unjust, unlawful wars, racism, xenophobia and the rise, yet again, of organisations and political parties who preach fascist doctrine.
The United States and NATO must be stopped from their military madness over Ukraine, and the USA and NATO must be stopped from threatening armed conflict unless China allows the “occupation” of Taiwan which is part of China.
The USA and the UK attack nations such as China and Russia on the issue of human rights whilst Julian Assange suffers an appalling violation of his human rights in Belmarsh.
If the USA really wanted to support the rights of nations and human beings, it would cease its occupation of Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay and stop interfering in Venezuela, among other nations. The UK should stop supplying Saudi Arabia with the weapons of death and destruction used against the people of Yemen.
Above all, the USA should accept the resolutions of the United Nations and not only condemn but take every action necessary to force the apartheid state of Israel to withdraw from all the lands it has seized from the Palestinians, from Syria’s Golan Heights which it has occupied since 1967 and from other near neighbours.
James Larkin and James Connolly, the legendary Irish Socialists and trade union leaders, warned that independence from an oppressor will fail to free a people if that “independence” is based on replacing one set of international capitalists with home-grown capitalists who continue to believe in the concept of the “free market” and “globalisation”.
On 10 February 1972, Birmingham’s trade union movement including the Communist Party, the Labour Party, Trades Council and people of Birmingham placed themselves in the pantheon of international trade union movement history by taking solidarity strike action in support of the National Union of Mineworkers.
It is a privilege to be able to express my thanks for that solidarity today.
President, NUM 1982-2002
10 February 2022