Updated: Jan 18, 2022
The Battle of Saltley Gate – a turning point in British history
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.
During the Second World War their labour had contributed fundamentally to the fight against fascism, yet over the following decades, despite nationalisation, miners had seen their pay fall steadily down the nation’s wages “league table”; their terms and conditions had dropped likewise, whilst Government policies had resulted in senseless pit closures, destroying vital jobs and devastating mining communities.
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 – or back them in supporting - 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.
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.
Arthur Scargill, a rank-and-file member of the Yorkshire NUM Executive Committee and picket organiser for the Barnsley Area, picked up the call, which came from the NUM’s national headquarters staff in London. It was a request for help: could Yorkshire send pickets to Birmingham, where a handful of local Midlands miners were struggling unsuccessfully to close a coke depot in the centre of Britain’s second largest city? Within two hours, the Barnsley strike committee had dispatched 400 Yorkshire miners on their way by coach. On reaching Birmingham, they realised that the term “coke depot” didn’t convey the massive reality of Saltley Coking Plant, its stocks looking as high as Mt. Everest!
The pickets from Yorkshire were warmly welcomed by Birmingham’s working people: the Trades Council, local Labour Party, Communist Party and Co-operative Party; dozens and dozens of families came forward to offer accommodation and meals. Alan Law and Nicky Bridge of the TGWU and Arthur Harper of the AEU were among those providing beds and food for Arthur Scargill and his Yorkshire colleagues.
Shortly after 6:00 a.m. the following day, Sunday, the handful of local NUM pickets reinforced by the pickets from Yorkshire actually closed the Saltley coke depot for all of that day. They achieved this because the police hadn’t expected the forces that had come down from Yorkshire to outnumber them.
Not surprisingly, by the next morning, Monday, more than 1,000 police were gathered at the plant’s gate, under orders 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.
By Tuesday, 8 February, it was clear to the miners that in this struggle they would need far more than the accommodation and kindness they’d been given by Birmingham’s trade union movement: they needed solidarity industrial action.
With the help of Frank Watters of the Communist Party, Moira Symons of the Labour Party, and Dick Knowles, the Trades Council Secretary, arrangements were made for Arthur Scargill throughout Tuesday evening to meet with and speak to local and regional leaders of key trade unions of the day, including the TGWU, AEU/AUEW, NATFHE, Vehicle Builders, UCATT, the GMW, and the FBU.
In each discussion and at each meeting, Scargill argued passionately that it wasn’t money or messages of support the miners needed: it was industrial action, and action in just over 24 hours – which had to be on Thursday, 10 February.
One by one, the various leaders, committees and representatives agreed to give the support the miners were asking for – but no-one could know what would actually happen.
What did take place 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 not only into the history of the British trade union and Labour movement but into the international pantheon of working class struggle.
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.
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.
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 arrest and release from jail was forced by trade union campaigning.
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 lessons from these struggles should be with us always and never more so than now, as workers and trade unions are under constant attack. This is why on Thursday, 10 February in 2022 we should commemorate and celebrate the historic Battle of Saltley Gate.