22 January 1979: Public sector strike cripples Britain

Against a backdrop of sleet and snow, relations between the trade unions and the Labour government turned decidedly icy in January 1979. This came after months of the two sides trying to best the other without dealing a lethal blow.

After all, Labour needed the funds the trade unions raised for the party, and the trade unions needed Labour in government, especially with a general election somewhere on the horizon.

At the heart of the dispute was the issue of ‘wage restraint’. When the two sides met in July 1978, ministers refused to budge, arguing that restricting public sector wage rises to 5% was vital in tackling Britain’s high rate of inflation. (In 1975, inflation had reached 27%.)

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) declared that, while it shared the government’s “determination to win the battle against inflation”, it “…did not accept the government’s view on how this can be achieved”.

An annoyed prime minister, James Callaghan, attempted to force the trade unions back into line with the threat of an imminent election. Many unions did get back behind the government, only for Callaghan to renege on the idea, embarrassing and infuriating union leaders.

At that point, trust in the government had been fatally undermined. What made it so much worse was that it was all very public – and the leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher, was watching.

The bickering continued as the weather turned bitterly cold, while unemployment continued to soar. When Callaghan returned beaming from a conference in the Caribbean in January, he appeared badly out of touch.

On 22 January, tens of thousands of public sector workers downed tools. Public services were halted until the middle of February, with rubbish left uncollected on the side of the roads, and the army driving ambulances.

After losing a vote of confidence at the end of March by a single vote, Callaghan called a general election for May. The Conservatives won, and Callaghan’s Labour government was brought to an end.