By the 1970s, traditional party loyalties of both Right and Left

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					Tara Martin                                                                                 1

       As the General Election of 1979 inched closer, Labour Prime Minster James

Callaghan told one adviser, “You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years,

when there is a sea change in politics. … I suspect there is now such a sea-change and it

is for Thatcher.”1 While Callaghan was speaking of Britain, his description resonated

with a larger political shift occurring across Western Europe. By 1970, traditional party

loyalties of both Right and Left began to unravel as cross-party and third party voting

became more prevalent. With the Post War political order increasingly in disarray,

Center-Left were particularly vulnerable for it was their traditional power base, the

working class, that appeared to turn their backs on such „People‟s Parties.‟

       No historical moment better crystallizes such currents than what became known

as Britain‟s „Winter of Discontent.‟ In the winter of 1978 and 1979, more than 2,000

strikes erupted across Britain as workers defied a Labour Government‟s attempt to use an

incomes policy to limit wage increases. Conservatives, under the leadership of Margaret

Thatcher, seized upon the „Winter of Discontent‟ as a shining example of the Labour

Party‟s inability to control its own supporters, convincing the general electorate,

especially a significant number of working-class voters, to vote Tory in May of 1979.

Thatcher‟s election not only signaled the beginning of a new era of Conservative

hegemony in Britain, but it came to be seen as a fin de siécle2 , a moment at which the

British labor movement‟s „forward march‟ had forever lost its momentum.3

       Since it is seen as such an important historical turning point, the Winter of

Discontent has become the focal point of a maelstrom of debate. Labour‟s consequent

electoral defeat, seemingly at the hands of their allies, trade unions, had profoundly

divisive implications. While many on the Right of the Labour Party alleged that
Tara Martin                                                                                   2

“irresponsible left wing trade unionists” led ordinary workers to revolt against the

incomes‟ policy and eventually defeat the Government,4 others, on the Left of the Labour

Party, saw the blame fall squarely on the shoulders on the Labour Government and its

refusal to negotiate with unions on their pay policy. 5 For striking union leaders, the pay

policy was especially controversial for the Government‟s pressing need for incomes

policy “…didn‟t fit with members‟ real living experiences of going to the shops and try

to pay for things.”6 Thatcherite Conservatives immediately capitalized on the Winter of

Discontent as images of gravediggers picketing graveyards and piles of rubbish in the

streets from striking binmen became symbolic indictments on the ability of not only

Labour, but of social intervention and corporatism as a whole to “promote social

harmony and solidarity.”7

       While aimed specifically at the Winter of Discontent, such criticism is crouched

in broader debates about the decline of collectivist politics in Western, industrialized

nations and the emergent hegemonic force of globalization. Soon after World War II,

academics from Britain to the United States decried the end of working class support for

Center-Left parties. They argued that as the working class began to enjoy more of the

material benefits of the postwar boom, they came to abandon their „natural‟ identification

with such working class parties.8 While claims of „embourgeoisment‟ and the „end of

ideology‟ remained contentious, the nature of globalization that emerged in the 1970s

appeared to confirm that labor movements had once and for all been „historically

superseded.‟9 Perched at the precipice of the “neo-liberal hegemony of the 1980s,” the

Winter of Discontent became one of the many historical starting points that globalization

theorists have named Western economies and governments‟ „race to the bottom.‟10 First
Tara Martin                                                                                   3

of all, the prominence of public, service sector strikes in the Winter of Discontent

appeared the harbinger of a Post-Fordist economy, as manufacturing jobs left these

countries with the “hypermobility of capital” characteristic of this new global economy.11

Furthermore, many came to conclude that these economic upheavals had undermined

working class communities to such an extent that their „old time working class political”

consciousness had begun to quickly erode. 12 Furthermore, trade union defiance of

Labour incomes policy in the Winter of Discontent resonated with claims that working

class communities were now left with only a shell of their old selves, rife with a „politics

of resentment‟ or simply engulfed in political apathy.13

       Amidst the myriad of accounts, scant attention is given to the influx of women

into the labor movement in the late 1970s.14 With broad generalizations of the political

trajectory of the working class, many analyses lack a complete understanding of this

working class by ignoring the role working class women. Therefore, this paper will seek

to redress such absences by making working class women the primary focus of my study.

I will ask three questions: What role did these women play in the strikes of the Winter

of Discontent? Did the Winter of Discontent and subsequent Conservative victory signal

the first step in the eventual disillusion of their political consciousness? Finally, what

implications does the role gender played in the Winter of Discontent have on these larger

discourses of the decline working-class collectivist politics as integral to the process of


       To answer such questions, I employed a combination of oral histories and archival

material as the foundation of my historical research. I conducted a series of

approximately forty interviews with an array of both female and male shop stewards, lay
Tara Martin                                                                                 4

members, and trade union and Labour Party leaders involved in the Winter of Discontent.

Out of the forty interviews, the fifteen interviews with female shop stewards and lay

members from the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) will be of primary focus

in order to discern the role these women played in the strikes of 1978 and 1979. The

geographical focus of the interviews spanned from London to the North West and the

North East of England to incorporate a variety of regional perspectives into my research.

       While these oral histories are at the core of my research, newspapers, trade union

and Labour Party archives also informed my research. First of all, I examined national

papers such as The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian as well as relevant local

newspapers such as Middlesbrough‟s Evening Gazette and Liverpool‟s Daily Post in

order to adequately evaluate both national and local perspectives of the events. Secondly,

the Labour History Archive in Manchester and the British Library in Kew held

correspondence, Cabinet Papers, and other political documents that would shed light on

the political dynamics of the 1970s at the Parliamentary level. Finally, The Modern

Records Centre at the University of Warwick and Salford‟s Working Class Movement

Library contained trade union correspondence, official papers, and union publications

that helped to elucidate the dynamics of the trade union movement at that time.

       Based on such secondary and primary sources, I will, first of all, examine how

conceptualizations of class, gender, and race in the established research of postwar

Britain have limited our understanding of the Winter of Discontent. Secondly, I will

propose how current research in labor and gender will expand our understanding this

point in history. By examining how working class women‟s activism evolved before,

during, and after the Winter of Discontent, I will show that the Winter of Discontent
Tara Martin                                                                                   5

provided a crucial window of opportunity for the politicization of women involved in the

strikes. Finally, I will argue that rather than the death-knell of class politics, the Winter of

Discontent, in fact, provided a crucial point in which working class women broke into the

British labor movement.


        Eulogies for class-centered politics themselves have their own history. With the

working class as the “defining referent” of the Left since the mid-19th century, politicians

and academics in the 1960s saw postwar affluence and a contraction of the “traditional”

working-class jobs in manufacturing and production across Western Europe as

particularly ominous signs.15 However, many assumptions inherent in such research,

especially in regards to the connection of class and gender, severely limit the

understandings of these academic explorations. Historians Amy Black and Stephen

Brooke, for instance, contest the validity of claims of „embourgeoisement,‟ by arguing

that they “…rarely extend beyond the traditional boundaries of male workers, despite the

effect these had on female workers.”16 Black and Brooke‟s critique underlines how

theories of „embourgeoisement‟ of the British working class were actually theories of the

male British working class. Consequently, broad understandings of class politics are

stunted by this very narrow focus. Furthermore, political scientists‟ monolithic category

of „working-class‟ obscures the intricacies of working women‟s vote, or explains away

women‟s electoral behavior as traditionally Conservative.17 This begs the question: If the

final blow to class politics in Britain was Thatcher‟s election at the hands of working

class people, what role did gender play as men swung Tory at higher proportion than

women in the 1979 General Election?18
Tara Martin                                                                                 6

       Current research in labor history helps address these challenges presented in the

study of class and gender. Historians Soyna O. Rose and Laura L. Frader, for example,

refute the idea of seeing “…practices that previously have been interpreted as universal

and gender-neutral.” Instead, they propose to see them as “…both particular and

dependent on constructions of sexual difference.”19 Rose and Frader reveal that

underlying such studies of labor history are assumptions of the working class as gender

neutral entity, when, in fact, these histories were very gendered because their focus was

on white, working class men. Furthermore, American historian Ava Baron illustrates that

we can further develop our understanding of labor history by seeing that gender is not

simply an intrinsic part of an individuals‟ being, but that gender is also a property of

“activities and institutions.”20 For example, male domination in the workforce and in the

union structure during the 1970s was not happenstance, but it reflected ideas of the

“proper” roles for both men and women that were engrained in the union structure and

society as a whole.

       However, by broadening our understanding of class and gender, our insight into

working class political mobilization will develop, as well. This study of the Winter of

Discontent provides such an opportunity. Sheila Cunnison and Jane Stageman,

interviewing women trade unionists in 1978 and 1979, embrace a more dynamic

understanding of class, gender, and politics, by arguing that the Winter of Discontent was

a “…heady, eye-opening experience and for some [workers] it began to transform” their

understanding of the role of unions and women‟s work.21 Cunnison and Stageman‟s

analysis not only frames the Winter of Discontent as a transformative event, but it

proposes a departure from viewing motivations for activism as ingrained and static traits
Tara Martin                                                                                   7

within individuals. Instead, as historians such as E.P. Thompson have proposed, the study

of acts and conflicts, rather than a study of entrenched attitudes and identities, can shed

light onto the dynamics of working class mobilization.22

       A similarly fluid understanding of working class politics arises in sociologist Rick

Fantasia‟s concept of „cultures of solidarity.‟ Fantasia asserts that the contexts of conflict

are key to understanding “collective activity and mobilization.” Therefore, he argues,

“As such, class consciousness essentially represents the cultural expression of the lived

experience of class, an experience shaped by the process of interaction of these

collectivities in opposition to one another.”23 This dynamic take on mobilization moves

away from seeing class politics in terms of long-standing attitudes, but in terms of action

and conflict that can be seen in such events as the strikes of the Winter of Discontent.

Fantasia defines these „cultures of solidarity‟ as “more or less bounded groups that may

or may not develop a clear organizational structure, but represent the active expression of

workers‟ solidarity.” He explains further that the cultures‟ defining aspect is that they

form in the context of conflict where success or failure come second to the “process of

solidarity,” such as organizing and maintaining “flying squadrons, clinics, and

communication networks,”24 all of which were at the core of activity during the Winter

of Discontent. Therefore, I will employ Fantasia‟s ideas of working class mobilization to

move beyond seeing working class mobilization in connection with the “larger” goals of

the Labour Party or an array of left or right-wing politics. Instead, my study will analyze

how the collective ties forged the myriad of industrial actions taken during the Winter of

Discontent were instrumental in shaping the political consciousness of women trade

union activists.
Tara Martin                                                                                   8


       While the Winter of Discontent began in late 1978, the story of the women

involved begins with the history of Britain at the end of the Second World War. As

Britain emerged from the ravages of war, the British labor movement came to cultivate a

political identity that left little space for the mobilization of working class women. At the

core of the Labour Party‟s political identity, in particular, was a specific vision of the

British working-class: that of skilled or semi-skilled, white, male proletarians who

worked in the „old industries‟ such as manufacturing.25 As historian James Cronin has

noted, both the Labour Party and trade unions “…tended to identify spontaneously and

intuitively with the interests of male workers…” prioritizing these workers‟ interests over

those of working class women.26 Furthermore, fears that women were more politically

conservative given women‟s assumed ties to the Church and family appeared justified as

women consistently voted Conservative more often than men from the 1940s to the late

1970s.27 Therefore, little space was made within the realms of the Labour Party for an

emerging political identity for women.

       Also, at the heart of the trade union movement lie attitudes and stereotypes that

limited working class women‟s trade union mobilization. For instance, many unions‟

initial reluctance to organize or mobilize women was inextricably intertwined with trade

union support of the “living wage,” male earners‟ ability to provide for his entire family.

Women‟s work was viewed either as a temporary state before marriage, or as a part-time

endeavour after marriage to earn „pin money,‟ or extra wages for consumer goods or

leisure.28 Women‟s supposedly “unnecessary” contribution to the family economy,

consequently, fuelled trade union resistance to organize and mobilize women. Also,
Tara Martin                                                                                  9

stereotypes of the „passive women worker‟ were based on ideas of women‟s supposedly

innate “psychological passivity and their inability to effectively divide their commitments

between that of the home and family and that of the trade union” further relegated women

to realms outside of trade union activism.29 Finally, women worked largely in the service

and public sector that many trade unions were unwilling to organize.30 The combination

of these attitudes placed significant obstacles in the way of mobilizing women within the

trade union movement.

         Sidelining women would prove increasingly problematic, however, as male-

dominated manufacturing and production jobs disappeared, and jobs in the female-

dominated service sector increased. For example, from 1966 to 1979, of the 2.9 million

jobs lost in production, ¾ of those jobs were lost by men.31 These job losses occurred

during a concomitant rise in the female workforce. While at the beginning of the post war

era in 1951, 43 per cent of women were working; by 1979 this figure would be 64 per

cent.32 More importantly, these women were not simply working before they were

whisked by marriage. By 1972, of the 9 million women working in Britain, 62 per cent

were married.33 In a letter to the Manchester Evening News, Mrs. M. P. Blackley‟s

conveys what numbers and statistics cannot: the importance of women‟s wages to the

family household in the 1970s. In her letter she refutes the assertions of another reader,

“Happy Homebird”, that “…women who go out to work fritter their wages on bingo and


         “Like me, most of my friends work because they have no choice. I work a full

         day from 8 30 am to 5 pm, and I work! Our family does not have a colour TV set

         or a car. I don‟t play bingo or visit the pub except on the very rare occasion when
Tara Martin                                                                                 10

       my husband and I go out for a quiet drink. We haven‟t even a washing machine.

       This we are saving up for, and we are buying our own house.”34

Blackley‟s impassioned description both underlines the fallibility of the myth of the male

worker as the sole breadwinner and the crucial role women‟s wages played in sustaining

British households.

       Therefore, the core of the Labour Party, trade unions, could no longer go

untouched by these trends in the workforce. Between 1966 and 1979, female

membership in trade unions grew at a rate of 73 percent, compared to a rate of growth

19.3 percent among male workers. Within these thirteen years, women constituted 51.6

percent of the overall increase in trade union membership.35 Unions with large numbers

of service and public sector members especially benefited from the growth of female

membership such as the Transport and General Workers‟ Union (T&G) and the

Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE).

       One such public sector union, the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE)

had begun to recognize the importance of women‟s shift into the workforce. By the

1970s, NUPE made concerted efforts to organize this growing number of female trade

unionists. From 1968 to 1978, NUPE had the greatest increase in female membership

among all British unions, partly due to the expansion of the public sector at the time.36

NUPE‟s commission of the Warwick Report in 1974, however, identified the disconnect

between the large numbers of women members and male members‟ disproportionate

dominance of positions of leadership in the union. In the mid-1970s when NUPE‟s

membership was composed 65 percent of women,37 the Warwick Report noted that 74

percent of shop stewards were male.38 The disparity between female membership and
Tara Martin                                                                                11

their organizational influence revealed in this study pushed national leaders in NUPE to

place more women into positions of power within the union. For instance, in addition to

encouraging the recruitment of more female shop stewards, in 1975 NUPE created quotas

for women to be placed on the NUPE Executive and reserved five additional places on

the Executive specifically for women to achieve this aim of empowering women in


       Gendered notions of women‟s activism constrained these individuals‟ trade union

activism in NUPE. Shop steward Betty Hughes emphasized the difficulty she

encountered organizing women workers because their husbands wouldn‟t “…let them be

political or like that.” When asked why she was the exception to this rule, she noted:

       Betty: (Laughs) He [Joe] used to say, „It‟s no good me not telling you not to go.

       You‟ll still go.‟ Because I‟ll tell you a little story. Joe‟s my second husband, and

       I was married before. And I used to have a husband that used to knock me about,

       and that‟s what made me stronger. When I divorced him, that‟s when I changed.

       You do. You have to stand up for yourself. You see. So, of course, I used to say

       to him, „Don‟t you tell me I can‟t go there. I‟m going if you like it or not. You

       know, and that‟s how you got strong. You made yourself stronger. But in


       Joe: “But I never interfered.”

       Betty: “But he never interfered.”40

Betty‟s story illustrates the very real and intense resistance many husbands posed to

female activism in trade unions and politics. Therefore, the pressing reality of the power

husbands wielded over their wives‟ public engagements qualifies assertions of women‟s
Tara Martin                                                                                12

reluctance to be politically active when their choices and preferences were actively

resisted. Nevertheless, Betty‟s desire to be active, even in the face of violent opposition,

further underlines that women were not trapped by any innate passivity. Finally, her

example shows that while husbands could impede their wives‟ activism, they could also

be instrumental in encouraging the growth of their wives trade union activity, as in the

case of her second husband, Joe.

       NUPE shop steward Anne Gardiner further reveals that what was interpreted as

female passivity was, in actuality, male shop stewards‟ refusal to listen to their women

members. At one union meeting Anne attended, a male caretaker shop steward explained

that his members were not going to take any strike action. When Anne pressed the issue

more and asked how his members voted, “…He just said, „I hadn‟t had a meeting with

the women because [I] knew what [my] women would do and what [my] women

wouldn‟t do.‟”41 Such feudal relationships between male shop stewards and their female

members serve to further question assumptions of women‟s passivity when they were

denied the opportunity to exercise any form of agency in the union.

       The complex and formidable nature of the obstacles posed to women‟s

mobilization, therefore, made NUPE‟s recruitment of women all the more pressing. By

the mid 1970s, NUPE training and literature began to reflect this move by making

women the central focus of shop steward manuals. By 1973, in order to improve the

popularity and effectiveness of NUPE Weekend Schools, “…youth, women, or rank and

file” themes were seen to be the most “advantageous.”42 One 1976 manual, for example,

features a full-length cartoon on “A Week with Mary Smith-NUPE Steward.” This

cartoon details the Mary‟s adventures as a shop steward, responding to a safety hazard in
Tara Martin                                                                               13

the workplace.43 Creating trade union literature that featured women was complemented

by a NUPE‟s efforts incorporate talented women into the union leadership.

       In the case of Anne Gardiner, it was her choice to stand up to a despotic

supervisor that spurred her career as a shop steward. As a care assistant in an elderly care

home, Anne experienced her supervisor‟s ability to drive her coworkers to tears by

tearing off bed sheets if beds were not made according to her specifications or assigning

difficult shifts to those who posed any resistance to her measures. Anne relates:

       “She would try to get you to go against people at work. And I just once – two or

       three times – one day I just flipped! And she started. And you know after you‟ve

       said your peace, you usually back down, don‟t you? But I didn‟t back down this

       day. (Laughs) And I followed her. No! She followed me, and she kept going

       on. And I was giving her hell all the way. I wouldn‟t back down. And all the

       girls, it was a talking point for weeks how I mastered her! They said I mastered

       her! She had to walk away. She had to go upstairs into her flat. But I thought, „If

       I‟d given in, she would have broke me as well.”44

Anne‟s dramatic story provides two very crucial insights into the process of organizing

women in trade unions in the run up to the Winter of Discontent. First of all, even though

the British labor movement did not prioritize the issues that confronted women workers,

Anne‟s resistance to the matron reveals the independent ways working women asserted

their power in the workplace. Second, her coworkers‟ excitement over how Anne

“mastered” her supervisor shed light on the everyday collective politics that working

women exercised even before being incorporated into the British labor movement.
Tara Martin                                                                                   14


        As the frigid winter of 1978-1979 took hold of Britain, NUPE was poised to

deploy these women‟s skills in the strikes of the Winter of Discontent. Activities that

centered on showing solidarity with other workers would be one of the central

politicizing acts at this time. For example, since neither shop stewards such as Jeanne

Hall nor Anne Gardiner in North East England were asked to take extended action, both

participated in supportive actions, connecting them with other workers. In Jeanne‟s case,

after her morning work at the schools, she would go to the support the striking binmen by

going out on the picketline and distribute leaflets.45 Also, on January 2 the NUPE

leadership enacted a penny levy on their members as a contribution to a general strike

fund.46 While the levy did not raise much money, the act itself helped to forge critical

interactions among workers. Anne explains:

        “I used to get on the bus and go to the whole of Darlington [to collect the levy]. It

        was snowing, and I could remember the weather was bad, but it got you talking to

        the people. It got you talking to people that had never seen a union rep. They

        were members, but they weren‟t at all involved in the unions.”47

Both examples emphasize what Fantasia has pointed to as the critical role of the

“processes” of solidarity.48 While these acts were not direct confrontations with pay

policy, it was their acts of solidarity with other workers that were especially important to

Jeanne and Anne. The acts themselves of leafleting or the collection of the levy were not

critical to the success or failure of the strikes. Instead, the feelings of solidarity that these

actions engendered were what would further fuel their activism.
Tara Martin                                                                                 15

       Shows of solidarity became a reciprocal process as support from other workers

and the wider community would poignantly underline their connection to a broader

movement. Female nurses in Liverpool, for instance, would head out to a colliery outside

of the city to collect money to fund the nurses‟ demonstrations or trips during the Winter

of Discontent. As the miners would come off their shift, the nurses would ask for

contributions, often finding five pound notes among their collections.49 Support from

other workers such as miners and dockers were also motivating for shop steward Celia

Newmann in North West England, but it was public support for the NUPE strikes in the

health service that further fueled her activism.

       “The support that we had from Joe Blows on the street was fantastic. I know in

       the end you used to see the headlines, „NHS Workers Disgrace!‟ This that and the

       other. And then you would read in the latter pages of the Echo, that‟s our local

       paper, and it would be, „I support NHS workers!‟”50

Both examples reveal that inherent in the dynamics of these “cultures of solidarity” was

the crucial role support from workers in other industries and the larger community was.

For many of the women who were participating in their very first strikes, the acts of

solidarity from “outsiders” demonstrated their strikes‟ relationship to a larger social

struggle. This tie would further encourage their political development for their individual

struggles could now be given added significance as part of the larger labor movement.

        Celia Newmann also faced the daunting task of organizing strikes in the health

service without hurting patients. During the strikes, once she and other strikers found a

way to turn away deliveries to the local hospital, while directing in ambulances at the

same time, they faced management efforts to furtively bring in deliveries along other
Tara Martin                                                                                  16

routes. Consequently, Celia and other strikers would have lookouts on all the roads, and

when one was sighted, they would run down to that road and block the delivery.51

Fanatsia cites that part of the process of such collective action is the creation of “micro-

societies” where an entire organizational system emerges in these moments of conflict. 52

Such tactics employed to stop these deliveries reflect the dynamics of this „micro society‟

in its high level of organization and coordination. The organizational skill and leadership

she employed for the first time in these strikes propelled this process further as it gave her

evidence of her own capabilities. She notes that after the Winter of Discontent, “…I was

just this ordinary person, young lady, you know, this like – that was sort of like getting a

little bit more active in this union, whatever this union was.”53 This change from an

“ordinary person” into an active trade union member in NUPE indicates that it was within

the acts of participating in and organizing the strikes of the Winter of Discontent that so

profoundly inspired subsequent activism.

       Brenda Tredwell, a Nursing Auxillary in South Wales, faced the similar challenge

of organizing an effective strike, but one that did not compromise patients‟ well-being.

This proved especially difficult for Brenda and other members in the branch because they

worked with individuals with special needs that were highly dependent on Brenda and

her colleagues in their everyday lives. It was decided that providing medication, food

and other essentials would not be stopped. Therefore, the only way to strike was to not

take the patients swimming one day, or to not do the patients‟ hair on another day.54

Brenda‟s experience emphasizes the challenges that all these health service sector

workers faced attempting to withdraw their labor, without endangering patients. As

Brenda later noted the difference with industry: in a strike at a car factory, the factory
Tara Martin                                                                                 17

just stops. That could not happen in many of the places such as hospitals where NUPE

members worked.55 This challenge of striking in a “post-industrial” workplace, however,

did result in the women finding new ways of striking. In this case, their withdrawal of

labor would not bring anything to a halt. The acts, therefore, would have to become

symbolic acts of resistance to the Labour Government‟s pay policy and an act of

solidarity with other striking workers.

       Betty Hughes‟s work on the Cleveland County Strike Committee demonstrated

similar commitment to maintaining the effectiveness of the strikes. As a member of this

committee, Betty was one of eight members that decided what NUPE workers, such as

road gritters, did or did not go out on strike. In one instance, the Chief Executive of

Middlesbrough Council attempted to enter the town hall to make the strike committee

have the roads gritted. Despite the cold and the snow outside, Betty refused to let him in,

asserting that it was the strike committee‟s decision, not the Chief Executive‟s, to grit the

roads. Betty‟s husband would add that after that point was “… when [Betty] got

stronger.”56 During the Winter of Discontent one can, once again, observe the evolution

of a „micro-society‟ with the strike committee‟s assumption of responsibility for the

function of public services in the area. It was in Betty‟s coordination and defense of such

a „micro-society‟ that would infuse her with an unprecedented organizational confidence.

Also, Joe‟s revelation of Betty‟s change after her confrontation with the Chief Executive

indicates that it was in the process, the act of defiance itself, which strengthened her

ability to participate in such acts of resistance. When asked if the Winter of Discontent

had any personal effect on Betty, she replied:
Tara Martin                                                                               18

               Betty: “Not personally. No. Nobody said anything. You know. People I

               worked with never sort of commented, railroaded me for doing it. Yeah

               me family did, but I think it was because they didn‟t like what I was

               becoming I think. (Chuckles)”

               Tara: “Yeah? What did they think you were becoming?”

               Betty: “Well, they were thinking I was too „Bolshi‟. Sort of thing.

               (laughs) You get a reputation. You know? That used to nickel me a bit.

               When they used to say, „Go to Betty, you. She‟ll sort it out for you.‟ You

               know. But I used to say, „No. I can‟t sort out everything!‟ ‟”57

Her transformation into what she considered „Bolshi‟ indicates that the strikes propelled

her into a wider public role, one where people sought the skills she had developed during

the Winter of Discontent. Like other women, the strikes provided a stage upon which

Betty could prove the effectiveness of her trade union and community activism.

       The intensity of all this activity ground to a halt in March 1979, for a General

Election was called for May, and NUPE began to throw all their weight behind Labour‟s

electoral campaign. For many of these women in NUPE, their work for the Labour Party

in the General Election became an extension of the activism they deployed in the winter‟s

strikes. However, on May 3, 1979, the Thatcher‟s Conservatives proved victorious in the

General Election. Nevertheless, Labour‟s defeat did not deter these women from

embracing their newfound roles in the labor movement. Both in the leadership of NUPE

and the Labour Party, women involved in the Winter of Discontent would soon help to

change the face and political trajectory of NUPE and the Labour Party.
Tara Martin                                                                               19

       Very immediate effects could be seen in the face of the NUPE leadership both

locally and nationally. Soon after the Winter of Discontent, for example, Anne Gardiner

would become the first woman chair of the Area Committee and later the first woman

chair of the Divisional Council.58 Also, a new generation of men who became Branch

secretaries began to push even further to mobilize the women members in NUPE.59 This

leadership shakeup would have larger implications for in 1982 all three applicants short

listed for the NUPE‟s national post of Women‟s Officer had all began their careers during

the Winter of Discontent. As applicant Dorothy May Harden would state in her


       “My employment commenced with N.U.P.E. during the so-called „Winter of

       Discontent‟, so I was thrown in the deep end, so to speak, but having made that

       statement I would add, one learns to swim much quicker whilst in the deep end.”60

Once again, the opportunities to get involved and organize strikes during the Winter of

Discontent helped to catapult these women in positions of leadership in NUPE.

       Along with this changing face of NUPE‟s leadership came a reconfiguration of

NUPE‟s relationship with the Labour Party. Despite the very bitter accusations by many

in the Labour Party and the former Callaghan Government waged specifically against

NUPE for helping Thatcher win the General Election, it was this same union, with this

infusion of new leadership, that rushed into the Labour Party. On the local level, women

involved in the Winter of Discontent made concerted efforts to become involved in the

Labour Party. Soon after the Winter of Discontent, NUPE shop steward Celia Newmann

and NUPE member Lorraine Donovan were placed on their Local Constituency Party,

and NUPE had Anne Gardiner chosen as a Labour Party delegate. Such local shifts
Tara Martin                                                                               20

reflected broader shifts in NUPE‟s relationship to Labour. By the early 1980s, both a

new General Secretary and Deputy Secretary of NUPE, Rodney Bickerstaffe and Tom

Sawyer, would initiate this change. Sawyer notes:

       “…we thought we could get a long way with industrial action, and that was the

       big flip, and that was the big flip of the Winter of Discontent. After the Winter of

       Discontent, I would say that the center of gravity shifted, and people like me, my

       generation, I thought actually thought that this was a dead end. We didn‟t get

       what we wanted. So, there was a big shift into the Labour Party after ‟79.”61

       Furthermore, despite NUPE‟s left-wing reputation, NUPE‟s rush into the Labour

Party did not necessarily mean that it had a particularly left-wing influence on the Party.

For example, in the contest for Deputy Leadership between a candidate on the Right of

the Labour Party, Denis Healey, and the more left-wing candidate, Tony Benn, the

membership predominantly voted for Healey despite the national leadership of NUPE‟s

support for Benn.62 NUPE become even more intimately entwined with what „New

Labour‟ has considered its „modernization‟63 of the 1980s and early 1990s. Tom Sawyer

would, once again, become a key figure as he headed an enquiry to expel the Trotskyite

„Militant‟ from the Labour Party, a symbolic milestone in what many saw as the shift

from „Old‟ to „New‟ Labour.64 Sawyer also proposed and eventually led a dramatic

reassessment of Labour‟s policy that became a crucial step in the development of „New

Labour‟ policy.65

       As instrumental to this process of the „New Labour‟s “modernization” of the

Labour Party, it comes as no surprise that many of the women that began their careers

during the Winter of Discontent could later be seen in the upper echelon of the union and
Tara Martin                                                                                 21

Labour Party hierarchy. The two other women short listed for the Post of Women‟s

Officer in 1982, Linda Perks and Maggie Jones, have featured prominently in the

UNISON and Labour Party.66 For instance, Linda Perks, who initially became involved

in the unions while volunteering for NUPE during the Winter of Discontent, eventually

became Regional Secretary of the Greater London Branch of UNISON. Also on the list

was Maggie Jones, who began her trade union career in January 1979; ran unsuccessfully

to be a New Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent in 2005; and was eventually made a Peer in

the House of Lords in 2006.67

       The influence the Winter of Discontent played could be seen even more sharply in

the emergence of a new generation of women in local Labour councils who began their

political careers during the Winter of Discontent. In Northwest England Lorraine

Donovan‟s activism in the strikes of 1979 eventually led to her playing a more active role

in her local Labour Party. She eventually became the second female Town Mayor of her

local Council and the first Vice-Chair of her Labour Party Constituency Party. After more

than a decade of trade union activism, Anne Gardiner eventually became a Labour

Councilor in Darlington and becoming a pivotal figure in the election of a leading „New

Labour‟ MP.68 While these women‟s two careers may simply appear as a catalogue of

women‟s “firsts,” the variety of public and political roles these women assumed

emphasizes the profound effect strikes almost thirty years earlier had on their political


       From the winter of 1978 and 1979 to New Labour‟s ascendancy in by the 21st

century, this generation of politicized working class women played crucial roles in the

history of the labor movement at this time. While the results of their efforts might not
Tara Martin                                                                                   22

have been what they aspired to, it would be the Winter of Discontent that would allow

them to be part of this unprecedented changed to the British labor movement.


        The experiences of these women during and after 1979 make the rash of post-

mortems on collectivist politics premature. It is beyond doubt that the working class

changed, as working class communities were transformed by a shifting economy. It is

also undisputed that Conservative trade union legislation of the 1980s and the defeat of

the miners in the mid 1980s undercut unions‟ influence and power. However, as Geoff

Eley and Keith Nield have noted, “…this new working class aggregation – its active

agency as an organized political presence – is still very much in formation,”69 and it is the

example of these women activists that has so powerfully manifested this “new working

class aggregation” and its political and industrial muscle. Furthermore, with the global

movements of women into the workforces and unions around the world then and today, it

is apparent that “Women are at the cutting edge of global organizing today.”70

        What can be found at the core of these women‟s experiences is not a renewed call

for of “old time working class” politics. Nevertheless, while change and reinvention are

necessary to the continuing relevance of Center-Left parties today, a complete disavowal

of their working class identities poses a profound threat to the vitality of their parties.

Center-Left parties have experienced a form of political atrophy as their „modern‟

electorate dissolved and looking for answers, once again, they reemerge in the realms of

class politics. For instance, New Labour Peter Mandleson spoke of wrenching the Labour
Tara Martin                                                                                23

Party from the “northern, horney-handed, dirty-overalled,”71 working class in 1998.

Almost ten years later, Labour Party chair Hazel Blears‟ comments on the need to engage

the political grassroots in Britain for:

        "Politics is increasingly local and decentralized ... People go to people they trust

        for word-of-mouth recommendations. It's about like-minded people talking, with

        concentric circles of campaigning, rather than about a political message from the


This desperate and cyclical search for “grassroots” politics can also be seen in the United

States for after Bill Clinton‟s embrace of the „classless‟ „Third Way‟. Years later,

Democratic Presidential candidates have frantically sought to capture the votes of

“Soccer Moms” in 1996, “Waitress Moms” in 2000 and “NASCAR Dads” in 2004.73

While entrenched in connotations of class, such fads skirt around the conspicuous

absence of working class activism within their parties.

        Therefore, more than overcoming the threats posed by the Right or an ascendant

global, neo-liberal order, labor movements are posed with the daunting task of

democratic reinvigoration. Defending Center-Left political power is a superficial act if

opportunities for working class mobilization are discouraged and/or undermined. Instead,

it is the task of labor movements in the 21st century to more than organize the diversity of

working class people such as women and people of color, or to steer political parties in

line with the aims of the labor movement. Instead, labor movements around the world

face the daunting, but achievable, task of allowing these members the open avenues to

political participation for working people to do it themselves.
Tara Martin                                                                                            24

  Bernard Donoghue, Prime Minister: The Conduct of Policy under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan
(London, 1987) 191.
  Quoted from Margaret Thatcher Downing Street Years (London, 1993), 4.
  Eric Hobsbawm Politics for a Rational Left: Political Writings 1977-1988 (London, 1989), 36.
  See James Callaghan. Time and Change (London, 1987); Dennis Healey, The Time of My Life
(London, 1989), etc.
  See Barbara Castle Fighting All the Way (London, 1993) ; Jim Tomlinson, “Economic Policy,” in New
Labour, Old Labour: The Wilson and Callaghan Governments, 1974-79., 55-69; Interviews with Mike
Donovan, Stuart Hill, Lord Sawyer, etc.
  Interview with Andy Gil May 19th 2006.
  Margaret Thatcher The Path to Power (London, 1996)7-8. For a New Labour perspective see Peter
Mandleson The Blair Revolution Revisited (London 1996, 2002).
   Commentaries of these currents in the 1950s can be seen such books as Mark Abrams, Richard Rose, and
Rita Hinden, Must Labour Lose? (Harmondsworth, Middx, 1960) Seabrook in What Went Wrong?;
Martin Holmes, The Labour Government, 1974-79. Political Aims and Economic Realities. (London:
1985); Hobsbawm, Politics for a Rational Left. in Britain and for an American perspective see Daniel Bell
The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. 2nd Edition. (Cambridge, Mass.,
  Manuel Castells The Information Age, Vol. 2: The Power of Identity (Oxford: 1997): 360; Quoted in
“Introduction: Globalisation and Labour Transnationalism,” Ronaldo Munck Labour and Globalisation
ed. Ronaldo Munck (Liverpool: 2004):1.
   Munck, pg. 7. For examples of this „race to the bottom thesis‟ in regards to labor movements see:
Charles Tilly, “Globalization Threatens Labor‟s Rights,‟” International Labor and Working Class History
47 (1997); Craig Jenkins and Kevin Leicht, “Class Analysis and Social Movements: A Critique and
Reformulation,” in Reworking Class ed. John Hall. (Ithaca: 1997).
   Beverly Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers‟ Movements and Globalization since 1870. (Cambridge:
2003): 4-5.
   Eric Hobsbawm, “The Forward March of Labour Halted? (1978),” pgs. 9-28 and “The Debate on „The
Forward March of Labour Halted?‟ (1981), 29-41 in Politics for a Rational Left (London, 1989);
Jeremy Seabrook in What Went Wrong?: Working People and the Ideals of the Labour Movement
(London, 1978); Samuel Beer, Britain Against Itself: The Political Contradictions of Collectivism
(London, 1982).
   Richard Hyman, “Trade Unions and the Disaggregation of the Working Class,” in The Future of Labour
Movements ed. M. Regini, (Newbury Park, CA, 1992): 150-68. Carl Boggs The End of Politics (New
York, 2000).
   Notable exceptions include: Sarah Boston, Women Workers and Trade Unions (London, 1987); Sheila
Rowbotham A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States in the
Twentieth Century (New York, 1997); Chris Wrigley, “Women in the Labour Market and in the Unions,”
in British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-1979 eds. John
McIlroy, Nina Fishman, & Alan Campbell (Aldershot, 1999). 43-69.
   Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (Oxford, 2002), 384-5.
   Amy Black and Stephen Brooke, “The Labour Party, Women, and the Problem of Gender, 1951-1966,”
The Journal of British Studies 36 (1997): 426-7. For further discussion of the limits of concepts of the
working class in Post War Britain see: Lewis Minkin, The Contentious Alliance: Trade Unions and the
Labour Party (Edinburgh1991); Lawrence Black, The Political Culture of the Left in Affluent Britain,
1951-1964: Old Labour, New Britain? (Basingstoke, 2003).
   Ivor Crewe, Bo Sarlvik, and James Alt, “Partisan Dealignment in Britain 1964-1974,” British Journal of
Political Scienc, 7 (1977): 129-190. For Crewe‟s analysis of the same phenomenon but in comparison with
other Western European countries, see Ivor Crewe, “Labor Force Changes, Working Class Decline, and the
Labour Vote: Social and Electoral Trends in Postwar Britain,” in Labor Parties in Postindustrial Societies
ed. Frances Fox Piven. (Cambridge, 1991).
   Based on I. Crewe‟s „Who Swung Tory?‟, The Economist 271 (12 May 1979): 26. Quoted in Jill Hills,
“Women and voting in Britain,” Women and the Public Sphere: A Critique of Sociology and Politics eds.
Janet Siltanen and Michelle Stanworth (London, 1984): 138.
Tara Martin                                                                                        25

    Laura L. Frader & Sonya O. Rose, “Introduction: Gender and the Reconstruction of European Working-
Class History,” in Gender and Class in Modern Europe eds. Laura L. Frader & Sonya O. Rose. (Ithaca &
London, 1996) 22.
    Ava Baron, “Gender and Labour History: Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future,” in Work
Engendered : Toward a New History of American Labor ed. Ava Baron. (Ithaca & London, 1991) 36-37.
    Feminizing the Unions: Challenging the Culture of Masculinity (Aldershot, 1993) 69.
    The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1963) 9-11.
    Cultures of Solidarity: Consciousness, Action, and Contemporary American Workers (Berkeley, 1988),
    Ibid., 19-21.
    Eley. Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (Oxford, 2002), 397.
    Cronin, New Labour‟s Pasts, 24.
    Pippa Norris Electoral Change in Britain Since 1945 (Oxford, 1997) 133.
    Boston, Women Workers and Trade Unions 247. Also see Black and Brooke, “The Labour Party,” 419-
    Kate Purcell, “Militancy and Acquiescence among women workers,” in Women and the Public Sphere:
A Critique of Sociology and Politics eds. Janet Siltanen and Michelle Stanworth (London, 1984) 55.
    Wrigley, “Women in the Labour Market,”50-51.
    Cronin, Labour and Society (London, 1984) 194.
    Ray Hudson and Allan Williams Divided Britain 2nd Edition. (Chinchester and New York, 1995), 136.
    Boston, Women Workers and Trade Unions, 286.
   . “Why Mothers go out to work,” Manchester Evening News (October 16, 1974): 12.
    Wrigley, “Women in the Labour Market,” 44.
    Ibid, 60.
    Ibid, 65.
     Rodney Bickerstaffe Papers, MSS.389/6/B/Box 16 NUPE ReOrganisation-Warwick University
Research Study, Bob Fryer, Andy Fairclough, Tom Manson, Brenda Waller NUPE Research Project
Department of Sociology, Statistical Appendix II: Union Stewards, Survey taken between May and June
1974. Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK.
    Wrigley, “Women in the Labour Market,” 60.
    Interview with Betty Hughes, Joe Hughes, and Stuart Hill, November 2006.
    Interview with Anne Gardiner and Stuart Hill, November 2006.
    Rodney Bickerstaffe Papers, MSS 389 Box 28, Modern Records Centre, Coventry, UK.
   . Your Job As a Union Steward: Revised Edition, ed. Timothy Sherwin for NUPE Education
Department. London: NUPE Education Department, 1976, Working Class Movement Library. Salford,
    Interview with Anne Gardiner and Stuart Hill, March 2007.
    Interview with Jeanne Hall and Stuart Hill, March 2007.
    The Guardian, January 2, 1979.
    Interview with Anne Gardiner and Stuart Hill, March 2007.
    Fantasia, Cultures of Solidarity, 21.
    Interview with Robert Gregory, October 2006.
    Interview with Celia Newmann, Lorraine Donovan, and Mike Donovan, October 2006.
    Interview with Celia Newmann, Lorraine Donovan, and Mike Donovan, October 2006.
    Fantasia, Cultures of Solidarity , 19.
    Interview with Celia Newmann, Lorraine Donovan, and Mike Donovan, October 2006.
    Interview with Brenda Tredwell, February 2007.
    Interview with Brenda Tredwell, February 2007.
    Interview with Betty Hughes, Joe Hughes, and Stuart Hill, November 2006.
    Interview with Betty Hughes and Joe Hughes, March 2007.
    Interview with Anne Gardiner and Stuart Hill, November 2006.
    Interview with Anne Gardiner and Stuart Hill November 2006. Interview with Celia Newmann, Lorraine
Donovan, and Mike Donovan, October 2006.
    June Abdoolrohmun Papers, MSS 389 Box 29, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick,
Coventry, UK .
Tara Martin                                                                                          26

   Interview with Lord Sawyer, November 2006.
   “Righting History” Progressonline, See
also Jonathan Neale, Memoirs of A Callous Picket (London, 1983).
   Some refute that changes in the Labour Party were „modernizing.‟ One such example is: Panitch, Leys,
and Coates, The End of Parliamentary Socialism.
   Cronin, New Labour‟s Pasts, 269.
   Cronin, New Labour‟s Pasts, 292.
   NUPE became UNISON in 1992 after a merger with two other unions: NALGO and COHSE.
   June Abdoolrohmun MSS 389 Box 29, Modern Record Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK . “Losing Candidate Will Become Peer” 11 April
   Interview with Anne Gardiner and Stuart Hill March 2007.
   “Farewell to the Working Class?”, International Labor and Working Class History. 57 (2000), 1.
   Katie Quan, “Women Crossing Borders to Organize,” in the The Sex of Class: Women Transforming
American Labor Ed. Dorothy Sue Cobble, Ithaca & London: 2007: 255.
   Quoted in Geoff Eley and Keith Neild “Farewell to the Working Class?” 23 from Peter Mandleson
speech. Independent on Sunday October 4, 1998.
   “Labour Draft in US Election Architect for our Midterms,” The Guardian November 11, 2006.
   “Nascar Fad,” Mother Jones February 17, 2004

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