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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
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“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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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,
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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
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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
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
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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
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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
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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.
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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.
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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
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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
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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:
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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.
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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
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:
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
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
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),
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.
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, http://www.progressives.org.uk/magazine/article.asp?a=1151. 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 .
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/wales/4896562.stm “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