Public Sector Strike Begins
The 22nd of January 1979 AD
In the last year of the Callaghan government the country began a slide into chaos, although in what became known as his “Crisis what crisis?” comment (a paraphrase by The Sun) the prime minister denied any such thing was happening. Yet the Lorry Drivers had already been on strike, hitting the supply chain and in particular fuel stocks. Ford, bellwether for industry, had likewise been out. The Winter of Discontent (another Sun gem) was underway.
On January 22 hundreds of thousands of public sector workers held a day of action which for some continued for many weeks. It was the biggest such move since the General Strike of 1926. Thousands marched in Belfast , Cardiff , Edinburgh and London .
The background to the crisis was a falling behind of public sector pay (contemporary politicians take note), with nurses having slipped by a quarter in five years for example. Inflation had passed its 1975 peak of 25 per cent, but was still high (the decade average in the UK was 13 per cent). The Labour government tried to impose a 5 per cent maximum on pay rises to control inflation.
However justified the grievances, the method of pursuing redress tipped the political balance away from the strikers to the Conservative Party headed by Margaret Thatcher , who just prior to the strike announced intentions to curb union power. With the dead going unburied in Liverpool and elsewhere; rubbish piled high in parks for want of collection; some ambulance services not providing 999 services; and hospitals where porters and cleaners were dictating who could be treated and who could not, the Tories built a large poll lead. In March Callaghan lost a vote of confidence; and on May 3 1979 the general election saw Mrs Thatcher win with a majority of 43 seats.
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