The battle of Saltley Gate – 1972 “Close the gates!”
On the fortieth anniversary of the Battle of Saltley Gate Norman Goodwin then a shop steward at GKN Salisbury Transmissions plant in Witton recounts his memories of the day when Birmingham engineering workers struck in solidarity with the miners against the Tory governmentON 10 February 1972 I started out for work. But I would do no work on this day.
The miners were out on strike for a fully justified wage claim. This was not simply a fight between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Coal Board, the true obstacle was the Tory government. In truth this was a political strike against a Tory government intent on holding down all workers’ incomes.
All the means that the boss class could use against the mining community came into play. The Tory press turned its bigguns on the striking workers but to little avail. This was a strong brave time in the lives of British workers.
My union the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW – today part of Unite) had been in the forefront of resistance against all Labour and Tory government attempts at introducing anti- trade union laws, against Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife and Ted Heath’s Industrial Relations Act of 1971. We had as a union struck for 24 hours against the Heath government’s threat to sequestrate the funds of any union that dared to defy the anti-union laws.
In fact I had moved a motion at a mass shop stewards’ meeting which said we cannot define any difference between the employers and their mentor, the Tory government. The motion said that we should move first, we should “sequestrate” the employer by striking. The motion was passed and the whole of the Birmingham East District AUEW came out on strike against the threat of sequestration.
As a shop steward at Salisbury Transmissions, I was a member of the AUEW East District which was a real rank and file organisation made up of convenors and shop stewards from right across engineering in East Birmingham. From 9 January 1972 we were facing a total national strike by the NUM- the first since 1926.
Gathering our forces
Miners had been sending mass flying pickets around the country to stop the movement of coal. Railway workers, dockers and TGWU lorry drivers refused to move coal. But countless scab lorries were breaking picket lines at Saltley to keep the coking plant working.
Arthur Scargill, the leader of the Yorkshire miners, had been in Saltley at the plant gates organising the pickets from the Midlands, South Wales and Yorkshire. Nevertheless thousands of miners and local workers had so far failed to stop scab lorries from entering. Then Arthur Scargill was invited by the President of Birmingham East District AUEW, Arthur Harper, to make a request for assistance. This became a recommendation that the East District strike and march on Saltley coking plant. All raised their hands in support.
This recommendation was brought back by our District delegate Jack Ashby and overwhelmingly approved by a mass meeting of Salisbury workers. Personally I was exhilarated by the result. Yes we would march on Saltley gates and picket.
Forty years on and looking back I recall going down Deykin Avenue and into the clocking in area. My fellow workers were striking the clock 7.20am. Then the silence of the machine shop hit me as I entered the plant. Deadly silence you might hear a pin drop, not one machine had started up and there were thousands in that plant.
I walked to my workplace and looked around me and almost nothing was said. One or two men pulled on their work clothes but no one pushed a green button, it was quite extraordinary. At 7.30 the start work bell rang. At that moment all the workforce present walked away from their machinery toward the exit. Men who had changed for work changed back and also walked to the exit. All workers were on strike.
Out into Deykin Ave they went and lined up four or five abreast not to go home but to march on Saltley. Our big red banner was hoisted and read “Salisbury Transmission East District AUEW – Arise ye Workers.”
Looking back down Deykin Avenue you could see plant workers from GKN Forgings and Press works also spilling out ready to march. A group of our stewards went up the road and talked with the Forgings lads, and then by agreement we united and moved forward to Saltley. It was the proudest day of my life.
March on Saltley
I was at the front alongside the banner but looking back over my shoulder I read no anxiety on the faces of my fellow workers. In truth I could see the buggers were up for it. It’s not too far from Witton to Saltley gate and we were in quick time maybe 30 minutes. Now it became interesting, there across the road as we approached Nechells Place were a handful of police in traffic duty white tops. I saw Frank Watters, the District Secretary of the Communist Party standing on one side shouting at us ‘take your banner down’.
Only days before he was instrumental in linking Scargill to Arthur Harper and now he was telling me to lower a red banner in the face of a few pink faced bobbies. I looked back for a response from those behind me; they looked at me and I at them.
They said “Go fucking through them” and we did. The police for what they were jumped out of our way. No banner came down and I saw a group up on the right side of me standing on an outbuilding jumping for joy with our lot and Scargill.
We had arrived earlier than most and could see a lot of young miners looking tired out. They had been picketing round the clock against scab lorry drivers. Now we were literally on the gates with them wide open. Salisbury Transmissions were first on the gate but I suppose Tractors and Transmissions will always dispute the point. It matters little.
Many of our lads including me stood on the blue brick wall adjacent to the gates. The cry to “Close the gates” was deafening. I watched contingent after contingent of workers from my industry pouring in and filling up Nechells Place until there was no room.
How long for I cannot recall. I know that none of the green police buses became active. They remained lurking in the side streets; we had taken them by surprise and outnumbered them. How long did we wait? I don’t recall anymore but then the Chief Constable himself showed up right on the gate with some guy who put a big chain on the gate and locked it.
It was over, the battle was won and maybe up to 40,000 engineering workers on strike had won the day. Engineering and building workers had flocked to Saltley from Tractor and Transmissions, Morris Commercial, Lucas, Dunlop, Hardy Spicer, women from SU Carburettors, Rover plants in Acocks Green and Solihull and numerous sites in the city. Out of the 15,000 on the picket line at Saltley Gate. around 800 were from the two GKN plants.
Saltley proved that you can only rely on the rank and file. No engineering officials organised Saltley and none were seen on the day. This was unofficial action.
Workers were responding directly to a plea for solidarity from the miners. It proved that a strong organisation of shop stewards like the East District AUEW was essential in delivering solidarity action.
Today we need to rebuild a powerful rank and file movement across the unions that can deliver unofficial action when our union leaders drag their heels. Essential to that is rebuilding a strong shop stewards network.
Saltley was symbolic, as government knew they had lost the battle to keep coal moving. Although the full wage demands of the miners had not been met, the wage increase drove a huge coach and horses through the government’s incomes policy. It raised the confidence of all workers fighting the bosses. Saltley was a victory for all workers.
That year we were also fighting for solidarity with the long and heroic strike at Fine Tubes in Plymouth. Later in the year the state locked up six London dockers for fighting against containerisation.
My comrades and I attended a mass picket of London Dock workers and their families on the Pentonville Road outside the prison. Alongside a steward from Lucas’s I was invited to speak to a group of supporting London Fleet St print workers. Our credentials were quite simply “We had closed the Saltley Gates!”