Gerry Kelly looks back at June 1972 when over 300,000 building workers struck for decent pay and against casual work
Forty years ago this June saw one of the biggest industrial disputes of the 20th century. Builders began their first national strike since 1924.
1972 was a militant year. Hundreds of thousands of miners struck and defeated the government. Thousands of workers occupied factories. Dockers picketed out print workers.
That was the backdrop to the builders’ strike.
In 1924, building workers had stayed out for seven weeks. This time the strike would last for over three months.
Rank and file pressure and action turned a selective strike called by the union leadership into a nationwide revolt.
There was an atmosphere of growing rank and file militancy on the sites, as well as a building boom.
Around 330,000 houses a year were being built at the time—though building workers hardly benefitted from that. Wages were low and conditions poor.
In the 20 years up to 1971, the various building unions had lost over 30 percent of their membership.
The creation of Ucatt out of an amalgamation of the existing three main building unions, was done to protect the salaries of largely unelected officials. It wasn’t to build a stronger union.
The leader of the new union was George Smith. The fact that he later became Sir George Smith should tell you a lot about him.
However, rank and file bodies such as London Joint Sites Committee, the Liverpool Shop Stewards Committee and the Manchester Building Workers’ Forum had begun to organise independently of union officials.
This gave rise to the founding of a national rank and file body organised around the paper The Building Workers’ Charter (see right). Charter groups began to appear all over Britain.
Local strikes for higher wages, better conditions and against “the lump”—casual work where you got a lump sum for a job—had been breaking out across Britain for the past few years.
In Birmingham, where I worked, a big campaign against the lump had led to militancy across the city.
It resulted in the unionisation of almost all of the main sites and struggles on almost all of the things that had blighted our working lives.
Imaginative tactics were used. Pete Carter, a Communist Party (CP) member and a leading rank and file activist described it like this, “We organised all types of activity against the lump, including demos, strikes, sit-ins, raids on sites; you name it we did it.”
In February 1972 we managed to win an agreement with C Bryant and Co, the major housing contractor for the local council.
Along the way me and others had been sacked and reinstated twice.
The deal gave us a 50 percent rise in basic wages, abolition of the lump, recognition of unions and conditions of work that some building workers had only dreamt of.
Construction News, the trade paper of the industry called it, “a watershed in industrial relations in the construction industry.”
Other local agreements were made in London, Liverpool, Manchester and other areas.
They forced the union leadership into a position where they could not yet again agree to the usual miserly offer from the bosses in the national dispute.
This time the claim was for a £30 a week basic rate and a 35 hour week.
Nonetheless when action was called in late June 1972, it was “selective strike action”.
Ucatt only wanted to call out 35 major “prestige” sites being built by major companies.
But Strike Action Committees sprung up and quickly spread the strike unofficially.
They used a tactic borrowed from earlier miners’ strikes—flying pickets.
Groups of workers would go from site to site spreading the action.
Sometimes this meant blockading sites or occupying them.
On one site, bosses tried to bring in scabs by helicopter. Each picket closing a site built workers’ confidence to take action. No job was too large or too small.
Before long there was an all-out national strike and Ucatt’s leadership had no option but to make it official.
This meant the flying pickets spread even wider. At some sites workers came out to the gate and asked us, “What took you so long to get here? We’ve been waiting for you.”
The pickets roamed around, with megaphones, leaflets and union cards.
Pickets even persuaded non-unionised sites to join the strike.
By July nearly 300,000 workers were out and would stay out until the second week of September.
The strike ended on 13 September 1972 with a 25 percent increase on basic pay won.
There were no concessions on hours.
Many building workers saw this as a sell out.
Some 12,000 marched in Liverpool demanding that
the Ucatt leadership stuck to the full claim.
In Birmingham a mass meeting voted to accept the deal, but there was a minority against it.
We stayed out for a week longer than most of the rest of the country.