How the 'winter of discontent' strikes brought chaos to Britain in 1978

·Freelance Writer
·4-min read

Public sector pay has become a thorn in the government’s side – and could result in the biggest strike action seen since the 1970s.

Millions of workers are set to vote over whether to take strike action over their salaries this autumn – and it could have a huge effect on Britons' everyday lives.

Strikes on the railway have already caused widespread disruption across the country, while a 5% on teacher pay will effectively mean a real-terms cut, teaching unions say.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has called for a pay rise for nursing staff of 5% above RPI inflation, after the government announced a pay award the RCN said leaves an experienced nurse more than £1,000 worse off in real terms.

Walkouts may be seen across vital sectors – including in schools, hospitals, fire stations and the entire transport network.

Postal workers and barristers are also expected to go on strike if they vote with unions, who are angry that staff are not being rewarded sufficiently during the cost of living crisis.

If co-ordinated, the government would see major strike actions all going on at once – with millions of workers walking out at the same time.

The last time such major strike action took place was in 1978, during the so-called ‘winter of discontent’.

7th June 1978:  RAF wives demonstrating against low wages. Their banners read; 'D-Day More Pay', '32% Now' and 'Parity Not Charity'.  (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
RAF wives demonstrating against low wages during the winter of discontent in 1978. (Evening Standard/Getty)
Coffins in a disused Liverpool warehouse waiting for gravediggers to end their strike before funerals can take place, December 1978. (Photo by Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)
Coffins in a disused Liverpool warehouse waiting for gravediggers to end their strike before funerals can take place during the winter of discontent. (Tom Stoddart/Getty)
Fords' employees voting whether to return to work after a strike action at Ford Dagenham, UK, 3rd November 1978. (Photo by M. Fresco/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Fords' employees voting whether to return to work after a strike action at Ford Dagenham in November 1978. (M Fresco/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty)
Public service workers take part in a mass march to the Houses of Parliament, where they planned to lobby MPs as part of a 'day of action' against Government pay policy. The rally coincided with a 24-hour stoppage by more than one million workers in hospitals, schools, ambulance services and rubbish collections which paralysed many areas of Britain.
Public service workers take part in a mass march to the Houses of Parliament, where they planned to lobby MPs as part of a 'day of action' against government pay policy in 1978. (PA)

Watch: Round-up of strikes breaking out across the country

Then, like today, inflation was soaring and unions were demanding better pay rises for their workers.

Unlike now, it was a Labour government – who are part funded by unions – that was refusing to bow down to the demands.

Led by prime minister James Callaghan, Labour oversaw major strike action during what was the coldest winter for 16 years.

Train drivers, nurses and grave-diggers were among those to stop work and stand on the picket line in demonstration at the government’s stance.

A man walking past a pile of rubbish, UK, 22nd September 1978. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A man walking past a pile of rubbish in 1978 after binmen went on strike. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty)
Police struggles to hold back demonstrators, on January 12, 1978 Bridlington, Yorkshire, during a series of general strikes and demonstrations called the winter of discontent in in the United Kingdom. (Photo by - / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
Police struggles to hold back demonstrators in Bridlington, Yorkshire, during a series of general strikes and demonstrations in 1978. (AFP/Getty)
Nurses demonstrate outside the Department of Health and Social Security, Alexander Fleming House, at Elephant and Castle in London. A nurses deputation met with Mr David Ennals, Secretary of State for Social Services, for pay discussions.
Nurses demonstrate outside the Department of Health and Social Security, at Elephant and Castle in London during the strike action in 1978. (PA)

NHS workers created blockades around hospitals during their action, resulting in emergency patients being the only ones able to be admitted.

Rubbish piling high on streets quickly became a familiar sight when binmen also walked out.

Lorry drivers also went on strike in some areas in December, which caused a petrol shortage and subsequently left some Brits struggling to heat their homes in sub-zero temperatures.

In total, around 4.6 million workers went on strike during the winter of discontent, bringing Britain to its knees between November 1978 and February 1979.

Despite the very visible signs of the strike, Callaghan appeared blind to the problems it was causing, denying that there was “mounting chaos”.

Two Dutch tourists take a photograph in London's Leicester square, where rubbish has piled up obscuring the portrait bust of Sir Joshua Reynolds.  Private contractors have been employed to move this eyesore   (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
Two Dutch tourists take a photograph in London's Leicester square, where rubbish has piled up obscuring the portrait bust of Sir Joshua Reynolds. (PA/Getty)
British Labour Party politician and Prime Minister James Callaghan (1912 - 2005), UK, 6th September 1978. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
James Callaghan came under fire for his handling of the winter of discontent in 1978. (Evening Standard/Getty)
It's hard lines for Britain's commuters as this wintry scene at London's Canon Street Station testifies. Commuters, who were struggling in to work despite the third one-day rail strike, were faced with added misery as a result of blizzards which hit southern Britain.
Rail strikes took place at the same time as blizzards hit southern Britain during the coldest winter for 16 years. (PA)

Callaghan also incurred more anger when he flew to the Caribbean for a summit, before holidaying in Barbados while Britain froze.

After returning to Britain, Callaghan spoke of swimming in the Caribbean during a press conference about the ongoing strike action.

The government eventually negotiated an end to the strikes with senior union leaders by February 1979 – but the political cost to Labour was dear and it ultimately led to voters switching to Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives in the general election months later.

With similar mass strikes predicted this winter, coming against a backdrop of soaring energy costs and rising inflation, the problems for the next prime minister – either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak – may well be similar to those face by Callaghan.