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1979: Public sector strike paralyses country

VIDEO : Report on how the strike crippled the UK

Tens of thousands of public sector workers have taken part in a day of action - the biggest mass stoppage since 1926 - in support of a claim for more pay.

The four major public service unions angry at the government's attempt to impose a 5% pay ceiling called out their 1.5 million members.

They included hospital workers, rubbish collectors, school caretakers, grave diggers and airport staff.

Mass demonstrations have been held in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, bringing many services to a standstill. Services in the North East of England have also been badly affected.

Call for 35-hour week

The unions are demanding a 60 minimum wage for manual workers and a 35-hour week. They say their pay is falling behind that of their private sector counterparts.

Tonight, the union leaders called for an indefinite programme of selective industrial action in pursuit of their pay claim.

The four unions involved are the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE), Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE), General and Municipal Workers Union (GMWU) and the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU).

The march through London was the biggest street demonstration by trade unionists in Britain since the unofficial 1971 stoppage against the Industrial Relations Act, when 140,000 took part.

General secretary of the GMWU David Basnett said those taking part were the people who "literally care for us from the cradle to the grave".

Hundreds of schools were closed because they had no caretakers, crossing patrols or meals staff; hospitals were without cleaners, cooks, porters and theatre orderlies and airports had to operate without many of their manual workers.

Ambulance staff also took part in the action - although in some areas, like London, they were still providing emergency cover. In other areas, army ambulances were on standby.

In Context
This was the first of a series of strikes by public sector workers and marked the beginning of what became known as "the winter of discontent".

As the rubbish began to pile up on the streets, the opposition, led by Margaret Thatcher, attacked the Labour Government over its refusal to call a state of emergency.

Earlier in the month the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, had been ridiculed by press and politicians alike for denying the country was in chaos.

The strikes continued until 14 February when the government sealed an uneasy pact with the unions, aimed at reducing inflation without insisting on any "norm" for pay rises.

On 28 March, Mr Callaghan and his government lost a confidence motion by one vote. He was obliged to call a general election which was won by the Conservatives.


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