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Decade of discontent

THE decade of strikes - that was the Seventies as the so-called "British disease" reached new heights.

ON STRIKE ... Accrington firemen on the picket line
ON STRIKE ... Accrington firemen on the picket line

THE decade of strikes - that was the Seventies as the so-called "British disease" reached new heights.

From a postal strike in 1971 to the famous 'Winter of Discontent' in 1978-9, industrial action or the threat of it was never far away.

Firms throughout Hyndburn were badly-hit by the 47-day strike of postmen and counter staff. The workers, then earning £18 for a six-day week, were demanding a 15 per cent pay rise. Post Office clerk Edmund Whittaker was for a while the most famous man in Accrington as he defied picket lines, claiming his Christian principles would not allow him to strike, attracting praise and vilification in equal measure.

The next flashpoint was the first miners' strike of 1973-4 that brought with it the famous three-day week. Power cut rotas were printed in the Observer as areas were blacked out in turn, sports events were called off because floodlights could not be used and pickets descended on Huncoat Power Station. The situation was only resolved when Labour won both General Elections of 1974, with Arthur Davidson being returned in Accrington.

At the end of 1977 it was the turn of firemen to walk out, leading to scenes not dissimilar to the 2002 firefighters strikes with the Army Green Goddesses on the streets. All 67 Accrington firemen were solidly behind the strike, though part-time firemen at Oswaldtwistle worked as normal, provoking much bitterness at the end of the two-month dispute.

The real trouble, however, fuelled by the Callaghan government's public sector pay policy, came in the winter of 1978-9.

Tanker drivers were the first to withdraw their labour, causing schools to stay closed through lack of oil for heating and buses to cancel evening and weekend services. Non sooner was that dispute over than lorry drivers came out with dramatic consequences. Hundreds of factory workers were laid off and supermarkets, with emptying shelves, had to introduce rationing.

The real crunch came when 2,000 "dirty jobs" workers in Hyndburn joined their union's strike for a minimum wage of £60 per week. School caretakers, binmen, ambulancemen and lollipop men were among those who walked out.

Schools were again closed; bins were unemptied; Accrington Victoria Hospital was forced to admit emergency cases only after laundry workers refused to supply clean linen; people had to boil water when water supply workers joined the strike; gritters refused to turn out in the icy weather and parks, playing fields and cemeteries were all closed. And for one horrendous week, council-owned premises in Hyndburn Road, Accrington, were used to house dead bodies when the gravediggers refused to work.

Labour councillor John Pickup was threatened with expulsion from the party when he called for private contractors to be brought in to dig graves. He was subsequently dropped as a candidate and fought unsuccessfully as an independent in the 1979 elections.

Engineers and teachers staged strikes later in 1979 but Margaret Thatcher's victory in that year's election marked the turning of the tide against the trade unions. In Accrington Arthur Davidson held onto his seat but with his majority halved.


Stuart Pike
Deputy editor specialising in politics
Alex Bell
Bethany English
District reporter
Beth Abbit
Court reporter
Jon Macpherson
Kate Watkins
Reporter specialising in communities
Garth Dawson
Photographer and columnist