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From the NS archive: The 1972 rail pay dispute

16 June 1972: How a rail pay dispute changed the nature of industrial relations.

By Peter Paterson

In 1972 Britain’s three railway unions were in dispute with British Rail over pay. The Conservative government’s handling was clumsy, with Ted Heath appointing Maurice Macmillan as employment secretary. His approach, invoking the Industrial Relations Act, made things worse and the government’s capitulation became inevitable. Eventually a settlement was reached in which railwaymen’s wages increased by 13.5 per cent. In this piece for the magazine, Peter Paterson argued that the dispute changed the nature of industrial relations in the country. Officially recognised unions were now a legal stipulation but the furore had also proved that “workers need not work overtime, nor can they be made to work on their days off”. Pay bargaining had shifted.


Measured by the size of the settlement, the railwaymen have won a famous victory. But before we brace ourselves for the next confrontation between the workers and a government which has elevated attrition into a way of life, we should see how the dispute has changed the rules of industrial warfare.

Certainly, to use the old cliché, things will never be the same again. They will be different, however, not only because the elaborate bargaining and conciliation machinery of the railway industry has been badly damaged. The change is not simply to be gauged by the failure of the government to prevent another “special case” blasting through the rigidities of its policy of de-escalating pay settlements. The miners, after all, established the precedent, and a substantial differential still exists between the pay of the lowest-paid miner and the lowest-paid railwayman despite this week’s settlement. There is also a change in personalities. Mr Maurice Macmillan succeeded Mr Robert Carr as Secretary for Employment during the course of the rail dispute, bringing to bear on a delicate problem all the patience and persuasion of a Glasgow Rangers supporter meeting a Spanish policeman.

Mr Macmillan’s tactics – if simply surviving from day to day on a string of hastily thought-up expedients can be described as tactics – prolonged the dispute and probably ensured that the railwaymen got a bigger rise than they could have expected had the cool Mr Carr remained in charge. When, finally, Mr Macmillan realised that defeat was inevitable, he put ludicrous pressure on Mr Richard Marsh and his British Rail colleagues to settle with the unions. One moment they were being urged to stand firm; at the next, Mr Macmillan was hammering on the door of Mr Marsh’s flat where he was in bed suffering from a virus infection, to tell him to get down to the office to meet the unions.

That was not the only weird episode in the rail dispute: at one point, Mr Bert Farrimond, British Rail’s labour relations adviser, thought the chances of a settlement might be improved if he could detach the union leaders from their supporters and the press for a quiet spot of negotiation. He suggested they should meet aboard a British Rail ferry ship due at Parkeston Quay for an overhaul. “You know I can’t swim,” said Sir Sidney Greene accusingly.

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On the union side, Sir Sidney seems to have been with us for ever, a coating of marzipan moderation on the surface disguising an inedibility that has now blunted the teeth of Macmillan père et fils (Sir Sid was present at the famous Downing Street meeting in 1957 when Mr Harold Macmillan, tears in his eyes, invoked the memory of the dead soldiers of Passchendaele to keep a railway pay settlement down to 3 per cent.) But as a comparative newcomer, Mr Ray Buckton, leader of the footplatemen’s union, ASLEF, demonstrated the falseness of the idea that access to higher education for the sons of the working class has deprived the trade union movement of leaders. If a single union for railwaymen does emerge in the next few years, Mr Buckton would seem an admirable choice to lead it.

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How, then, has the industrial landscape been changed by the rail dispute? First of all, one has to appreciate how the Industrial Relations Act already influences the conduct of wage bargaining and the use of industrial sanctions by unions seeking to put pressure on employers. But the Act is anything but static and it was the important case law built up during the Industrial Court and Court of Appeal hearings that will have a lasting effect on industrial relations. So, on the credit side, we know that unless it is written into their contracts of employment, workers need not work overtime, nor can they be made to work on their days off. It is a tribute to the restraint of the rail unions that they did not seize on this point in Mr Justice Donaldson’s judgment to embarrass the government during the holding of the ill-advised and provocative ballot the Minister insisted on under the Act’s emergency provisions.

Balancing this “freedom”, however, is the bad news that any unregistered union is virtually prevented from using the traditional weapon of a work-to-rule. This comes about because of a curious and possibly unintentional omission in Section 147 of the Act. This, in effect, relieves the unions from the worst effects of Section 96 of the Act – which makes it an unfair industrial practice to incite workers to break their contracts of employment – so long as they give “due notice” of their intention. The snag is that unlike most other parts of the Act, where the phrase “. . . a strike, or industrial action short of a strike . . .” appears, thus covering a work-to-rule, Section 147 only mentions a strike. This is why, had the government and British Rail not caved in, the three unions would have been forced either into a full-scale strike (which would have given them legal protection) or simply to ban overtime and rest-day working (for which they needed no protection). It is a curious state of affairs when unions can only evade legal action if they take the most extreme form of industrial action.

Read more from the NS archive here, and receive weekly archive recommendation in the “Ideas & Letters” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).