the winter of discontent: myth, memory, and history
- First Online:
The Winter of Discontent, a series of labour strikes between 1978 and 1979, remains firmly embedded in post-World War II British national consciousness. Many scholars have studied the period’s causes and effects, but Martin López provides a new approach by locating the racialised, classed and gendered currents within the strikes. Her nuanced examination of women’s activism; the role of black, West Indian and Asian female workers; and the changing gender dynamics within trade unions provides a crucial intervention in the scholarly understanding of this moment in modern British history.
The strikes unfolded during a time of intense economic pressure on workers due to wage restraints. During the autumn of 1978, Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan’s cabinet announced a 5 per cent increase in the wage limit after several years of pay controls. In response to another proposed year of reduced wages, workers throughout Britain went on strike. Poignant images of picketing gravediggers and heaping piles of garbage in the press contributed to an atmosphere of fiscal and political crisis. Thatcher and the Conservative Party made use of the strikes during their campaign. They claimed that the Labour Party was powerless to control its trade unions. Their tactics were successful, and they won the election. Martin López argues that the current distorted perception of the Winter of Discontent is informed by historical inaccuracies and the post-event machinations of the Conservatives and New Labour.
Martin López redresses the inaccurate view of the workers’ unrest by using over sixty personal interviews with male and female workers. She also contrasts the personal interviews with perspectives from politicians and trade union leaders. The many voices Martin López includes provide a balanced view of the era. Recognising the potential for misremembering and imprecision in oral history, she draws from an array of other sources, including newspapers, magazines, published interviews and songs. Over the course of the book, Martin López provides context of the event before turning to specific instances of unrest; she discusses and analyses the impetus and outcome of the strikes, including those related to road haulers, gravediggers, school meals workers, National Health Service (NHS) hospital ancillary workers and Ford car company workers. She pays close attention to the gendered dimensions of various spaces involved in the strikes. Martin López also illustrates how the familial, domestic sphere was crucial; female interviewees link experiences with domestic violence and divorce in their private lives to their desire for new roles at home and in their feminist and labour activism.
Martin López deepens understandings of women’s contributions to the care industry with her chapter on NHS female workers from former colonial countries. She argues that migrant female workers were a large and essential part of the NHS workforce who went on strike. Motivated by a desire for cheap labour after a decrease in Irish immigration, the British government looked to the newly formed Commonwealth for employees. Colonial Offices set up committees to recruit hospital staff in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, British Guiana, Mauritius, Trinidad and Jamaica. The British state forced them to earn ancillary nursing qualifications, which limited their upward wage mobility.
While she includes excellent insights about non-white and/or female subjects, Martin López’s approach invites further, more in-depth studies of the event against the larger backdrop of decolonisation and its effects on immigration and British national identity. With the Partition of India in 1947 and the ongoing independence of former British holdings in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, the decline of empire is a crucial facet to the tale of labour unrest, the changing character of trade unions, and the composition of public sector and care industry workers in 1978 and 1979.
Martin López looks beyond the common, monolithic understanding of the period to examine the complex, underlying forces that affected the strikes and their reception by Labour and Conservative politicians, the media and the British public. Her book traces the ways in which understandings and experiences of gender were embedded within workers’ lives and the increasing gendering of trade union spaces, which is often overlooked in retellings of the event. She views the Winter of Discontent through the wider changes in gendered work, immigration and feminist activism occurring in British society. Overall, this is a valuable and important book for people interested in British labour, economic and political history, as well as gender and transnational feminist studies. Martin López deepens and enriches previous scholarly understandings of the period. She reminds us that only by accounting for migrant women entering the British workforce and the larger gendered dimensions of the unrest can we fully understand the Winter of Discontent.