Unemployment, Strikes & Occupations
fight to preserve traditional industries such as mining and shipbuilding
was expressed by calls to union branches for direct action in the
form of strikes and occupations. The call for a Tyneside general
strike to save Palmers shipyard was typical of these events. What
all these actions had in common was that, for the most part, they
were carried out without official national support and often in
the face of establishment opposition. What they also had in common
was that, at least in the long term, they failed.
What they might have achieved with the active
support of the official Labour movement remains problematic. We
would have to wait until the 1974 Miners' Strike when direct action
by the miners, supported by virtually the whole Labour movement,
showed it could change governments - if not the fate of the mining
An important campaign by the South Shields
Trades Union Council was its fight for alternatives to unemployment
in the form of paid training and/or education. The SSTUC won the
right of claimants of unemployment and/or social security supplementary
benefits to attend college.
Colleges soon learned to develop courses, especially
designed for unemployed young people on benefit, and in these can
be seen the genesis of the government's Youth Opportunity Programme
Scheme (YOPS) followed by the Youth Training Scheme (YTS), (see
'Students and School Leavers).
The arguments deployed by the SSTUC at that
time concerning the treatment of the unemployed continues to affect
the political agenda and are manifest in the current government's
'New Deal' scheme for the young unemployed.
The South Shields Trades Union Council supported
many local and national strikes, official and unofficial. They
used the conventional means - demonstrations, petitions, and expressions
of solidarity - but also took some more direct action. This included
the establishment of joint SSTUC~trade union strike committees
- the 'Strike Liaison Committees'; and the establishment of 'Strikes
Claims Committees' in conjunction with the Claimants' Union.
These actions involved the SSTUC in some unexpected
In November 1972 women workers at Barbours
clothing factory took strike action for a pay rise and union recognition.
Strikers were encouraged by the SSTUC to make a claim for social
security payments under the 'urgent need' provision of the 1966
In the event the women were refused claim forms
by the Department of Health and Social Security clerks at Wouldhave
House, the local DHSS offices. The strikers refused to leave the
offices until their right to make a claim was recognised and in
the ensuing mêlée the DHSS manager called in the police.
The Claimants Union invited the police to arrest the DHSS manager
for breaching the 1966 Social Security Act. They didn't.
Subsequently the DHSS was to admit that it
was wrong not to have allowed a claim to be made. The SSTUC accused
the police of aiding and abetting a breach of the law - a nice
legal point, still unresolved.
The Barbour workers finally won both their
pay rise and union recognition (TGWU).
The 1970 Council cleaners strike was supported
by the SSTUC by the novel tactic of urging the public to withhold
that part of their rates accountable to public cleaning.
The SSTUC sought legal redress from the town
council for breach of contract in failing to provide
cleaning services and the action ended up in Durham Court of Quarters
Sessions under the reputed hard man Judge Alastair Sharp. The legal
action failed (as could be expected) but the learned judge alarmed
the SSTUC members by calling them 'village Hampdens' (in a reference
to Gray's Elegy):-
The court means no disrespect to these
men in calling them village Hampdens. They are
standing up for the rights of the citizen. They have the courage
to come to the Court of Quarter Sessions with their grievances.