The origins of the ‘Winter of Discontent’, 1978-9


On Saturday 14th May a Symposium will take place on the subject of oral labour history and the Winter of Discontent 1978-9. The event is organised by the Britain at Work website group, the British Universities Industrial Relations Association (BUIRA) history group and the Oral History Society (OHS). In anticipation of the event, we present the first of two blog posts on the subject of the Winter of Discontent. The second post will follow next week.

The so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ – a number of strikes in the winter of 1978-9 – has come to define the view of Britain in the 1970s as the “Sick Man of Europe”, riven by industrial strife.

The roots of the dispute lie in the incomes policy of the 1970-74 Conservative government of Edward Heath, the 1973 oil crisis and strikes in the mining industry that resulted in the Three Day Week in early 1974.

Labour’s Harold Wilson was elected at the subsequent General Election in 1974, and the Labour government continued an incomes policy of wage restraint to combat rising inflation. The agreement between the government and the TUC became known as the “Social Contract”. In return for the repeal of the controversial 1971 Industrial Relations Act, and a number of other measures, the TUC agreed to temporarily suspend collective bargaining for wage deals and abide by several phases of wage restraint.

In 1973 the TUC and the Labour Party had set out a joint agreement to deal with the cost of living issue, in anticipation of the future General Election.

1973 document from the TUC-Labour Party Liaison Committee that would form the basis of the Social Contract

Following the Labour election victory this agreement began to be implemented. Phase I was agreed in 1974-5, followed by a further phase of wage restraint in 1976.

The details of Phase 2 of the Social Contract, 1976, limiting pay rises to £2.50-£4 per week.

Prime Minister James Callaghan implemented Phase III of the Social Contract in 1977, but with an agreement that a return to free collective bargaining would follow. The successive phases of the Social Contract had already begun to provoke criticism from parts of the labour movement and individual unions. The image below shows a critical review of the Contract published in 1977 by civil service union the Society of Civil and Public Servants.

The Contract Observed, 1977. Copyright: Society of Civil and Public Servants (now PCS)

It would be an attempt by the government to extend wage restraint into 1978, when inflation was rising rapidly, that would precipitate the breakdown in relations and descent into industrial action. The strikes of winter 1979 will be the subject of our second blog post next week….


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