On one cold February morning in 1972, as planned, they marched down to the big iron gates of the Saltley Coke Depot in the centre of Birmingham. They began arriving early that morning thousands upon thousands of them, stretched down the main road as far as the eye could see, and they didn’t stop coming, hundred strong contingents from all sides making their way down to the entrance with union banners and placards, chanting, singing and readying themselves for the job ahead.
The Battle of Saltley Gate is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and it was, by any standard of workplace militancy, an outstanding act of solidarity, one that won the striking miners their pay conditions and brought a floundering Tory government to the brink of collapse. The 70s were that kind of decade.
The strike was already four weeks old and solid at the pits when the NUM recognised that to force the government’s hand they would have to target other strategic industry points and prevent the movement of coal. Saltley was always going to be the flash point for the dispute.
A month previously miners put in a pay claim of between £5-£9 only to be met with a National Coal Board counter offer of just £1.60. It was an act of provocation that led to the miner’s first national strike in over 40 years. The pits were closed but the fuel depots were still supplying industry and the national grid. The NUM and the government, who were at the time forcing through pay restraints across all industries, agreed that coking works should only supply priority customers like hospitals during the dispute, but Saltley ignored the directive.
Already employing flying pickets from around the country it wasn’t enough to close the depot, so on February 10th the miners appealed to the local engineering plants and car factories to come out in support. Some 30,000 workers immediately walked out with at least 15,000 making their way down to Saltley to join with the 2000 flying pickets already there.
They came down from the Valor factory, the GEC, the Rover car works and several other British Leyland factories. Others marched under the red banner of the East District of the AUEW, crowds of women from the SU Carburettor factory, the GEC and Valor swelled the ranks. It was solidarity action on an unprecedented scale, one of the largest mass pickets the country had ever seen.
With the fuel trucks forced back the gates stayed firmly closed after weeks of being kept open by police, the tactics of flying pickets, mass action and solidarity strikes was to prove decisive in defeating the government. As one participant remembered “The victory on the 10 February was a battle between the working class and the government, which the working class won.”