The battle of Saltley
The battle at Saltley Gates remains one of the most significant
industrial battles in recent history. Bill Mullins a Birmingham
shop steward at the Solihul Rover plant and participant recalls the
events of that tumultuous day.
40 years ago in 1972 the miners� strike for a fairer pay system saw some
of the biggest demonstrations of workers power since the Second World
War. But the undoubted high-light of the strike was the gigantic battle
around a coke depot in saltley in Birmingham.
The significance of the depot both to the miners themselves and the
bosses became clear to all as Lorries from around the country header for
the million ton mountain of coke at the depot to keep industry going.
The NUM had called on the workers of Birmingham to join them outside the
depot in a mass picket to stop the Lorries coming in. The Birmingham
police where equally determined that the depot would be kept open.
I was at the time a newly elected senior shop steward in the rover
Solihull car plant and a member of the national union of vehicle
builders (NUVB) (later merged with the TGWU).
Like many Birmingham trade union activists I had been following the
events of the miners strike since it started and explained to my members
the issues around the strike and what it meant to all workers.
But the call for solidarity picketing at saltley gates significantly
raised the stakes for all workers in the city.
Arthur Scargill (at the time a local num official in Yorkshire) had
appeared at a meeting of the east Birmingham district committee of the
engineering union the Auew, where he famously said that he didn�t want
just collections of money for the miners but he wanted Birmingham
workers to come down to saltley gates and stop the lorries leaving with
the scab coke.
My own NUVB district committee was meeting at the same time and made a
call on Birmingham car worker to join the mass picket as well.
from the Monday onwards shop stewards around the Birmingham car and
engineering industry, including myself, had gone down to saltley gates
and joined the miners picket lines. But when it became clear that we
would need far more �bodies� to stop the Lorries then we agreed that we
would try and get solidarity strikes off the ground.
I remember on the Thursday morning of the 10th February, I and a number
of other stewards from the plant who had been going down regularly went
to see our convenor in his office to get him to agree to call a mass
meeting of the 8,000 workers in the Solihull factory to ask them to go
on strike in support of the miners and for as many as possible to go
down to the mass picket. As we were speaking to him a knock came on the
door and a shop steward came in and told us that that the word had
already got out and the workers were already walking off the job without
We were of course delighted and went immediately to round
up as many as possible to get down to saltley gates.
Geography had an important role in what happened next. The Solihull
plant was about six or seven miles from Saltley in east Birmingham and
we were organising as many cars as possible to get people there but in
the immediate vicinity of Saltley gates was many car component plants
who were much closer than ourselves, all of them heavily unionised.
As we gathered outside of the Saltley gates we could at first hear and
then see a mass of workers coming over the hump backed bridge from the
direction of some these component plants, they included the SU
carburettors (mainly women workers) the tractor and transmission workers
led by a pipe band, the valour gas heater plant, the general electric
workers from Witton just down the road, and many others.
Thousands of workers from at least five different directions began to
pour into the area around the coke depot gates.
Until then the 800 strong police present had managed to get it all their
own way and formed a barrier against the pickets to allow the Lorries
unhindered passage but the balance of forces rapidly changes as the
thousands of Birmingham factory workers entered the scene.
How many were there it is difficult to say but the police; later
estimated 15,000 and the anti union Birmingham evening mail that night
said at least ten thousand, I and many others thought it was a lot more
that either of these figures, certainly the number o workers that day
who came out on strike numbered at least 50,000 not all of course going
down to the picket line.
The cops knew then they were beat and with Scargill who by now had got
up onto a public toilet roof 50 yards from the gates encouraging the
mass ranks of workers forward the chief constable of Birmingham ordered
the gates shut and the lorries turned around. A huge cheer went up from
the mass ranks of picketers with this victory; it was undoubtedly the
most significant moment of the strike and a massive victory for workers
Post script: The miners went onto win their battle and forced a
significant pay rise of the coal board. The Birmingham police meanwhile
licked their wounds and said �never again� in fact they produced a blue
tie with a logo of a gate with those words underneath.