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The battle of Saltley Gates

 

10 February 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 being asked.

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 solidarity.


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.


 


 

 

 

 

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