In 1971 the NUM submitted a pay claim of between £5 and £9 per week depending on grade. The NCB replied offering £1.60.
A national ballot voted for strike action and the NUM declared a strike from 9 January 1972. This was their first national strike in over 40 years.
From the beginning the NUR blacked the pits and power stations, dramatically reducing the movement of coal. ASLEF told their members not to move anything unusual. The docks were solid, refusing to move imported coal. The TGWU lorry drivers were solid, refusing to cross picket lines. The TUC agreed that all trade union members should respect picket lines.
It was decided that ‘flying pickets’ should be sent out around the country to stop coal movements to power stations and other key industrial targets.
Mass picketing was shutting down the energy supplies to power stations around the country. The police were becoming desperate to get the supplies through.
Saltley Coking works in Birmingham became a flashpoint in the dispute. The NUM and the government had agreed that coking works should only supply priority customers like hospitals during the dispute.
Saltley was owned by the West Midlands Gas Board and they decided that the guidelines didn’t apply to them. As a result hundreds of trucks headed to Saltley, causing a mile long queue waiting to get into the depot.
On Friday 4th February, after negotiations with the Gas Board had failed, picketing started. Most lorries defied the 200 pickets.
The Midlands NUM, which had been picketing Saltley, called for reinforcements.
By Monday 7th February there were 2,000 pickets from Yorkshire, South Wales and the Midlands.
It was becoming clear that many more pickets were needed to close Saltley, and other miners were busy picketing elsewhere.
On Tuesday 8th February a meeting was called of the AUEW East District shop stewards. Arthur Scargill addressed the meeting and asked for a one day strike and mass picket.
Arthur Scargill reported “I told them if they wanted to give us a quid to ease their conscience, then stuff it, we didn’t want it. We wanted physical support, we wanted strike action.”
The following afternoon 200 AUEW stewards and convenors voted to support the call.
From early in the morning of Thursday 10th February workers were walking out of work and heading to Saltley.
The Birmingham Evening Mail ran the front page banner headline “The Gates Close” followed by “Siege by 10,000 halts lorries, then police step in”
The main article on the front page of the Evening Mail on 10 February 1972 included -
“Saltley Coke depot was closed today as 10,000 demonstrators surged towards the gates.
“A sea of faces stretched for as far as the eye could see, below trade union banners and there was a great roar as the gates shut for the first time since picketing began last week.
“Scores of factories were closed or totally disrupted as workers responded to the strike call from the AUEW and the National Union of Vehicle Builders.
“From early morning the contingents, hundreds strong, began arriving at the depot.
“Finally Nechells Place, scene of earlier violence, St Clement’s Road, which runs past the depot gates, and the main Saltley Road, were completely thronged with singing, chanting crowds waving banners and placards.
“Others came 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.
“An hour after the huge crowds had massed outside the depot the gates were closed and locked by Gas Board security men.
“Tumultuous cheering broke out as Mr Scargill climbed onto the roof of a nearby building and told the crowd through a loud hailer “if working people are united they can achieve anything.”
Workers’ solidarity closed the gates. Even 700 police were unable to cope with a crowd of 15,000 strikers.
“And then over this hill came a banner and I’ve never seen in my life as many people following a banner. As far as the eye could see it was just a mass of people marching towards Saltley. There was a huge roar and from the other side of the hill they were coming the other way. They were coming from five directions, there were five approaches to Saltley; it was in a hollow, they were arriving from every direction. And our lads were just jumping up in the air with emotion—a fantastic situation.”
“The Chief Constable said: ‘That’s it, I’m not risking any more here, those gates stay closed.’ He then turned to me—this is absolutely factual—and said: ‘Will you please do us a favour? Will you please disperse the crowd?’ And I said on two conditions:
firstly that I can make a speech to the crowd. He said, ‘Agreed.’ And secondly that I can use your equipment, because mine’s knackered. He said: ‘Agreed.’ Then I spoke from the urinal in Birmingham, with this police equipment.”
To attempt to settle the dispute the Wilberforce enquiry was set up on 15 February. It reported after three days proposing pay rises of £4.50 to £6 per week.
The strike was a victory. It had broken the government pay restraint. It had improved miners’ wages. It had seen incredible solidarity action. It had restored the miners’ confidence, not seen since 1926. And the method of winning had been militant action – flying pickets, mass pickets and solidarity strikes.
The strike broke the morale of the Tory government. They had been badly defeated.
The Tory home secretary at the time, Reginald Maudling, described the government as "wandering around the battlefield looking for someone to surrender to".
This is a summary of the events that won the Battle of Saltley Gate. The new pamphlet Close the Gates has the background of the class struggle in the 1960s and 1970s, union organisation amongst miners and engineers, more on the crucial days in February in Birmingham, other struggles in 1972 and the lessons for today.