On the 13th December 1973 British Prime Minister Edward Heath announced a series of measures to conserve fuel in the United Kingdom. For a fortnight from the 17th until the 30th December, industrial and commercial energy users would be restricted to only five days of energy consumption. From the start of the new year, the restrictions would be increased to only three days of consecutive energy consumption a week – essentially enforcing a three day working week.
For many, the introduction of the ‘Three Day Week’ symbolised the increasing power of trade unions, and particularly coal miners, to disrupt the whole country. The energy shortages are often considered to be a result of strikes in the mining industry. The failure of Heath’s government to effectively avert a mass strike was a key factor in its defeat in the election of February 1974. In the long term, the fear that trade unions could hold the country to ransom was key in the election of Margaret Thatcher several years later, whose government was characterised by mass privatisation and a curbing of trade union power.
There were of course other causes of the energy shortage that had pushed Heath’s government into such drastic action. The coal miners’ strike came just after the Oil Crisis of late 1973, when OPEC, (Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) the most important supplier of oil to the West, started an embargo which caused a drastic increase in the price of the vital commodity.
The coalminer’s strikes came about as a result of the government’s anti-inflation policies. Throughout 1973 a series of bills had passed that restricted income and put strict limitations on pay rises. By the summer this had already caused several major strikes throughout Britain, including 290,000 civil servants striking in February, and a 1.6 million worker nationwide strike on 1st May. On October 8th Heath announced phase three of his counter inflationary policy, limiting pay rises to 7% and paying for improved pensioner benefits with a 9p increase in National Insurance Contributions.
On 12th November The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) began an overtime ban, which swiftly led to the government declaring a state of emergency, as concern over energy reserves increased. It has since been revealed in Cabinet Papers released by the National Archives that this overtime ban itself didn’t facilitate the need for the Three Day Week. Rather, its implementation in late December was in anticipation of a general miner’s strike being declared over the wage issue.
On the 9th February, a month after the official, nationwide implementation of the Three Day Week, a full miner’s strike did commence. It came to an end just over a month later, after an agreement was made with Labour’s Employment Secretary Michael Foot that the dispute with the NUM could be settled outside of the government restrictions on pay rises. In the end, the wage bill for the entire mining sector increased by roughly 30%.
The Three Day Week came to an end on the 7th March 1974, the day after the miners returned to work. The timing of its end might suggest that it was purely a consequence of the coal miners strike, but in reality, government caution and the OPEC crisis played just as big a part in its implementation. Indeed, some have argued that the Three Day Week was actually used as a means to turn public support against the strikers.
It is hard to belief that just forty years ago one of the most important financial and industrial centres in the world was forced into working part-time. The Three Day Week was initiated to prevent a much larger crisis, namely, the whole country grinding to a complete halt due to a lack of fuel. The vaccine was just as painful as the disease itself, however. On the 7th January 1974, the first official working day the Three Day Week was in effect, 885,000 people registered for unemployment benefit. Reduced working hours of course damaged the economy, and led to significant lay-offs.
The 1970s are generally considered a period of great political discontent in Great Britain. The Three Day Week and the disruption it brought stand as powerful reminders of just how chaotic this period was.