And the rest of the week did not get much better.
A rubbish mountain began to appear outside one Shropshire hospital, while food shortages meant critically-ill cancer patients were sent home from another elsewhere in the country.
As if that were not enough, a convoy of angry lorry drivers held a convoy along the M6 in protest against their own strike. And unions warned of dire consequences if there was any attempt to grit the treacherous roads.
Meanwhile, beleaguered prime minister Jim Callaghan agonised over whether to mobilise the army and declare a state of emergency.
It is 40 years this week since the infamous Winter of Discontent reached its zenith. A million workers were laid off, rubbish piled up in the streets, the dead went unburied. And days earlier the prime minister had committed one of the great PR blunders of all time by dismissing the crisis with a joke.
The events of January 1979 were the culmination of tensions which had been brewing for several years, a combination of trade union militancy, a struggling economy, and a weak minority government clinging to power by its fingertips. Throw in the coldest winter for 16 years, and it was a recipe for bedlam.
Industrial unrest was already well entrenched in Britain. The miners’ strike of 1974 had effectively brought down Ted Heath’s Conservative government, and Wilson’s return to power that year did little to bring any feel-good factor.
Wilson’s sudden resignation in 1976 catapulted Callaghan into the top job, and for a while he seemed to be the right man for the right time, his avuncular air of calm authority seemed to be in keeping with more austere times, but the honeymoon would not last.
In August 1975, inflation had rocketed to 26.9 per cent, and the Government sought to tackle the problem by negotiating a pay cap with the TUC. The policy saw inflation fall to 10 per cent by 1978, but workers began to lose patience.
Ford of Great Britain, a major government supplier, initially abided by the pay cap, prompting a walk-out by 15,000 workers on September 22, 1978. Within days this had grown to 57,000, leaving 23 factories.
Rival Vauxhall watched the havoc and decided to defy the pay cap by giving its workers an 8.5 per cent rise. Realising the hopelessness of its situation, Ford did an about-turn, offering its workers a 17.5 per cent pay rise, bringing the strike to an end on November 22.
For the Government, the Ford strike could not have come at a worse time, coinciding with the Labour Party conference in Blackpool. A young militant called Terry Duffy tabled a motion calling for the Government to ‘cease intervening in wage negotiations’. It was carried by 4,017,000 to 1,924,000, and Callaghan conceded he had been given ‘a lesson in democracy’.
On November 28, the Government announced sanctions on Ford and 220 other companies, sparking fierce opposition from both the CBI and the Conservatives. But imposing the penalty meant getting a motion passed in the House of Commons, and MPs on both sides questioned whether the Government should be interfering in private pay negotiations.
The Government was defeated, leaving it with no way of enforcing the pay cap.
The absence of any meaningful sanctions led to a surge in inflation-busting pay claims. First it was the lorry drivers, with Esso and BP tanker drivers holding an overtime-ban as part of a 40 per cent pay claim. Eventually, they settled for 15 per cent. On January 3, all lorry drivers belonging to the Transport and General Workers’ Union staged an unofficial walk-out, causing petrol stations to close across the country.
Callaghan and his government drew up plans for a state of national emergency, which would have seen the Army called in to take control of deliveries, but the Prime Minister – who had built his name on his relationship with the unions – was reluctant to resort to such measures.
But it was a hastily arranged press conference on January 10 that would come to define the crisis. While Britain shivered in the coldest winter since 1963, Callaghan was at summit on the Caribbean island of Guadaloupe.
Nightly TV news images of the prime minister on the beach in swimming trunks had not played well back home.
Having been tipped off that the media was waiting for him on his return to Heathrow, Callaghan’s press secretary Tom McCafferty told him to say nothing. But his political secretary Tom McNally disagreed, saying the image of a self-assured prime minister returning to take control would play well with the public. What neither of them expected, though, was a comedy act.
When Callaghan met with journalists, he joked about having had a lovely trip ‘swimming in the Caribbean’. McNally could scarcely believe his ears.
A reporter asked him: “What is your general approach, in view of the mounting chaos in the country?”
Callaghan’s reply would go down in history.
He said: “If you look at it from outside I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.”
The tabloids seized on the comments. The following day The Sun carried a front-page headline ‘Crisis? What Crisis?,’ with the sub-heading ‘Rail, lorry, jobs chaos – and Jim blames the Press.’
Having seen how strike action had led to thousands of private sector workers securing hefty pay rises, public sector workers were determined not to be left behind. Public sector unions declared January 22 to be a ‘day of action’, which became the biggest individual day of strike action since the General Strike of 1926.
Misery Monday, as it became known, was the beginning of weeks of mayhem, with many of the workers staying on strike indefinitely.
As rubbish went uncollected, Leicester Square in London was turned into a makeshift dumping ground, picking up the nickname Fester Square. A gravediggers’ strike in Liverpool caused a backlog of bodies in mortuaries. The city council rented a disused factory to store 150 corpses. When questioned about what would happen if the dispute dragged on, the city’s director of public health suggested bodies might be buried at sea.
Reports also began to emerge of hospital managers concerned about decomposing bodies being left in wards for hours on end. Ambulance drivers operated an ‘emergencies only’ service in some parts of the West Midlands, in others they refused to work at all. Pickets on the dockside blocked the unloading of drugs needed for chemotherapy. Many of these were isolated incidents, but all reinforced the perception of a country on the brink of of meltdown. Schools closed as they ran out of heating oil, while bread rationing was introduced as the shop’s shelves began to empty.
A rubbish mountain appeared outside Royal Shrewsbury Hospital too.
By the end of January, almost half of the country’s 2,300 hospitals were operating on an emergency-only basis, prompting TUC leader Len Murray to demand a meeting with bosses of the four main unions.
The action led to tensions between different health workers as well, with union officials representing Shropshire ambulancemen lodging official complaints against doctors they said had been abusive towards them.
The Army was on standby to grit the region’s motorways – which had been subjected to 20mph and 30mph speed limits – but Barry Shuttleworth of the National Union of Public Employees was not impressed. He threatened an all-out strike if troops intervened.
January 26 saw a 40-mile stretch of the M6 north of Walsall shut down completely. The railways were also hit, with an eerie silence around Shrewsbury and Wellington stations.
Callaghan was said to be dismayed at the intransigence of some of the unions. His suggestion that workers could cross picket lines led to a further backlash, and he was greeted by chants of ‘scab’ from striking ambulancemen as he visited local Labour Party branches.
By this time many strikers themselves were growing weary. A group of nine striking lorry drivers from Oakengates demanded a return to work, but their attempts at staging a convoy in the town quickly slithered to a halt on the ungritted roads.
One of the drivers, Clive Davis, of Walton Avenue, Oakengates, said: “The men all feel the same. They just want to go back to work on Monday morning.”
The lorry drivers’ strike led to Telford-based Glynwed Iron Foundries laying off 600 workers at Sinclair Ironworks and Aga in Ketley on January 24.
An uneasy truce between the Government and the TUC was reached on February 14, but by this time union leaders’ control over their members was greatly diminished.
A normality of sorts returned, but Callaghan’s time was up. On March 28 his government lost a motion of no confidence, precipitating a general election, and bringing in 18 years of Conservative rule.
Just eight months earlier, he had been so confident in his position that he was able to tease the Conservatives about whether or not he would call an election. To this day, he remains the only British politician to have held the four great offices of state: home secretary, foreign secretary, chancellor of the exchequer and prime minister.
But politics is a cut-throat business, and Jim Callaghan will always be remembered for one headline: ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’
How the Winter of Discontent unfolded
July 21, 1978: Government White Paper proposes a five per cent limit on pay rises until 1982.
September 22: Unofficial walk-out by Ford workers over proposed five per cent pay rise.
October 2: Labour Party conference votes overwhelmingly for a motion opposing the pay cap. Callaghan says it has been 'a lesson in democracy', but continues with policy.
November 22: Ford workers return after accepting a 17 per cent pay rise.
November 28: Government announces its intention to impose sanctions on Ford and 220 other companies for breaching the pay cap.
December 13: Government loses vote in Commons to impose sanctions on Ford and other companies.
January 3, 1979: National strike by lorry drivers causes fuel shortages across the country. Callaghan had drawn up a policy called 'Operation Drumstick' which would have seen a state of emergency declared and the mobilisation of 9,000 troops to ensure essential supplies could be maintained, but decided against enacting it.
January 4: Callaghan departs for a summit on the Caribbean Island of Guadaloupe, returning on January 10 when he denies Britain is in a state of chaos. His comments spark the 'Crisis? What Crisis?' headline in The Sun.
January 22: Misery Monday. Public sector workers also go on strike, leading to the biggest day of industrial action since the General Strike of 1926. The Army is called in to provide emergency ambulance service in several areas, including the West Midlands.
January 30: Health secretary David Ennals says 1,100 of 2,300 hospitals are now only treating emergencies.
February 1: As a backlog of dead bodies mounts up in Liverpool, the city's medical officer suggests they could be buried at sea if the gravediggers' strike is not resolved.
February 14: Agreement is reached between the TUC and the Government to resolve the stand-off, ending the worst of the disruption.
March 28: Government loses vote of no confidence, leading to general election on May 3. Margaret Thatcher defeats Callaghan to become Britain's first female prime minister.