The Last Battle for Barnoldswick

This year’s successful Rolls Royce strike brought Barnoldswick back to the headlines – but in the mid-1980s it was the site of one of the longest strikes in British history.

Barnoldswick was recently the site of a victorious struggle by Rolls-Royce workers against the closure of a plant there – saving hundreds of jobs, and the economic future of the community.

But this isn’t the first major industrial dispute to have taken place in the East Lancashire town. Between June 1985 and February 1987, workers at the Silentnight bed factory in Barnoldswick, as well as at the plant in the nearby West Riding village of Sutton, staged one of the longest continuous strikes in UK history.

The Dispute

Silentnight’s Thatcherite boss Tom Clarke reached an agreement with unions that if workers gave up a wage increase, job losses would be prevented – and then promptly sacked 52 employees. In response, workers at the Barnoldswick and Sutton factories walked out on strikes which ended up lasting over 600 days.

The length of the strike was exceptional, and a testament to the determination of the Silentnight strikers and the scale of the solidarity they received. ‘Being able to actually stay out for that long is remarkable and historically quite unique,’ says Stephen Mustchin, a labour relations scholar at the University of Manchester whose article in the journal Labor History provides an authoritative history of the strike. To find something comparable, he says, ‘you have to really be going back to very early twentieth century.’

A boy poses with the Silentnight strike rally in the background.

The action remains notable not only for its duration, but for its representation of the broader social and political upheavals of the 1980s. The miners had been defeated a few months before the Silentnight strike started, and the historical moment was one of epochal setbacks for the labour movement and vicious shareholder backlash against the gains that working-class communities had made over the previous 30 years.

Aware of this relevance, the strikers made use of the strategies developed in the course of the miners’ strike. A ‘sponsor a striker’ scheme was established; a women-led Silentnight Support Group was set up on the model of Women Against Pit Closures; and supporters of the strike even released an EP through the Red Wedge label.

The Silentnight workers had also collected for the miners during their strike, and this solidarity was reciprocated in spades when the Silentnight workers walked out – with the miners giving the Silentnight strikers access to the solidarity networks that had developed over the course of their struggle. ‘We just carried on where they left off in a way,’ says Trevor King, who had worked at the Barnoldswick plant for 27 years before the dispute broke out.

But the ‘demonstration effect’ of the miners’ loss didn’t demoralise the Silentnight strikers. On the contrary, it spurred them on. ‘Pits were helping us ’til we finished, pits that were still working were still collecting for us,’ remembers Mark Newton, who along with his brother Stephen worked at the Sutton site. ‘So if anything, it galvanised you more and it made you more determined to carry on with it and hopefully get a victory in the end. You wanted to go out and sort of win for the miners as well.’

The Silentnight strikers also built a huge international solidarity network: parts destined for use at the Silentnight factories were blacked by workers in countries as far afield as Nigeria, while delegations from unions in Germany and El Salvador visited the picket lines.

The Aftermath

The strikers decided to finally call off the dispute in February 1987, after 20 months of picketing. But such was the level of support that the strikers were still receiving from the wider labour movement, they could, in the words of Stephen Newton, ‘have carried on forever.’

Nearly 350 employees who had protested the betrayal were sacked and replaced with non-unionised workers recruited directly from the region’s burgeoning dole queues. Suspecting they had been blacklisted in the local area, some went on to set up their own bed-making co-operative, using production units donated to them rent-free by Bradford’s Labour Council.

While Silentnight’s anti-union tactics were successful, and the strike ultimately failed, for many of the strikers involved, the dispute represented a personal victory which marked their transformation from largely apolitical workers on a production line to confident union organisers, touring Labour Clubs and trade union conferences in defence of their cause.

A Barnoldswick policeman reads a copy of Militant.

Before getting involved in the union in 1984, Terry Bennet, who became branch chair at the Barnoldswick plant, was a straightlaced Conservative voter; by November 1985, he was raising the roof at a Militant rally in the Royal Albert Hall. ‘I had to become a public speaker overnight. Up until [the strike] I thought I was one of life’s failures, because nothing ever worked out the way I expected it. And then, when we came out on strike, and we were standing up for our rights, beliefs, principles, morals, then I found that I was able to talk well, and people were telling me I was a natural,’ Terry says.

The labour movement provided a form of schooling to the Silentnight workers: a chance to develop their capacities and realise the individual and collective potential that would have otherwise been denied them. ‘You did get yourself another education,’ says Stephen Newton. ‘Learned a lot about myself – I never thought I’d get up in front of hundreds of people and speak!’

And there’s no question of the Silentnight strikers having any regrets. ‘Looking back at my life,’ Trevor says, ‘it’s the best thing that ever happened to me, being on strike, because it wakes you up. […] I could have still been working there when I retired, and I’m bloody glad I didn’t, because I had variety. But also, I had a bit of confidence, which I never had before.’

Solidarity with the Rolls-Royce Strikers

While Rolls-Royce and Silentnight are very different disputes, separated by a generation, there are a number of ways in which their struggles intersect.

Rolls-Royce pickets wave their flags at a passing Silentnight lorry.

When the Rolls-Royce dispute kicked off, the lead Unite official for the dispute, Ross Quinn, quickly became aware of the strike that had come before it. ‘A number of people throughout the movement contacted us to say they’d supported the dispute with Silentnight,’ he tells Tribune. He laughs: ‘With the length it went on and everything, hopefully we wouldn’t be out the same amount of time.’

Rolls-Royce and Silentnight are two of the largest employers in this close-knit town, so interaction and mutual displays of support have been a common occurrence, both in the 1980s and today. Terry remembers holding an end-of-strike social in the Rolls-Royce workers’ sports club, while Ross notes that passing Silentnight lorries would sound their horns in solidarity with the Rolls-Royce pickets on a daily basis.

The Rolls-Royce strikers also drew strength from seeing themselves as part of a long and proud tradition of trade union struggle, of which the Silentnight strike forms a local part. ‘When we finally got the agreement on the Friday to the shop stewards, [one] said that he immediately thought back to the trade union education that he’d had and the history he’d learnt about different disputes and struggles, and he immediately felt like he was part of that history,’ Ross says. ‘The last number of decades have been extremely difficult for our movement and we’ve suffered one defeat after another. I think just seeing that we’ve still got that understanding and that history within our workplaces is still really special.’

Looking Forward

With businesses using the Covid-19 pandemic as cover for laying off workers and driving down wages and working conditions—and with evidence of an increase in unionisation and a number of high-profile struggles ongoing—the Rolls-Royce dispute is likely to be just one of many to emerge over the coming months.

Labouring under similarly difficult conditions in the 1980s, in which employers, backed by the Thatcher government, were given the green-light to ride roughshod over workers’ lives, the Silentnight strikers showed that they couldn’t do so without facing a fight. They may have lost, but they achieved a collectivism, the legacy of which burns far brighter than the legacy of the Tom Clarke’s union-bashing.

In a Commons Debate in 1985, the local Labour MP Peter Pike said that the Silentnight dispute had ‘implications far beyond Barnoldswick and Sutton. Indeed, it has implications for trade unionists throughout the country.’

With luck, the same will be said of the Rolls-Royce workers’ victory. As Ross argues: ‘We’re really hopeful that people see that now it’s been successful, that it’s not just a romantic defeat that trade unions can deliver, but actually come out the other side of it and make a real difference – which should give people more confidence to stand up and fight.’