Three-Day Week

Last updated

The Three-Day Week was one of several measures introduced in the United Kingdom by the Conservative government at the time to conserve electricity, the generation of which was severely restricted owing to the effects of the 1973–74 oil crisis on transportation and inflation. Later industrial action by coal miners further compounded events.


From 1 January 1974, commercial users of electricity were limited to three specified consecutive days' consumption each week and prohibited from working longer hours on those days. Services deemed essential (e.g. hospitals, supermarkets and newspaper printing presses) were exempt. [1] Television companies were required to cease broadcasting at 10.30 pm during the crisis to conserve electricity, [2] [3] although this restriction was dropped after a general election was called. The Three-Day Week restrictions were lifted on 7 March 1974, the same month the oil crisis ended. [4]


Throughout the 1970s the British economy was troubled by high rates of inflation. To tackle this, the government capped public sector pay rises and publicly promoted a clear capped level to the private sector. This caused unrest amongst trade unions as wages did not keep pace with price increases. This extended to most industries, including coal mining, which provided the majority of the country's fuel and had a powerful trade union.

By the middle of 1973, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) – drawn from a workforce who almost wholly worked for the National Coal Board – were becoming more militant with the election of Mick McGahey as vice-president. The national conference passed resolutions for a 35% wage increase, regardless of any government guidelines, and for the election of a Labour government committed to "true socialist policy" including nationalisation of land and all key monopolies. [5]

As inflation increased, miners' wages fell in real terms and, by October 1973, average wages were 2.3% lower than recommended by the Wilberforce Inquiry, which reported on miners' pay in 1972. In November 1973, the national executive committee of the NUM rejected the pay offer from the NCB and held a national ballot on a strike. The vote was rejected by 143,006 to 82,631. However, an overtime ban was implemented with the aim of halving production. This action hurt the coal industry and was unpopular amongst the British media, although the Trades Union Congress supported the NUM's actions. [5]

The Three-Day Week

In the 1970s, most of the UK's electricity was produced by coal-burning power stations. [6] To reduce electricity consumption, and thus conserve coal stocks, the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, announced a number of measures on 13 December 1973, including the Three-Day Work Order, which came into force at midnight on 31 December. Commercial consumption of electricity would be limited to three consecutive days each week. [1] Heath's objectives were business continuity and survival and to avoid further inflation and a currency crisis. Rather than risk a total shutdown, working time was reduced to prolong the life of available fuel stocks. Television broadcasts were to shut down at 22:30 each evening, and most pubs were closed; due to the power surges generated at 22:30, the Central Electricity Generating Board argued for a staggered shutdown on BBC and ITV, alternating nightly, and this was eventually introduced. [5] The television broadcasting restrictions were introduced on 17 December 1973, suspended for the Christmas and New Year period, and lifted on 8 February 1974. [7]

Strike vote

On 24 January 1974, 81 percent of NUM members voted to strike, having rejected the offer of a 16.5 percent pay rise. [8] In contrast to the regional divisions of other strikes, every region of the NUM voted by a majority in favour of strike action. The only area that did not was the Colliery Officials and Staff Association (COSA) section. Some administrative staff had joined another union, APEX, to distance themselves from the increasing militancy of the NUM. APEX members did not strike, which led to resentment amongst NUM members. [5]

In the aftermath of the vote, there was speculation that the army would be used to transport coal and man the power stations. McGahey called in a speech for the army to disobey orders, and either stay in the barracks or join picket lines, if they were asked to break the strike. In response, 111 Labour MPs signed a statement to condemn McGahey. He responded "You can't dig coal with bayonets." [5]

Results by NUM area

Taken from Douglass, David John (2005). Strike, not the end of the story. Overton, Yorkshire, UK: National Coal Mining Museum for England. p. 24.

Voting figures for strike action (NUM)
Area / GroupsTotal votesVotes for strike action% of total votesVotes against strike action% of total votes
South Wales26,90125,05893.121,8436.85
Midlands (West)12,3099,01673.253,29326.75
Durham mechanics5,9374,59077.311,34722.69
Group no 2 (Scotland)4,8343,92981.2890518.72
Power Group3,9812,23956.241,74243.76
South Derbyshire2,6041,82770.1677729.84
Northumberland mechanics2,1911,81682.8837517.12
North Wales1,20095279.3324820.67
Power group no 21,16468158.5148341.49
Durham enginemen89654360.6035339.40
Yorkshire enginemen37031685.415414.59

Election call

The strike began officially on 5 February and, two days later, Heath called the February 1974 general election while the Three-Day Week was in force. His government emphasised the pay dispute with the miners and used the slogan "Who governs Britain?". Heath believed that the public sided with the Conservatives on the issues of strikes and union power. [5]

On 21 February 1974, the government's Pay Board reported that the NUM's pay claim was within the Phase 3 system for claims and would return miners' wages to the levels recommended by the Wilberforce Enquiry in 1972. [5] [9]

NUM control of picketing

There had been some violence on miners' picket lines during the unofficial strike of 1969 and the official strike of 1972. [5] Aware of the damage that could be done to the Labour Party's electoral prospects by media coverage of picket-line violence, the NUM instituted strict controls over pickets. [5] Pickets had to wear armbands saying "official picket" and had to be authorised by areas. [5] Unlike in 1972, students were discouraged from joining miners' picket lines. [5] Every picket line had to be authorised by the local NUM area with a chief picket to ensure that no violence took place. [5]


Most of the media were strongly opposed to the NUM strike. An exception was the Daily Mirror , which ran an emotive campaign to support the NUM. Its edition on election day in 1974 showed hundreds of crosses on its front page to represent the miners who had died since nationalisation in 1947, accompanied by the message, "Before you use your cross, remember these crosses". [5]

Election result

The election resulted in a hung parliament: the Conservative Party took the largest share of the vote, but lost its majority, with Labour having the most seats in the House of Commons. In the ensuing talks, Heath failed to secure enough parliamentary support from Liberal and Ulster Unionist MPs; and Harold Wilson returned to power in a minority government. The normal working week was restored on 8 March, but other restrictions on the use of electricity remained in force. [1] A second general election was held in October 1974 cementing the Labour administration, which gained a majority of three seats. [10]

The new Labour government increased miners' wages by 35% immediately after the February 1974 election. [11] In February 1975, a further increase of 35% was achieved without any industrial action. [12]

In the campaign for the 1979 general election, after the Winter of Discontent running into that year, Labour reminded voters of the Three-Day Week, with a poster showing a lit candle and bearing the slogan "Remember the last time the Tories said they had all the answers?" [13]


  1. 1 2 3 "British Economics and Trade Union politics 1973–1974". The National Archives (UK Government records).
  2. "The UK in the 1970s". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 25 January 2012.
  3. "Transcription of Radio Times TV listing for 7 January 1974". The TV Room Plus. Retrieved 25 January 2012.
  4. "OPEC Oil Embargo 1973–1974". U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian . Retrieved 30 August 2012.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Douglass, David John (2005). Strike, not the end of the story. Overton, Yorkshire, UK: National Coal Mining Museum for England. pp. 23–25.
  6. "A brief history of British Electricity Generation – MyGridGB".
  7. "TV Curb Lifted". The Times. 8 February 1974.
  8. "1974: Heath calls snap election over miners". 7 February 1974 via
  9. Taylor, Andrew (1984). The Politics of the Yorkshire Miners. London: Croom Helm. p. 258. ISBN   0-7099-2447-X.
  10. "1974 Oct: Wilson makes it four". BBC News. 5 April 2005. Retrieved 16 April 2012.
  11. "1974: Miners' strike comes to an end". 6 March 1974 via
  12. "1975: Miners set for 35 per cent pay rises". 13 February 1975 via
  13. "The power of persuasion". Daily Express. 7 April 2010. Retrieved 16 April 2012.

Related Research Articles

Winter of Discontent Winter of 1978–79 in the United Kingdom

The Winter of Discontent took place during 1978–79 in the United Kingdom. It was characterised by widespread strikes by private, and later public, sector trade unions demanding pay rises greater than the limits Prime Minister James Callaghan and his Labour Party government had been imposing, against Trades Union Congress (TUC) opposition, to control inflation. Some of these industrial disputes caused great public inconvenience, exacerbated by the coldest winter for 16 years, in which severe storms isolated many remote areas of the country.

The miners' strike of 1984-85 was a major industrial action to shut down the British coal industry in an attempt to prevent colliery closures. It was led by Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) against the National Coal Board (NCB), a government agency. Opposition to the strike was led by the Conservative government of the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who wanted to reduce the power of the trade unions.

February 1974 United Kingdom general election

The February 1974 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday, 28 February 1974. The Labour Party, led by Leader of the Opposition and former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, gained 14 seats, but was seventeen short of an overall majority. The Conservative Party, led by incumbent Prime Minister Edward Heath, lost 28 seats; but achieved a higher share of the vote than Labour. This resulted in a hung parliament, the first since 1929. Heath resigned when he refused to a key term of a possible coalition, and Wilson became Prime Minister for a second time, his first under a minority government. Because Labour was unable to form a majority coalition with another party, Wilson called another early election in September, which was held in October and resulted in a Labour majority. This was also the first general election to be held with the United Kingdom as a member state of the European Communities (EC) — widely known as the "Common Market".

October 1974 United Kingdom general election

The October 1974 United Kingdom general election took place on Thursday 10 October 1974 to elect 635 members of the British House of Commons. It was the second general election held that year, the first year that two general elections were held in the same year since 1910, and the first time that two general elections were held less than a year apart from each other since the 1923 and 1924 elections, which took place 10 months apart. The election resulted in the Labour Party led by Harold Wilson winning the narrowest majority recorded, 3 seats. This enabled the remainder of the Labour government, 1974–1979 to take place, which saw a gradual loss of its majority.

National Union of Mineworkers (Great Britain)

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is a trade union for coal miners in Great Britain, formed in 1945 from the Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB). The NUM took part in three national miners' strikes, in 1972, 1974 and 1984–85. After the 1984–85 strike and the subsequent closure of most of Britain's coal mines, it became a much smaller union. It had around 170,000 members when Arthur Scargill became leader in 1981, a figure which had fallen in 2015 to an active membership of around 100.

Mick McGahey

Michael McGahey was a Scottish miners' leader and lifelong Communist, with a distinctive gravelly voice. He described himself as "a product of my class and my movement".

The Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) was established after a meeting of local mining trade unions in Newport, Wales in 1888. The federation was formed to represent and co-ordinate the affairs of local and regional miners' unions in England, Scotland and Wales whose associations remained largely autonomous. At its peak, the federation represented nearly one million workers. It was reorganised into the National Union of Mineworkers in 1945.

The Ridley Plan was a 1977 report on the nationalised industries in the UK. The report was produced in the aftermath of the Heath government's being brought down by the 1973-74 coal strike.

Joseph Gormley, Baron Gormley, OBE was President of the National Union of Mineworkers from 1971 to 1982, and a Labour peer.

National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers

The National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers (NACODS) is an organisation representing former colliery deputies and under-officials in the coal industry.

The Bituminous coal strike of 1974 was a 28-day national coal strike in the United States led by the United Mine Workers of America, AFL-CIO. It is generally considered a successful strike by the union.

Lawrence Daly was a coal miner, trade unionist and political activist.

Tyrone OSullivan

Tyrone O'Sullivan, OBE, is a Welsh former National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) Branch Secretary, and current Chairman of Goitre Tower Anthracite Ltd., the owners of Tower Colliery.

1973–1975 recession Period of economic stagnation in the Western world

The 1973–1975 recession or 1970s recession was a period of economic stagnation in much of the Western world during the 1970s, putting an end to the overall post–World War II economic expansion. It differed from many previous recessions by being a stagflation, where high unemployment and high inflation existed simultaneously.

The Kent Miners' Association was a trade union in the United Kingdom which existed between 1915 and 1945, representing coal miners in the county of Kent. After 1945 it was reorganised as the Kent Area of the National Union of Mineworkers.

Battle of Saltley Gate

The Battle of Saltley Gate was the mass picketing of a fuel storage depot in Birmingham, England, in February 1972 during a national miners' strike. When the strike began on 9 January 1972, it was generally considered that the miners "could not possibly win." Woodrow Wyatt, writing in the Daily Mirror, said: "Rarely have strikers advanced to the barricades with less enthusiasm or hope of success... The miners have more stacked against them than the Light Brigade in their famous charge." The picketing of the fuel depot – out of which tens of thousands of tons of coke were being distributed nationwide – became a pivotal, and symbolic, event during the strike. Forcing its closure secured victory for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

The 1972 UK miners' strike was a major dispute over pay between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Conservative Edward Heath government of the United Kingdom. Miners' wages had not kept pace with those of other industrial workers since 1960. The strike began on 9 January 1972 and ended on 28 February 1972, when the miners returned to work. The strike was called by the National Executive Committee of the NUM and ended when the miners accepted an improved pay offer in a ballot. It was the first time since 1926 that British miners had been on official strike, but there had been a widespread unofficial strike in 1969.

Arthur Scargill British trade unionist

Arthur Scargill is a British trade unionist. He was President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) from 1982 to 2002. Joining the NUM at the age of nineteen in 1957, he became one of its leading activists in the late 1960s. He led an unofficial strike in 1969, and played a key organising role during the strikes of 1972 and 1974, the latter of which helped in the downfall of Edward Heath's Conservative government.

The UK miners' strike of 1969 was an unofficial strike that involved 140 of the 307 collieries owned by the National Coal Board, including all collieries in the Yorkshire area. The strike began on 13 October 1969 and lasted for roughly two weeks, with some pits returning to work before others. The NCB lost £15 million and 2.5 million tonnes of coal as a result of the strike.

The history of trade unions in the United Kingdom covers British trade union organisation, activity, ideas, politics, and impact, from the early 19th century to the present.