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Look back: 50 years ago saw the stark reality of the Three-Day Week

By David Porter

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As we enter 2024, looking back 50 years ago, concerns over public sector wages, spiralling inflation, energy costs and the prospect of an upcoming general election that would pit Edward Heath's Conservatives against Harold Wilson's Labour party were all in the news and just as relevant as they are today.

1974 started with the implementation of the Three-Day Week, one of several measures introduced by Edward Heath's Conservative government to conserve electricity, the generation of which was severely restricted owing to industrial action by coal miners and railway workers.

From January 1, 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 such as hospitals, supermarkets and newspaper printing presses were exempt.

Television companies were required to cease broadcasting at 10.30pm to conserve electricity, although this restriction was dropped after a general election was called which ultimately ended with the removal of the Heath government.

Throughout the 1970s the British economy was troubled by high rates of inflation so in an effort 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 and by the middle of 1973, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) – drawn from a workforce who almost wholly worked for the National Coal Board saw their national conference pass a resolutions for a 35 per cent wage increase, regardless of any government guidelines or strike action would be implemented.

Edward Heath
Edward Heath

In context in the 1970s, most of the UK's electricity was produced by coal-burning power stations and the ensuing action saw a move to reduce electricity consumption, and thus conserve coal stocks.

The Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, announced a number of measures under the Fuel and Electricity (Control) Act 1973 on 13 December 1973, including the Three-Day Work Order, which came into force at midnight on December 31.

The start of the three day week as reported in the Inverness Courier in January 1974
The start of the three day week as reported in the Inverness Courier in January 1974

Inverness Courier

Fuel Crisis

3-Day Week Starts in Scotland

As Scotland lurched yesterday into the three-day week, designed to save coal stocks to ensure continued use ti

of electric power and light, in accordance with the various Orders to which the national emergency has given birth, there were few problems in the Inverness area, at any rate, the Moray Firth's "power days" are Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Many businesses, either because they have generators of their own, as has A.I. Welders, the town's major heavy industry, or can function with substitutes, or are even exempt, will be operating almost normally, but as industry elsewhere loses productivity and supplies of all materials dwindle, how long that may last is problematic.

In England, however, the number of unemployed rose to over 885,000 an increase of 100,000 or so, but many of these will be back at work for the second three days of the week- Thursday to Saturday.

About 50,000 were said to have been laid-off temporarily in Scotland.

Willie Whitelaw
Willie Whitelaw

Miners' meeting with Employment Secretary

Tomorrow (Wednesday) miners' leaders are meeting Mr William Whitelaw, Secretary of State for Employment, in another attempt to see whether the wage impasse can be broken without also breaking Phase 3 of the income policy. It is the miners' ban on overtime which is causing the drop in coal stocks at power stations, which in turn is causing the three-day week and other electricity-saving rules and regulations. The miners, however, are becoming more militant, and in Scotland their leader is threatening a three-day working week, although mining is one of the exempt industries, or selective one-day stoppages all over Britain,

Railway Services

Inverness train services were still running normally, said a spokesman for British Railways last night, although there were some delays. With regard to the announcement by the Glasgow branch of ASLEF (Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen), that there would be a step-up of the policy of non-co-operation, he said that that might have some effect on services to the North, but that it was im- possible to tell at this stage. ASLEF, too, was becoming more belligerent yesterday, and all-out strikes, or bans on moving coal to power stations, were both threatened. It was a sign of the times that their executive meeting in London had to be adjourned yesterday be- cause darkness fell before it was over. and it was a day upon which their headquarters could not use electricity! The meeting will be resumed in daylight today.

Turriff Advertiser - Council by Gaslight?

As Turriff Town Council chamber is classed as a hall for commercial purposes under the present power restrictions a lighting problem faces the Council at their first meeting of the new year on Monday. As lighting by electricity will not be possible the meeting will probably have to be conducted by gaslight. Mr W. S. Knox, the Town Clerk, says there are one or two gas lamps on the premises which could be brought into use. A change of night for the monthly meeting while the restrictions last may have to be considered, but this will depend on how the members get on at Monday's meeting.

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