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  • Emotions, Social Practices and the Changing Composition of Class, Race and Gender in the National Health Service, 1970–79:'Lively Discussion Ensued'
  • Jack Saunders (bio)

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Fig 1.

Workers from St Helier Hospital, Surrey, on 70,000-strong national march to Westminster, 13 Dec. 1972.

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On 17 November 1976, 60,000 public-sector workers marched from Hyde Park to Westminster to protest cuts to services. Earlier that year the Labour government had agreed to reduce state expenditure as part of a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund.1 The IMF would furnish emergency funds to fortify the value of the pound, provided the British government acted to curb spending. The largest component of these cuts fell on the National Health Service and on local authorities. Demonstrators anticipated lengthening dole queues and damage to services already struggling.

Attending the demonstration, Denise Fox, a casualty nurse at Stockport Infirmary, told Health Services, the journal of the Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE), 'we're here to improve the Health Service, for the patients mostly. In Stockport, everything is being cut – meals, staff, wards, the lot'.2 Fox's presence on the demonstration and her comments encapsulate several developments during the 1970s. As the high tide of production worker militancy began a gradual recession from 1974, union density in the public sector continued to rise. Remarkably, the November 1976 protest marked the first national demonstration against cuts to the National Health Service, anticipating the significant presence that its workforce would come to have in British political culture in the following decades. Fox's argument, that collective protest by staff was vital to defend patients and the NHS, would become a familiar one.

Photographs of that demonstration throw light on the changing face of trade-unionism and the politics of work. Although some of those printed by Health Services still featured the familiar white male trade-union leaders, in others we see young women and people of colour, offering us a less expected image of worker protest in 1970s Britain. Public Employees, the journal of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE), founded in 1931, carried similar photographs in their December 1976 edition, showing large groups [End Page 205] of women carrying union banners through the streets, including nurses in full uniform.

By 1976 such sights were coming to characterize a labour movement that was changing, both in its demographics and in how it represented itself – its visual culture.3 Both women4 and black people5 were by now more and more likely to join trade unions; indeed the latter actually had slightly higher levels of union density than white people.6 Yet until recently historical accounts of the labour movement rarely examined how this changing composition of workers' organizations played out in everyday life.7 This is in part because they have often worked with aggregated figures rather than images or quotidian interactions. The mass armies of workers described are seldom analysed in terms of demographics, and by default are therefore mostly coded white and male.8 In this article I use both images and more intimate documents, principally union minutes, to show how in the 1970s women working in the health service claimed an increasingly important space in the public sphere to demonstrate collective power, as well as to examine the process by which that space was won.


Academic labour histories seldom make use of imagery in analysing the development of labour protest in the second half of the twentieth century. Photographs of workers – at work, out of work, organizing, protesting or taking direct action – sometimes feature for illustrative purposes but rarely to advance understanding of the workplace and its culture. Yet images are central to the ways in which the world around us is conveyed and constructed.9 As Stephen Brooke has argued, photographs of working-class life yield considerable insight into the ways in which communities changed, into the uses of space and into identities, both those projected on to people and those they looked to forge for themselves.10

The photographs held in the NUPE archive at the Modern Records Centre are an important resource...


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pp. 204-228
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