Abstract: No Steel, No TV, and No Burgers: How Industrial Action in a Single Company Threatened to Bring the British Economy to a Standstill

Ray Stokes and Ralf Banken

Abstract

Industrial gases (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, argon, and so on) are used in all manufacturing and in many service industries. This paper explores instances of actual or threatened industrial action in the late 1970s in Great Britain at British Oxygen Company (BOC) to analyze the overall economic importance of this key, but frequently overlooked, industrial sector. BOC had a market share in Britain of more than 70 percent during the 1960s and 1970s, with American-headquartered Air Products controlling virtually all of the remainder of the market share, although mainly in bulk deliveries. Compensation for any downturn in BOC production was thus virtually impossible. Once BOC deliveries stopped, production faltered across the British economy. Trade unions representing BOC workers were thus able in the context of the 1970s to gain substantial concessions in terms of wage increases and to challenge the wage policies of the Labour government of the period. In this paper, we explore the connections between BOC's quasi-monopoly position, company strategy, the actions of the trade unions, and the significance for and impact on the British economy.