People with long memories will, this month especially, recall the bitter Silentnight beds strike which dragged on for more than a year-and-a-half in the late 1980s and set a new record. Reporter Clive White speaks to some of the men who stayed with it to the bitter end and finds out what they are doing now.

The longest-running continuous strike in trade union history – a conflict which stamped the village of Sutton and town of Barnoldswick on the industrial map – had ground to a halt by April 1987.

What had started out in late July 1985 with workers downing tools after a lock-out by bosses at both Silentnight factories had dissolved into a hardcore of Furniture, Timber and Allied Trade Union members picketing the works – which were back in full production.

At Sutton, the smaller of the two factories, the strikers would continue to occupy their makeshift headquarters near the factory for another three months. It was not until early March 1987 that the dispute folded, the issues moribund and the strike almost forgotten by the national press and even banished to the “news in brief” sections of the local press.

During those 19 months, Sutton – population just 3,000 – had made headline news and often for the wrong reasons. On one occasion, the strikers’ caravan, from where they organised their picket rota, was petrol-bombed. Nobody was injured. The local Labour Party stepped in to the breach and offered the nearby Labour Rooms, which became home for about a year.

There was often friction between the pickets and the workers who continued to man the factory and there was the occasional prosecution at Skipton Court.

The village was on the agenda of all the political big guns of the period, including leading left wingers like the late Bob Cryer, once MP for Keighley, and Labour firebrand Denis Skinner, who made two rallying visits.

In some ways, despite the loyalty, sacrifice and determination of the strikers, it was a lost cause. With hindsight, the Silentnight strike symbolised the dying throes of the once-powerful trade unions. It came on the back of the miners’ strike, after which even the mighty Arthur Scargill eventually surrendered to the all-powerful Margaret Thatcher, who, by 1985, had humbled and then made impotent the British trade union movement.

The founder and boss of Silentnight, Tom Clarke, who was reputedly the highest-paid executive in the UK at the time, was lauded by Mrs Thatcher, who gave him the sobriquet Mr Wonderful.

Production at Sutton continued with about 170 workers – there had been more than 300 at the outbreak of the dispute – for another seven years.

In April 1994 it ceased, ending a 20-year history in the village. Work was transferred 15 miles away to Barnoldswick where new jobs were created and where it continues today. Needless to say, it was then a non-union shop.

Today, many of the strikers are still in the area and, like Martin Emmerson, credit the strike as sparking a significant sea-change in their lives.

He was just 22, single and living at home in Steeton at the time and now sells footwear on Skipton market, a business he has run since the strike ended. “I was forced to look for another income. At first I started in Skipton indoor market and eventually bought this stall. At one time I also had a shop in Haworth,” he said.

“In some ways I owe a lot to the strike, in that it set me on a new path. I would probably be still working at Silentnight now if it hadn’t happened.”

On the other hand, he could even have ended up working for the trade union movement. “I attended a lot of union gatherings up and down the country, speaking about the strike and collecting money for the fund, and met a lot of high-ranking people. At one time I was offered a chance to attend the trade union college at Barnsley to train as an officer. I would have been a kind of trouble-shooter, being sent out to help at disputes. But it wasn’t for me.

“But I stuck with the strike because of the way Tom Clarke had gone back on his agreement with us and my sense of loyalty to the others, even though we had to put up with a lot of animosity.”

Shop convenor at the time was Steve Price, who lived with his wife Margaret and two children, Mark and Chantell, in Staveley Road, Keighley. Both he and Margaret, who also worked for Silentnight, stayed with the strike throughout. Today he is steward at Oakworth Social Club, in Oakworth, near Keighley, believing his trade union activity gave him new skills which have helped his career path.

“The strike actually turned us into political animals. We were forced into it,” he said. “I ended up having to speak to thousands of people at meetings and I even stood for Bradford Council and represented the Labour Party at conference.”

When the strike ended he and several colleagues set up their own bed-making co-operative in Keighley. “But my head wasn’t really in it after the strike and I got a job in insurance, staying nine years and becoming an area manager.

“I don’t think I would be who I am now if it wasn’t for the strike. I look back with pride at what we did by sticking out against Margaret Thatcher and Tom Clarke who wanted to destroy us, but they didn’t.”

And it was a life-changing experience for brothers Steve and Mark Newton, who lived in Eastburn then and still do today. For the elder brother, Steve, now 47, it plunged him into a world of union activity which he has stayed with all his working life. He is today a member of Unite and works for Bronte Whirlpools.

He has held union office and, like his brother, has faced more redundancy throughout his working life.

“I would have loved to have gone into being a full-time union official, trying to help others better their working conditions, but I got married and it wasn’t to be,” he said.

At one time he was branch secretary of the Craven ward of the Labour Party, a trade union branch secretary and trade union liaison officer.

“The strike spurred me on politically – I actually enjoyed it. But I can now appreciate what it must have been like for the people with families who were struggling with mortgages,” said Steve, who now has a daughter and son.

Like his brother, Mark, 46, also a father-of-two, got involved in the workers’ co-operative in Keighley along with Steve Price. It ran for about a year.

Mark, who is today a production manager, said: “It was a tough time, but I was young and enthusiastic and I was getting to do something I would never have done if it wasn’t for the strike.”

He spoke at union rallies, conferences and even in Hyde Park, and recalls with pride getting a standing ovation when he spoke to miners who had themselves just been through the cauldron.

“The miners were brilliant – they gave us wonderful support, digging into their pockets right to the bitter end. People thought it was just about money, but it wasn’t – it was about saving jobs. That experience made me stronger and a better person. As you get older, you look at things differently. I admit I was not a good boy then and had a few run-ins with the police over the strike, but we were doing it for the right reasons.”

Time has scythed its way through the political landscape since those fiery days of the late 1980s and today’s unions bear no resemblance to their forebears.

The Silentnight factory in Sutton was bulldozed for housing and the old Labour Rooms have been demolished and built upon.

Margaret Thatcher is a shadow of her former self, Tom Clarke is dead and his wonderful, architect-built home in its own grounds in Skipton is empty, boarded up and, Mrs Haversham-like, is slowly being engulfed by its overgrowing formal gardens.