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The big miners strike in UK

It’s forty years since the great UK miners’ strike. Looking back upon it today, it seems in some ways like an event that happened in a different world. In many ways, it seems like the end of that world, and one that allowed the new world to be born. It brings up a host of questions of all kinds. Today, the UK media is full of articles and TV programmes discussing the strike, and its effects. It’s a strike that raises a lot of important issues, and a lot of interesting questions. Perhaps the main reason for us to step into the time machine to return to this period is what the strike was actually about, which is an issue that we are faced with in this country today. 

The British miners’ strike of 1984-85 is the largest single industrial action ever in terms of days lost, with over 26 million days on strike. It lasted for just under one year. It began on March 6th 1984, and continued to March 4th 1985, and involved at its peak nearly 150,000 strikers. The strike started over pit closures. Although in the early 1980s mining still seemed like a massive industry, after all it still employed 231,000 people, it was in long term decline. In 1922 at its peak the British mining industry employed a million workers in more than 1,000 pits. By the start of the strike there were only 173 were still working. 

Over time the richest veins of coal had been mined out. The remaining coal was becoming more expensive to reach, and British coal was over 20% more expensive to produce than the cost of coal on the international market. Over the years the government and the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) had collaborated in negotiating the restructuring of the industry with mechanisation introduced and jobs lost. This changed in 1979. From the start of its term of office, Margret Thatcher’s new Conservative Party government started to implement its plan to defeat the miners. 

The miners had defeated the previous Conservative government twice. In both 1972 and 1974 the government was defeated by striking miners with the ‘74 strike leading to all of Britain going on to a three-day-week, and the government being humiliatingly kicked out of office. By 1977, the Conservative party had produced a detailed plan for taking on public sector workers. Named the ‘Ridley report’ after its author Nicholas Ridley, it focused how to take on public sector strikes with methods including the militarisation of the police force, the use of the courts to seize the money of striking workers, and many matters aimed particularly at the miners such as building up coal stocks and converting power stations to run on oil. 

Despite her reputation as a great politician today, Thatcher’s first term in office started badly. In 1981, after promising that she would destroy the power of the working class, and in particular the mineworkers who her party still hated for bringing down their government in 1974, her government was forced to make a humiliating retreat when 50,000 miners went on unofficial strike against a government plan to cut 30,000 jobs. Things were looking bad for Thatcher, with young people rioting against the police in England’s cities, and Northern Ireland in flames over deaths in the Republican hunger strikes, polls showed that Thatcher’s government was the least popular since World War Two. 

Then, in 1982, came the Falklands war, and it was basically the war that saved Thatcher from losing the next election and being another failed politician. The military Junta in Argentina, with inflation running at 600% and workers about to launch a general strike, had decided to restore national pride and their falling popularity by occupying a few small islands, which were home to less than 3,000 people. Unfortunately for the Argentine generals who were under the impression that the British wouldn’t respond, a war was just what Thatcher and her party needed. The flag was raised, a fleet was sent, striking nurses were condemned for being unpatriotic when ‘our boys’ were fighting, and, after having defeated the external enemy, it was time for Thatcher and the Conservative party to turn upon what she called ‘the enemy within’, the working class. The state began to stockpile coal in preparation for the forthcoming strike.

The strike started in March 1984 after the National Coal Board tore up the agreement made after the 1974 strike and announced the closure of 20 pits and 20,000 job losses. Miners started to walk out on strike on 5 March. Workers spread the strike to other pits using flying pickets, and within a week the union was forced to declare the strike official, but only in one area, Yorkshire. At the same time left wing union officials appealed for the pickets to withdraw and condemned pickets for protecting themselves from the police; the leader of the miners’ union, Arthur Scargill, talked about ‘taking the heat out of the situation’. Despite this by the middle of the second week about half the workforce of 196,000 had joined the strike.
As the strike continued to spread, the state used all of the weapons in its arsenal. The police were used as a paramilitary force which closed off entire areas to stop flying pickets as well as attacking picket lines and strikers’ villages. The courts were brought in to declare that flying picketing was illegal. Politicians from all parties attacked the strikers, the right with their open hatred of the working class, and Labour in their condemnation of workers’ violence; and as a background to all this, the media constantly whined on about how the workers were ‘undemocratic’.

Of course all of this was to be expected. What many workers didn’t expect was that it would be the actions of ‘their own’ unions that would lead the struggle to defeat. One of the major divisions between the mineworkers was the fact that in some regions, Nottinghamshire and North Wales, the majority of workers did not support the strike. However, in the early weeks before the National Union of Mineworkers had stopped the flying picketing, the workers themselves had been successful in bringing out their comrades in those regions. The union put a stop to this though. The practice of workers going directly to other workers to appeal for solidarity was opposed by the practice of bureaucratic union manoeuvres. An example of this was the closure of Harworth pit by 300 flying pickets acting against a massive police presence and the instructions of the union. When the flying pickets had been stopped the local union officials were then free to organise against the strike, holding their own ballot and campaigning for a no vote.
With the mineworkers divided amongst themselves it was time to isolate them from the rest of the class. Although there was widespread sympathy for the miners within the working class, and although railway workers, dock workers, and seamen took solidarity action by refusing to transport ‘scab’ coal, the leaders of the Trade Union Congress not only refused to support the strike, but some actually gave the government information to help it beat the strike. As was to be expected, and concealing his own role in the strike, Scargill, the NUM leader, said “at the very point of victory we were betrayed”. Yet it would have been wrong for workers to expect the unions to organise solidarity action. Even at the point that 25,000 dock workers walked out with very similar demands, the unions and the government were trying desperately to stop the strikes linking up, and to keep workers divided.

In the middle of the summer the union decided to increase the pressure upon the government by closing down the steelworks. In fact these very steelworks had only been working because the union had given them permission to use coal in the first place. The decision to change strategy was connected to the fact that they were using more coal than the union had allowed them. On 18th June the miners arrived to picket Orgreave British Steel coking plant. In many ways this was reminiscent of an action in the 1972 strike at the  Saltly coke depot near Birmingham. At that time, striking miners’ succeeded in closing the depot. This time though about 6,000 workers confronted about 8,000 police, and were beaten in a pitched battle. There was a crucial difference between Orgreave in 1984 and Saltley in 1972. In the first case striking miners were joined by about 100,000 engineering workers and others from the city of Birmingham whom the miners had appealed to for solidarity. Not only were the numbers massive but also the strikes of these workers and the threat of the mass strike terrified the state.

Thatcher herself talked in her autobiography of how at this point, the threat of combined action by miners, dockers, and railwaymen was what worried the government, and she believed that if it had come about she would have had to have backed down. As the year turned to winter it became more and more obvious that the miners, now isolated, were going to be defeated. Support for the strike started to dwindle and thousands of workers gave up the strike and returned to work. By the start of the following March, when there was an organised return to work only 60% of the workforce were still on strike.

The years that followed saw a full scale assault upon the working class with different sectors of workers being isolated and defeated in strikes in turn, including the dock workers, ferrymen, and a one year long strike by 6,000 printers. These defeats, but the defeat of the miners’ strike in particular, dealt a significant blow to the class struggle in Britain and even internationally, as many workers had looked to the UK miners as an example of militancy and defiance.

At the time, especially considering what followed, this must have looked like a major defeat for the working class. The real extent of it though wasn’t something that was obvious at the time. The Conservative government mainly attacked sectors that were economically outdated. Printing was being changed by modern computer technology. The docks were being changed by containerisation. When they attacked workers like Telekom and the Post Office, they weren’t able to win. Looking back with hindsight, it’s very clear that there were major changes underway in the economy. The period where most working people worked with their hands was part of this disappearing world. UK mining was devastated. In 1983 Britain had 174 working coal mines. By 2009 there were six. The final one closed in 2015. Of course this led to massive unemployment. Grimthorpe, a coal mining area was classified as the poorest area in the country, and one of the poorest in the EU. 

Today, 40 years on from this strike, we are confronted with the end of coal mining across the continent. The European Union Green Deal essentially calls for the eventual closure of all coal mines in Europe. It’s not going to happen immediately. The goal for becoming ‘climate neutral’ is set for 2050. In our next article in this series, we will look at what the Green Deal is, and what we can expect from it.

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