In March 1984, twenty five years ago, the National Coal Board announced it intended to close 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs. Cortonwood in South Yorkshire was earmarked as the first to close, “imminently”, in the words of the NCB chairman, Ian MacGregor. The miners at Cortonwood immediately came out on strike and by March 12th the National Union of Mineworkers had made the strike national. This was to become the bitterest industrial dispute in most of our lifetimes and marked a major defeat for the working class.
The background to the strike lies in the early ’70s, when the miners fought Ted Heath’s Conservative government and its neo-liberal economic policies. Famously, Heath called an election over “who ran the country” while the miners were on strike, and lost. The right wing of the Conservatives began planning its revenge almost immediately, with the Ridley Report of 1974 laying out detailed plans of how a future Conservative government would provoke and win a conflict with the unions, and the miners in particular. There had been a close call when a strike nearly happened in 1981, but the government backed down. It later emerged this was because they didn’t have all the elements of the Ridley Plan in place by then.
The government brought in Ian MacGregor as head of the NCB. He had previously been in charge of British Steel where he successfully closed plants and made redundancies. MacGregor was viciously anti-union and was greeted with hostility by Arthur Scargill and the NUM leadership.
The miners’ action at Cortonwood quickly spread across the coalfields, with Yorkshire, Kent, Scotland, South Wales and the North East all being solid. Lancashire and North Derbyshire had about two thirds out, but the rest of the East Midlands had a very poor turnout. Their pits were more modern and the miners there had higher pay. Nottinghamshire in particular was told that their pits were safe from the programme of closures
to ballot or not to ballot
Central to the arguments amongst striking miners was whether there should have been a national ballot. Dave Douglass, who at the time was a delegate from Hatfield Main colliery in South Yorkshire, argues that the national ballot would probably have been won. However, he also believes that the leading role played by the rank and file miners meant that it wasn’t going to happen. The militants were afraid the union was going to sell them out, and could see the strike had already stopped most production. They were also well aware that a successful ballot would not have stopped
the hardened scabs in Nottingham-shire. In Douglass’ words they
…instructed their delegates at pit after pit to vote against a national ballot and to continue the strike to victory. It was an entirely understandable reaction, but in retrospect a mistaken one...
The main flashpoint between scabs and strikers was Nottinghamshire, where scabs were just over the county border from the striking militants in South Yorkshire. The other notorious flashpoint was the Orgreave Coking Works, the scene of mass pickets which were attacked by police. These are the well known clashes, but there were many more, particularly as militant miners were using informal groups known as “hit squads” for lightning actions under the noses of the police.
Not only did the miners have to contend with scabs and management, though. As the full force of the state was mobilised along the lines of the Ridley Plan, parts of the country were turned into a virtual police state as miners were prevented from travelling and anyone who looked like a miner or supporter was stopped on the roads. The police acted with impunity on the picket lines, and anecdotal reports from the miners stated that certain forces were much worse than others. Undoubtedly it was deliberate policy to use police with no local connection or sympathy for the miners. In particular the Metropolitan Police were renowned for their arrogance and brutality.
The state also used devious methods – infiltrating the unions, intelligence reports from the EEPTU (electricians union) and conniving with the Notts NUM officials to create a breakaway scab union, later to become the Union of Democratic Mineworkers.
Because the strike was declared illegal by the courts, miners and their families were not entitled to benefits and the NUM’s funds were sequester-ed. The media played its role too. All the main papers were resolutely against the miners, and the BBC edited footage of heavily armed police attacking unarmed miners to make it look like the miners started it.
Solidarity from other workers was in many senses magnificent. It kept the miners going without any other income for twelve months, and donations came from all over the world.
Unfortunately, the sort of solidarity which might have made a difference was in short supply. There was some blacking of coal by rail workers, seafarers and dockers, and there were rumblings in the power stations, but none of these were sustained. Most important was the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers (NACODS), the union for supervisory grades in the pits. NACODS members were going home on full pay if they met a “difficult” picket line. In August, the NCB rewrote these guidelines and they would have to go into work in the reinforced buses used for scabs. NACODS held a ballot over this and got an 82% yes vote and were on the verge of striking in September 1984. Even MacGregor, in his biography, says that if they had come out a compromise to end the miners’ strike would have been forced on the government. However, the government had an informant in NACODS; their demands were quickly met, avoiding the strike.
Electricity companies kept the power going over the winter of 1984-5 and the strike began to fade. The media became obsessed with the numbers of miners who were back at work, even though the government later admitted that the figures had been inflated. On 3rd March 1985, miners marched back to work behind their banners.
The miners’ strike was a time when class conflict in Britain was open and not one sided. The strikers knew who their enemies were. Those deceived by the media, the government or their own self-interest have nearly all fared as badly as the strikers. The areas which scabbed had their pits open for longer, but eventually they were still closed and their communities destroyed. There are now only about six thousand coal miners in the UK – twenty five years ago there were two hundred thousand. In 1994, British Coal was privatised and only fifteen pits remained – a vindication of the warnings by Scargill and the NUM militants of what lay behind the closure programme. Only four deep pits and five open cast mines remain open.
Former mining areas are pockets of poverty and disadvantage. There were very few other jobs available for redundant miners in the coalfields and unemployment reached 50% in some areas. Suicides were higher, particularly around the time of the strike. Economic stagnation has been followed by an influx of drugs and the despair that goes along with them. Some pit villages have high numbers of empty or abandoned homes as residents have migrated elsewhere for work. As Dave Douglass writes, “visit the former pit communities today and you will still see the results of that defeat”. The miners weren’t striking because they liked the work, but because they understood what would happen to their communities if the pits closed.
The strike also raised questions of where solidarity came from and how different struggles were linked. The role of women in supporting the men, particularly that of Women Against Pit Closures, went some way to counteract chauvinist attitudes of many miners. The active support of black and gay groups also challenged prejudice.
For anarchists, the strike showed us that our ideas were relevant. Those so-called anarchists who were really individualist liberals found themselves adrift, but for SF’s predecessor, the Direct Action Movement, the lines drawn by the strike were clear. Militant workers used direct action in a hard fought, serious class struggle.
However, the question was also posed of whether the DAM was an anarcho-syndicalist organisation or an organisation of anarcho-syndicalists. While DAM had some support among the more direct action oriented miners, none of them joined. Dave Douglass later joined Class War, which was popular with the strikers for its no nonsense tabloid style. This is a question DAM continued to grapple with and was one of the main drivers for its transformation into the Solidarity Federation, which was designed as an organisation that would be easier for militant workers to join.
Dave Douglass : A Year of Our Lives – 20 years since the Great Coal Strike