The miners strike of 1984-85 will always be remembered in British working class history as the most significant turning point in the power relationship between the working class organisations of the trade unions, and the state representing the interests of the privileged minority in the late twentieth century. The losses endured by the working class and their organisations as a whole with the defeat of the miners are still to this day attempting to be rebuilt, as are the shattered communities of the ex-pit towns. Understanding the struggle and the lessons that can be drawn from it during the months of 1984-85 are of utmost importance if these organisations are to be rebuilt, as well as the working class movements as a whole.
In 1974 the then Conservative government had been replaced with a Labour one, brought down by the miners strike of the same year. The Labour government realised that the working class, particularly the miners, had political power to exercise, and that if exercised correctly could force change in even the leadership of the country. Obviously wanting to avoid this in future, Labour set up think tank groups to decide the best course of action to stop this happening again, bringing an end to their term of power. The think tanks set up pinpointed the idea of national pay bargaining (a centralised structure where issues on pay and conditions could be discussed by miners across the country, which had ended area disputes over wages and other such inequalities) as a main factor in the power that the miners wielded. Their power was in their unified strength behind the organisation and the unifying nature of this structure was recognised as the reason for the successful strikes of 1969, 1972 and 1974. Labour introduced ‘Area Incentive Schemes’ alongside the structure of national pay bargaining and against national ballots in an attempt to split the miners. This meant now that wages and conditions would be decided locally, and the area was given the higher degree of importance than the national. The scheme was most well received in Nottinghamshire and the Midlands (against national ballot decisions), where as we will see, sought to consolidate its own interests ahead of that of the majority of miners on strike during 1984-85. However, Labour lost the next general election, and the Conservatives again came to power in 1979 with Margaret Thatcher at the helm and the Area Incentive Schemes carried on as the Labour government had initiated them.
The events of 1984 were a culmination of many years of struggle by the miners to raise wages and conditions, and in the years immediately previously to the great strike to prevent earlier attempts of pit closures, the most obvious attempt being in 1981 by the still new Thatcher government. The threat of strike action had however, caused the Thatcher government to abandon this and led to the Yorkshire miners to pass a resolution declaring that if a pit was to be closed for any reason other than exhaustion or geological difficulties, then a strike would take place to defend it.
In early 1984, the government declared the agreements reached during the 1974 miners strike as obsolete and its intention to shut 20 mines which it considered, uneconomical. 20,000 jobs were to be lost. In early March many miners in the affected areas began strike action, taking the initiative were the miners at the Manvers complex in Yorkshire, who were organised into the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) as were most miners in the country. A local ballot for strike action was held on March 5th in response to the Coal Board’s announcement that a further five pits were to undergo a program of ‘accelerated closure’ within just five weeks, this leading to workers at the Cortonwood Colliery at Brampton in North Yorkshire, and at Bullcliffe Wood colliery near Osset to join the strike. However it is worth noting that there were already 6000 miners on ‘unofficial’ strike action before the ballot was taken. The announcement of more closures by the government was also to affect the collieries at Herrington in County Durham and Polmaise in Scotland and by the next day pickets from Yorkshire began appearing at pits in Nottinghamshire, the county that was to be least affected by pit closures.
By March 12th Arthur Scargill, leader of the NUM had declared the intention of making the local strikes national and called for strike action by all NUM members across the country. It was soon after declared that local groups were to decide on action amongst themselves, there being some confusion over calling a national ballot for strike action among the NUM leadership, since the government was enforcing a recent law that required unions to take a ballot if it is to hold strike action. As the 1972 and ’74 strikes had been pay disputes that affected all NUM members, the general consensus in ’84 was that there was no need for a national ballot as the pit closures affected only specific areas of the country.
Solidarity with the miners from workers in other industries was few and far between, however, there were some instances of action coming from the dockers and the railworkers, who risked dismissal if they refused to handle coal. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) didn’t support the NUM and an electricians union, the EETPU actively opposed it. Another source of great antagonism for the miners was the lack of support from the leadership of the steelworkers’ unions after the support that they had given them during the steel strike of 1981 and the concessions that the NUM had made on the deliveries of coke to the steelworks during the strike.
Throughout the dispute, the miners of Nottinghamshire were to play a key role, their pits being the least threatened by the closures and the miners therefore being least threatened by job losses. Most of the Nottinghamshire pits had large reserves and had at their disposal a great deal of modern equipment that pits in other areas did not possess, as well as this, the industry reforms implemented by the Callaghan government in 1977 made them the miners there the most well paid in the country. Failing to realise their collective interest in showing solidarity with miners more directly affected by the closures, the Nottinghamshire miners (on the whole) chose to ignore the strike and stay at work with only 20% of them out at the end of ’84. This provoked great antagonism between miners who were observing the strike and those who were not and became the source of many instances of violence. Towards the end of the strike, many Nottinghamshire miners broke from the NUM over the lack of a national ballot which they saw as ‘undemocratic’ and formed the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM) and have since been involved in numerous court battles with the NUM, mostly over finances. The UDM was heavily criticised in 2004 after it emerged that two of its top officials receive pay of over £150,000 each, this for an organisation whose membership had fallen to just under the 1,500 mark by that time.
Overall support for the strike across the coalfields of Britain was varied, as we have already seen in the case of the Nottinghamshire miners. The majority of miners in the country did observe the strike, the exceptions being particularly the miners in Leicestershire, South Derbyshire, the Midlands and North Wales. The miners of South Wales were still bitter to an extent over the lack of support they had received in previous years over their attempts to launch strikes in support of the steelworkers and health workers, but there were enough threatened pits in the area for the strike to get on its feet. About 93% of miners from the area were still on strike by the beginning of March ’85, just before the strike came to and end. Along with Kent the miners in South Wales held out the longest.
The government, tightly observing the contingency methods suggested in the 1974 report into nationalised industries known as the Ridley Plan in the event of a strike, mobilised tens of thousands of police who were drafted in from all over the country. While their official role during the strike was to ’employ riot tactics in order to uphold the law against violent picketing’, they often initiated unprovoked baton charges against pickets, such as happened at the much publicised ‘Battle of Orgreave’ and such that are widely believed to have caused the deaths of pickets David Jones and Joe Green. Three children also died during the strike, from picking coal in the winter. Members of the British Army are also widely believed by miners to have been present at the picket lines, and there exists film footage of ‘policemen’ wearing tunics missing any identifying numbers on their lapels.
Throughout the strike the miners were often very isolated from popular opinion across the country, while many areas of North of England and Wales were supportive of the strike, the mass hysteria cooked up by the capitalist press (The Sun and the Daily Mail in particular, who kept up a smear campaign against the strike throughout) and the scaremongering of the Thatcher government caused many people in the South of England (excluding Kent) to view the strike with suspicion, and at odds with their interests.
The wives, mothers and daughters of the miners also played a very important role during the strike, and often took up much of the fundraising duties as well as staffing the soup kitchens that were so desperately needed by the starving communities. They also produced large amounts of literature, often of a defensive nature from the attacks directed at the miners by the national press. The first such group was Barnsley Woman Against Pit Closures (BWAPC), other local WAPC groups were founded soon after and linked together to form a national organisation doing much solidarity work. Madeline Butterfield, a woman involved in the WAPC whose book ‘Striking Thoughts’ was published after the strike recalled that, “The strike was an opportunity for everyone to discover what their talents and capabilities were and to put them into practice.”
The strike began to fall apart in the early months of 1985, with miners in many regions reluctantly returning to work. The winter had been particularly harsh that year and most families were unable to afford heating as the NUM’s funds had been seized by the government in October of ’84 and miners were unable to claim state benefits because the action had been declared illegal. The hands of Thatcher were strangling the mining communities and the families that lived in them were essentially living on nothing, even being forced to loot local shops for food. The ruthless smear campaign of the right-wing press was also taking its toll on the strikers, constantly under attack and being misrepresented by the lies that were being spread around the country about them. Arthur Scargill, rather predictably, also came under attack from the press, constantly trying to play the ‘loony-leftist’ card against him and making his words appear as the paranoid rants of a Marxist. By early March of ’85, 60% of miners were still on strike across the country, compared with 74% that time the previous year. A ballot was taken on March 3rd, and by a tiny majority the miners decided to return to work, defeated, without a new agreement with management. At the NUM conference that decided this, only Kent voted to carry on the strike.
Soon after, the government’s program of ‘accelerated closure’ was put into practise, still adhering to the suggestions of the Ridley plan that it would be cheaper to import coal from Australia, Columbia and America than it would be to extract it in Britain. With no regard for the devastation this would wreak upon British mining communities, Thatcher continued her plan and the wider program of de-industrialisation in the name of the privileged minority. The majority, personified by the hopelessness of the destroyed mining communities, being left with unemployment, want, poverty and no chance for a happy, or peaceful existence.
The Nottinghamshire miners had been manipulated by the government also, told that their pits were safe from closure in 1984, they had been reluctant to join the strike. If any more proof of the governments intentions to completely split the organised miners in half and push them against each other was needed, then this was it, most of the Nottinghamshire pits were closed between 1985 and 1994.
The coal industry in Britain was finally privatised in 1994 and is now known as UK Coal, by this time there were only 15 deep mines still in production and as of March 2005 the number dropped to 8.
The degradation that is now rampant in the ex-mining communities has been well documented. As well as the obvious factor of unemployment, suicides rose significantly, particularly in 1984. After months of strike pay, many miners and their families were heavily in debt, and having to emerge during the years after the strike jobless because of the closures, was a strain that many, understandably, could not handle. The average heroin use in ex-mining communities is also documented as being 27% above the national average, with usage in Wakefield, an area of West Yorkshire, increasing by 3361% between 2000 and 2004. Wakefield was also classed in an EU report of being one of the most deprived areas of Europe, along with Grimethorpe in South Yorkshire and Knowsley in Merseyside, all ex-mining communities.
Communities had been devastated and left to rot, receiving not an ounce of help from the government that had wielded the sword that had cut the very lifeline that the communities had depended on, the coal pits. Throughout the second half of the 1980s Thatcher continued her policy of de-industrialisation in favour of imports from abroad, effectively destroying British industry at the cost of thousands of jobs, with unemployment reaching over 11% in the UK and about 50% in mining communities by the late 80s. The potential for change had been defeated with the miners, as had the power of the trade unions and the state had been left to consolidate its free market agenda. Only through the unified strength of the miners in complete solidarity with each other could Thatcher have been defeated. The stress that is placed upon the need for complete class unity when faced with long and bitter struggles such as the days of 1984-1985, which is indeed the main lesson that should be drawn from the strike, should never be underestimated.