From the moment it broke out, the 1984-85 miners' strike took over the political scene and its impact was felt long after it was over. This was partly due, of course, to the militancy of the strikers and the miners' traditional social prestige. But, more decisively, Thatcher's obvious determination to turn this strike into a showdown attracted the attention and sympathy of many workers. Above all, it seemed that, for the first time in decades and after several years of a sustained offensive by the bosses, the working class, or at least one of its big battalions, was fighting for one common objective in large enough numbers and with enough determination to be able to shift the balance of class forces in favour of working people. This fact alone gave the miners' strike a political dimension which went far beyond the limits of its immediate sectional aims.
Despite this promising beginning, the strike turned into a bitter, protracted battle and became isolated. Eventually it was called off without the miners winning any concession from the government, almost one year to the day after it had started. Not only were many pits closed and massive numbers of miners made redundant, but conditions were significantly worsened in the remaining working pits. From the point of view of the immediate objective which had been assigned to the strike by its leadership - stopping the threatened pit closures - the strike was unquestionably a defeat.
However, there were gains that Thatcher could not take away from the strikers. The thousands of miners who were actively involved in the strike for months discovered an entirely new sense of class solidarity and strength. They went through a unique experience of doing the things that workers need to be able to do if they are to organise themselves effectively - whether it be flying pickets, collective kitchens, strike bulletins and many other forms of collective activities which were made vital by the strike. This sort of experience is usually beyond the reach of ordinary workers, except, precisely, in the course of militant strikes involving very large numbers of workers. It is not for nothing if, for years thereafter, the Tory government proved willing to pay comparatively large redundancy packages in the mines. They wanted the miners and their dangerous collective experience to disappear as far as possible.
Two decades later, assessments of the miners' strike fall roughly into two categories.
One of them is put forward by people ranging from advocates of Blair's pro-business policies to overt Tories. For them, the miners' defeat was inevitable. What they consider as an era of "irrational industrial strife" had to be brought to an end at some point if the economy was to survive. And the unions, whose power had been supposedly based so far on confrontational policies, had to be forced into a policy of "partnership" with the bosses. These are the same people who usually claim that there is no longer such a thing as the working class, that we live somehow in a "classless" society and that the class struggle is a thing of the past.
The other line of argument, mostly emanating from more or less left-wing circles, also makes the claim that the miners' defeat was inevitable, at least in hindsight, but for different reasons. They argue that the miners found themselves at the receiving end of "the Thatcher government's onslaught on organised labour", to use the words of journalist and strike historian Seamus Milne. Above all, adds Milne, they were confronted with the Tories' determination to "avenge their defeats at the hands of the miners in the 1970s." While laying some of the blame on the failure of the TUC leaders to support the strike, this argument presents Thatcher as such an exceptionally vicious enemy of the working class that, in hindsight, the miners could not win. This is not really new, by the way, since already, in the years immediately following the strike, it was not unusual for left activists to go completely overboard by branding Thatcher's regime as "quasi-fascist" if not "fascist"!
However, neither of these arguments stands up to examination. The "end of the class struggle" argument is a worn-out cliche, which is probably as old as the class struggle itself. Whenever the capitalist class is in a position of strength, it finds politicians and academics willing to rationalise the bosses' determination to take the maximum advantage of the situation by declaring that the class struggle must be buried - by this, of course, they mean the resistance of the working class. This happened, for instance, during the years following the defeat of the 1926 General Strike and again in the 1950s at the time of the Cold War. In any case, the events of the past two decades have shown that the class struggle is still there, both for the working class, with its more or less on-going resistance to capitalist exploitation, and for the bosses, with their continuous attacks against workers' jobs and conditions.
It is nonsense to claim that the miners' defeat was inevitable, whatever the reason. That the miners could not win on the basis of the sectional policy of their leadership, even if the TUC had provided its official support - which would have been token, anyway - is certainly true. But this not what either of these arguments is about.
That Thatcher was out to force the unions into a policy of "partnership", as the first argument claims, or that she was out to crush them, as the second argument says - all this is nonsense as well. Indeed Thatcher had no need to read the riot act to union leaders who were falling over themselves to win the favours of the bosses under the "new realism" policy which had just been adopted by the TUC conference in September 1983. In fact, while keeping union leaders at arms length, Thatcher used them just as much as her Labour predecessors to control and contain the militancy of the working class. The truth is that, leaving aside the rants of some Tory grandees such as Norman Tebbit, there is no reason to believe that Thatcher was out to crush the miners' union itself, despite the radical rhetoric of some of its leaders. That Thatcher was out to crush the miners' militancy is unquestionable. But this is quite another issue.
In fact, reducing the miners' strike to a confrontation between Thatcher and an "unruly" miners' union, which is what both arguments come down to, is a convenient means of fudging the issues. For it makes it possible to ignore the fact that Thatcher's real aim was to break the resistance of the working class as a whole, whether organised or non-organised, by defeating the miners' militancy. Indeed, in this light, the sectional policy of the miners' union leaders - which confined the objective of the strike to stopping the threatened pit closures - becomes exposed as totally inadequate. Scargill's militant sounding rhetoric concealed the surest way to a dead end. The fact that the miners held out for so long was testimony to their determination, not to the soundness of their leaders' policy.
Claiming that Thatcher won because of her strength and vindictiveness is to state the obvious. But where did her strength come from? It came from the fact that she acted as the chief of staff of the entire capitalist class. By contrast, the miners' leaders remained cautiously within the sectional boundaries defined by the trade union institutions and stopped short of by-passing the TUC machineries, despite their failure to support the strike, let alone trying to generalise it. This deprived the miners of a policy which would have allowed them to mobilise other forces from the ranks of the working class in a common struggle. As a result, and despite the wide support they enjoyed among the rest of the working class, the miners were left to fight on their own, without being able to use the militant forces of their own class.
For us, revolutionaries, a strike, no matter how large or small, is part and parcel of the struggle for the emancipation of the working class. And for this reason it is vital for the working class that each one of these confrontations with the capitalists should be analysed and understood and its lessons remembered in order to be used in future battles. We consider it as one of our tasks to ensure that such lessons are indeed transmitted to those who did not live through these experiences.
A strike may be a major battle or a mere skirmish, but it is always an integral part of the on-going class war. And the class war, just as any war, is made of ups and downs, successes and reversals, which cannot be assessed in isolation, but only within the context of the war itself and the changing relationship of forces between the two sides. The miners' strike did not come out of the blue. It was the by-product of a specific situation marked by a deep recession, high unemployment and a drive by the capitalist class to rebuild its profits damaged by the crisis. It was also the continuation of a long series of defensive fights tightly controlled by union machineries which felt more threatened by the militancy of their own members than by the constraints imposed on them by the Thatcher government.
The reasons for the defeat of the miners' strike can only be understood by starting from the context in which it took place. And it is also this context which can tell us what policies could have been attempted by the miners in order to be better equipped for their fight. Trying to do this should not be seen as an intellectual game aimed at rewriting history. It is a necessity to ensure that the courage and commitment of the 1984 strikers does not go to waste and that their experience is turned into a weapon for the generation of workers who will fight tomorrow's struggles. This is the best tribute that we can pay to the striking miners on this 20th anniversary of their strike.
Capital in crisis
The scene for the miners' strike was set by the period of economic crisis which started in Britain in the mid-1960s. Indeed the confrontational line adopted by the ruling class and its government during the strike, the compromise policy chosen by most trade union machineries and the attitude of the majority of the working class to the strike, were all rooted in the conditions created by this crisis.
From the mid-1960s, the expansion of markets for manufacturing goods began to slow down worldwide. Competition intensified and British industry, with its often antiquated infrastructure, was among the first hit. In 1966, manufacturing production began to stagnate in Britain, and manufacturing employment to fall, setting a trend which was to carry on with some ups but mostly downs, for almost two decades. So that, when the world economic crisis finally broke out into the open, in the early 1970s, in the form of a brutal currency crisis, the British economy was already in a bad shape.
Despite the fact that British workers were among the most poorly paid in the rich industrialised world, manufacturing profits were much lower in Britain. In 1970, for instance, gross return on manufacturing investment was 10% in Britain, compared to 40% in Japan and 19% in Germany. But instead of buying new machinery in order to modernise investment-starved factories, British companies chose to close them down and to cut productive investment even further.
From 1970 until the mid 1980s, every single year, more capital was exported out of Britain - usually in the form of loans, stock market investment and, to a lesser extent, productive investment in foreign subsidiaries - than there was capital invested in Britain by foreign companies. So that unlike during the previous period, the failure of British capital to invest in industry was no longer made up by other sources of financing.
For the working class, this shift in investment resulted in a massive rise in unemployment. In 1972, the official dole count had already reached 900,000, having doubled over the previous two years. There was a short respite during the following 3 years, but in 1976, it reached another peak at 1.3m. From this point on, the official count continued to increase.
Many of the job cuts of the 1970s were the result of factory closures and large-scale restructuring in private industry. But not all of them. For the Labour governments of this period began to trim down the vast state-owned sector, which, at the time, included the coal industry, a large part of the car and aircraft industries and most of the steel industry, in addition to public services and utilities, of course.
So, for instance, in the five years between 1974 and 1979, 10,000 jobs were cut in coal mining, as part of the so-called "Plan for coal" adopted by Wilson's government in the wake of the 1974 miners' strike. Likewise, 19,000 jobs went at British Leyland in 1976-77 and another 17,000 at British Steel in 1978. It was also under Labour, in 1976, that Energy minister Tony Benn produced a plan to close down 48 power stations - a plan which was to be completed within just over a year. By comparison, Thatcher's later continuation of this energy restructuring, with the closure of another 41 power stations phased in over three years from September 1980, seems almost moderate!
The union leaders and the bosses' offensive
While unemployment was increasing and productive investment receding, the bosses embarked on an offensive to boost their profits by cutting production costs - i.e. by stepping up the exploitation of workers. And the Labour government which came into office in 1974 went out of its way to help them.
So, for instance, the primary purpose of the employment legislation adopted by Harold Wilson in 1974, was not to repeal the anti-union legislation of the previous Tory administration. True it did that as well and it provided the union machineries with a few advantages, which gave them more control over the membership and helped them to stabilise their financial resources. But the main aim of this legislation was as a bargaining chip to get the union leaders' endorsement for what Wilson called the "Social Contract" - in other words voluntary pay restraint, negotiated at national level by TUC leaders with employers and government representatives. Not only that, but in fact, this legislation also included a little-known provision encouraging no-strike deals - something that no government has ever dared to legislate upon since that day, not even Thatcher!
As a part of this "Social Contract", between 1974 and the beginning of 1977, all union leaders actively promoted wage increases which were kept far below the level of the then soaring inflation rate. This resulted in a drastic cut in workers' standards of living - by an average 11% in real terms. There were some exceptions, but mostly in large companies where workers felt that they could shift the balance of forces to their advantage through unofficial action, because there was no known threat on their jobs.
By 1977, the leaders of the largest manual workers unions, came to the conclusion that by carrying on being seen as policing the bosses' wage freeze, they were taking the risk of losing control of events at factory level. Unofficial strikes, which had become the norm rather than the exception due to the "Social Contract", were, by definition, far more difficult to control. And with the growing discontent among workers, there were more and more of them.
This public change in the union leaders' attitude to voluntary wage restraint did not change their policy of maintaining a cosy relationship with employers and the government. But it did encourage union activists to yield to the groundswell of discontent among the membership. So the level of strikes - still mostly unofficial - started to rocket in 1977, reaching a peak with the so-called Winter of Discontent of 1978-79. But all along, even when these strikes were made official by the union machineries, they were undermined and eventually sold out by union leaders.
Just as union leaders did nothing to help workers to stop the capitalists' offensive against wages, they did nothing to prevent the massive job cuts which took place during these years, whether in the private or public sector. In 1976, for instance, when Chancellor Denis Healey unveiled an immediate £2.5bn public-expenditure cut and a long-term plan involving 120,000 civil service job cuts, the TUC called a national protest in London, which attracted 80,000 marchers. But faced with this significant success, the TUC leaders decided that it was best to keep it at that, lest the protest got too serious to handle - and they never peeped a word again against Healey's threats against civil service jobs, some of which were carried out quietly before the Tories returned to office.
When Thatcher took over, in 1979, over 1.5m were on the dole and, although the wave of militancy which developed from 1977 had allowed some catching up, workers' wages remained below their 1970 level in real terms. Nevertheless, the profits of British companies were still dragging far behind those of their European or American rivals. What is more, a new phase of recession was already announced and British bosses were becoming increasingly worried. All the more so, because, despite the repeated setbacks experienced by workers during the strike waves of the previous years, there was no sign that militancy was receding.
With regard to the first Thatcher years, there is a whole mythology about the role played by the division of the Tory party into a so-called "One Nation" - or "wet" - faction and a radical populist one, which is usually associated with Thatcher. The reality, however, is probably much simpler. While these factions did exist, Thatcher's policy was less a reflection of their influence than of her assessment of the balance of class forces. And, initially at least, she was obviously not all that confident that she could turn the screw much further on the working class than her Labour predecessors.
Nor were the bosses in fact. So, for instance, the November 1979 conference of the CBI (whose policy-making committee was now headed by a close associate of Thatcher, the chairman of Reed International, Alex Jarratt), insisted on the need to reach what it called a "concordat" with the TUC, which would involve a closer involvement of full-time stewards in managerial committees and the setting of joint annual pay negotiations with all unions in each company. There was no talk of returning to the old "Social Contract" - which had proved unworkable anyway - but there was definitely no question of employers doing without the union machineries either. On the contrary, they were expected to tackle the bosses' main headache - the on-going disruption caused by unofficial action.
As one could have expected given their past record, the TUC leaders jumped at the opportunity on offer, without any qualms whatsoever. The fact that, at the same time, some large employers, in engineering in particular, were beginning to resort to lock-outs as a deterrent against unofficial strikes, did not even attract a word of protest from TUC headquarters. As soon as the CBI's offer was known, the TUC leaders rushed to negotiate a deal. The result was a document entitled "TUC disputes principles and procedures", which laid out rules which every union was meant to respect. Among these rules was a limit on picket numbers and secondary picketing and the requirement that such pickets should be placed under the exclusive responsibility of full-time officials. Ironically, this TUC document turned out to be a voluntarily anticipation of some of the requirements imposed by the Employment Bill which was enacted the following year.
This explains why employers' organisations expressed some displeasure when this Act was introduced, particularly over the restrictions it imposed on the closed shop system. One of them, for instance, complained that some of the new provisions were "political and exhortatory" and "unnecessarily provocative." Clearly the bosses were not prepared to jeopardise the trusted cooperation of the union machineries, even if it meant retaining closed shops, which few employers objected to, anyway.
Thatcher did not withdraw her new legislation, but she was certainly cautious in using it. So, for instance, it was only three years later that a union was penalised for the first time under the 1980 Employment Act - when the print workers' union, the NGA, was fined for secondary picketing during the Messenger newspapers' dispute at Warrington, in November 1983. And, although the 1982 Employment Act went even further by removing the unions' legal immunity from liability in case of industrial action, it was not even used during the miners' strike, but only much later and, even then, in very few cases.
Thatcher's caution and the bosses' concern were understandable. Industrial militancy showed no sign of weakening despite the increasing weight of unemployment and they could not ignore this fact. So, in 1979, Thatcher did not have the nerve to deny public sector workers the pay awards resulting from the review set up following the Winter of Discontent. The following year, in 1980, she chose to take a relatively conciliatory line when faced with the first national steel strike since 1926 -and a very militant strike too - which lasted 14 weeks. The union leaders managed to get the strikers back to work with a token wage increase but no guarantee concerning their future - something which they payed for with tens of thousands of job cuts. Up until the end of 1982, there were numerous such strikes in which the bosses or the government were careful to avoid an open confrontation with the strikers, preferring instead to use the good services of union leaders to buy industrial peace in return for some limited short-term concessions.
Workers did not show the same militancy in every industry, however. In the public sector, for instance, Thatcher went on to implement the job cutting plans which had been drawn up under Labour. So, in the railways, a scheme involving 30,000 voluntary redundancies over four years was enforced, with the enthusiastic support of the NUR, the predecessor of today's RMT union, whose leaders boasted of the "productivity gains" which had been achieved in the industry, regardless of the fact that these had been achieved at the expense of their members' jobs and conditions.
A new offensive against the working class
By 1983, after three years in power, Thatcher had improved her position in the ballot box - thanks, mostly, to the jingoistic mobilisation around the Falklands war. But she had achieved little in terms of really improving the profits of British capital. Unemployment had doubled since 1979, to reach over 3 million. In manufacturing the workforce had been cut by 20%, but production had fallen by 15% as well, which meant only a small increase in profitability. By that time, an Economist editorial estimated cynically that in order to restore the profits of British companies to international levels, it would be necessary to cut wages by 20%! And this meant either forcing a 20% wage cut down workers' throats or cutting jobs in the same proportion, or a combination of both. Either way, this meant another drastic turn of the screw on the working class.
These issues were being discussed publicly. The fact that the bosses and the government were only waiting for the right time to launch further attacks against workers was an open secret. In view of this, it was clear that not one section of the working class could consider itself protected. And yet, this was the time that the TUC leaders chose to embark in their "new realism" policy, at their 1983 conference. As usual, there was more rhetoric than actual plan in this so-called policy. But the general direction of the rhetoric was a hypocritical exercise in soul-searching, which proclaimed the need to turn to the "new industries", whose workforce, according to the TUC leaders, had abandoned Labour in the 1983 election because its needs had been ignored by the trade union movement. And since this workforce was supposed to be attracted by the Tories' demagogy, the unions had to adapt in some ways to this, in particular by co-operating with the changes in Employment law. Of course, this was no more than a crude attempt by the TUC leaders to make themselves more acceptable to Thatcher and the bosses. But it certainly showed that they were as opposed as ever to any form of confrontation in the sphere of the class struggle.
Such was the situation at the beginning of 1984. The whole of the British working class was a target for the bosses' and government's attacks, both in terms of jobs and wages, and a large section of it had been forced on to the dole. Union leaders were doing their cowardly utmost to adjust to the employers' offensive and prove their usefulness by actively discouraging any resistance to these attacks. British workers were left without any organisation prepared to defend even their most immediate material interests. Faced with the employers' all-out offensive, the entire British working class was badly in need of a common fighting objective and programme of action capable of uniting its ranks. It was at this point that the miners' massive battalions erupted onto the political scene.
Compared to all the other groups of workers who took strike action in the early 1980s, the miners was not the largest. There were far more workers involved in the recent NHS disputes, for instance. But the miners had an industrial clout and a militant tradition that NHS workers never had. Besides, virtually every industrial centre in the country was within an hour's drive of a pit head at most. All this, in and of itself, gave the miners' strike an impact and a potential unequalled by any other strike.
But, in addition, the miners' strike was a direct challenge to the entire policy of the capitalist class. What it was putting into question was not just Thatcher's plans for coal, but the general turn of the screw against workers that the capitalists and their government were trying to enforce. This is why Thatcher chose to turn the strike into a show of strength, not just against the miners, but against the entire working class. But by so doing, she gave to the miners' strike a political dimension which, had it been used to the full by the miners, could have become her undoing.
The NUM and its record
Contrary to common mythology, the leadership of the National Union of Miners (NUM), under Scargill's presidency since the end of 1981, did not march into the 1984 strike with a clear determination, let alone a worked out plan of action, to take on Thatcher. But before going into the run-up to the strike itself, it is necessary to look into the events which preceded it.
After the closure of 30 pits (with 10,000 job losses) under the 1974-79 Labour governments, there were 223 pits operating in the country with 232,400 workers by the time Thatcher took over. But by 1984, another 53 pits had already been closed by the Tories, with the loss of 51,000 jobs by so-called "voluntary" redundancy.
In other words, a huge price in terms of jobs had already been paid by the miners before the events of 1984/85. And the record of the NUM leadership in fighting against these job cuts was appalling.
Thatcher's attacks against miners had begun almost immediately, in January 1980, when it looked as if two thirds of the Welsh coalfield was going to be closed down. A strike was planned by the Welsh area NUM for 21 January 1980, to be co-ordinated with the local steel union. But the NUM national leadership refused to endorse it. In the end a TUC "day of action" was called instead, on 28 January 1980. Predictably, this did not stop Thatcher and the pit closures went on as planned.
Just over a year later, in February 1981, the Coal Board announced the closure of another 20-50 pits over the following five years. Spontaneous strikes began to break out all over the country's coalfields, threatening a complete shutdown of the whole industry prior to the NUM leadership doing or saying anything! Faced with a situation which was getting out of control, the NUM leaders stepped in to try to contain it, with the NUM president Joe Gormley urging South Wales flying pickets to "hold their fire" and wait for a national ballot. This time, however, probably sensing that the balance of forces was not favourable, the government decided to make a tactical retreat by withdrawing its announcement.
Thatcher's retreat could have signalled the beginning of a counter-offensive by workers to regain some of the ground lost, and not just in the coal industry but also in the tightly related steel industry, where plants were being closed one after the other. But such a fight was not on the agenda of the union leaders - neither in the TUC, nor in the NUM. Instead, the NUM leadership called for a return to work, with Joe Gormley saying that he hoped that "no area would take the decision to carry on with industrial action ... and that they will accept the authority of the national executive." In and of itself, his words showed that he was not at all confident of his ability to get the men back to work. But, eventually, despite the scepticism expressed by some area leaders, no counter-proposal was made to the striking miners and they resumed work. Predictably, as it turned out, the government's retreat was just a manoeuvre. Within the next 18 months, many of the targeted pits had been closed, using the so-called "salami" technique - taking pits one by one and luring miners into giving up their jobs in return for enhanced redundancy packages.
This debacle and the situation it created could only undermine the confidence of the miners, both in their leaders' willingness to fight and in the possibility of mounting effective resistance to the government's policy - which probably explains why, subsequently, three successive strike ballots on pay were lost. And Arthur Scargill's ascendency to the NUM presidency, at the end of 1981, appeared to change nothing to the NUM's policy.
The fight against pit closures went on, however, even if these fights tended to be isolated. In 1982, the closure of Kinneil colliery in Scotland was announced. The miners at the pit struck immediately and deployed pickets round the Scottish coalfield. However the national NUM leaders recommended that the Kinneil miners accept the closure, apparently because they was feared that other areas would not support the strike - which was, if anything, a poor excuse. This did not prevent a further strike by the Kinneil miners over Christmas 1982, but their pit was closed anyway.
Then came the turn of the Welsh miners. At the beginning of February 1983 the Coal Board announced that two more pits were to close. A group of 28 miners from these pits staged an immediate stoppage and 7 neighbouring pits joined the strike - to the initial annoyance of the local NUM leadership who wanted them to wait so that an area strike ballot could be taken. This was duly done and the whole South Wales coalfield went on indefinite strike and started to lobby the rest of the country. As a result most of Yorkshire came out, Lancashire agreed to hold a ballot of its membership, 3 Derbyshire pits went out and one in Kent. Scottish miners had agreed to go out on the 6 March. And area ballots were due to be held in Notts, Northumberland and Durham. So what did the national leadership do? On 3 March it decided to hold a national ballot, despite, or more likely because, of the fact that it was predicted that such a ballot would actually be lost. And lose it did, when 61% voted against strike action. Once again, those miners who wanted to fight back were not only left on their own, but actually stabbed in the back and forced into submission by the NUM leadership, under the fallacious pretext that everyone had to be out or no-one.
This approach of the NUM leaders - who seemed to consider themselves as generals of an army of members whom they expected to abide by their discipline at all costs, regardless of how they felt - was to be one of the main factors in isolating the miners during the coming strike.
The background to the 1984 strike was the pay claim made the previous year by the NUM leadership. This was submitted in September 1983. The Coal Board's response was a 5.2% increase - but on condition that the union co-operated with the continuation of its closure programme - which would be expanded with the addition of five more pits, including two in Nottinghamshire. Before the NUM even made its official response, the closure of Cronton Colliery in Lancashire was announced. In fact miners at Monktonhall Colliery in Scotland had already been on strike since early September against the closure of their own pit and there had been a one-day strike throughout the Scottish coalfield to support them.
A special NUM delegate conference on 21 October formally rejected the Coal Board's wage proposal, at the same time reaffirming the NUM's opposition to pit closures other than on grounds of exhaustion as well as agreeing to fight any further reduction in manpower. It also agreed to impose a full overtime ban from 31 October. This was by no means universally popular given the loss of wages it implied. Nor was it easy to implement in practice. For the NUM leaders, however, this ban seems to have been aimed not so much at preparing the ground for an all-out strike, as it has been claimed, but rather at strengthening their bargaining position by ensuring that reduced coal stocks (which were high at the time) would make the threat of a national strike more effective at the negotiating table.
Predictably, local management tried to break the overtime ban. In February 1984, an attempt to introduce uniform "snap" (or meal break) times as a means of extending hours at Manvers in Yorkshire's Wath Main complex, led to a strike. While the Yorkshire area council refused to sanction an area-wide strike, Manvers miners managed to get 10,000 out of 14,000 South Yorkshire miners out with them. So a number of pits were already on strike when, on 1 March, George Hayes, the South Yorkshire Coal Board director announced to union officials attending the routine quarterly review of the area's pits that the 111 year-old Cortonwood Colliery had only 5 weeks of "future prospects". It was to be closed on 6 April, on the grounds that it was "uneconomic". Previously union officials had been told that Cortonwood had at least 5 years of production left and it had recently received £1m investment! Over 400 Cortonwood miners met at Brampton Parish Hall and decided to walk out in protest. This they did on the 5 March. By this time 14 out of 15 South Yorks pits were already on strike and elsewhere in Yorkshire, strikes were either starting or continuing. The area Council, meeting on 5 March, was faced with a fait accompli and voted to instruct all branches in the area to strike from the last shift on 9 March.
In the meantime, on 6 March, the NCB presented the mining unions with a new government closure plan - earmarking 20 more pits and 20,000 jobs for the axe within a year. However it had already been reported that to achieve the government's cost-cutting targets in the industry it was likely that 100,000 job cuts would be needed with the closure of more than half of Britain's pits within ten years. It was therefore an open secret that this latest plan was only the tip of the iceberg. On the 8 March, the NUM executive voted to endorse the strikes already underway in Yorkshire and Scotland. However, it stopped short of indicating any intention to build up for a national strike, declaring instead that it would extend its approval to any other areas voting to join the strike.
This decision was explained by NUM vice president, Mick McGahey as follows: "we are not dealing with niceties here. We shall not be constitutionalised out of defence of our jobs. Area by area will decide, and in my opinion it will have a domino effect". This militant language did not explain everything, however. After all, if McGahey was so hopeful of the "domino effect" resulting from each area making its own separate decision, surely he was also able to reason that this "domino effect" could only be boosted by the national leadership calling unequivocally for an all-out strike. The fact that no such call was made was no coincidence. Faced with the spontaneous explosion of militancy in Yorkshire, the NUM leaders chose to go along with it, in order to remain in control. But for them to initiate an all-out strike was quite another matter and they stopped short of doing it.
However, the expected "domino effect" failed to materialise - at least as a result of the area ballots. In Nottinghamshire, despite the local leadership's verbal support for the strike, there was a 3 to 1 vote against. But Notts miners were not alone in their reluctance to go on strike. Not one of the 8 coalfields which held area ballots in March 1984 registered a majority for strike although the vote was very close in Derbyshire and Northumberland. In South Wales, where local pit head ballots were held, rather than an area ballot, only 10 of the area's 28 lodges voted to strike.
There is probably not one single explanation for the failure of these area ballots. In some cases part of the local NUM machinery was against the strike. In others, like in Notts, the miners felt less concerned by the pit closures and enjoyed relatively more favourable conditions than elsewhere. But no attempt was made by the NUM to give these miners a stake in joining a national strike by proposing additional demands which would have provided answers to the problems they faced - for instance against the productivity drive which was taking place in Notts. In other areas, particularly South Wales, the memory of the NUM leadership's betrayals of 1981 and 83 was still vivid. And the non-committal attitude of the NUM leadership with regard to the strike did not help to build confidence among the miners that this time, the strike had real chances to win. Was it surprising that miners were suspicious of the NUM national leadership, or even their own area leaders, after four years of closures going on around their ears without any clear strategy to fight against them and a complete shambles if not sabotage, whenever a local fight was mounted?
The strike spreads
As it happened, in Yorkshire and Scotland, there was an almost immediate solid response. Just one or two flying pickets or even solitary officials had no problem persuading their mates to join them on strike. The Kent miners who had been reduced to two working pits and 3,000 miners, also had no hesitation in walking out and organising their own flying pickets - which were actually stopped by a police blockade at the Dartford tunnel as early as the 18th March, when on their way up to Yorkshire.
But outside of these areas, it could not be taken for granted that all pits would respond wholeheartedly to pickets arriving to persuade them to stop work. This was particularly true of the Midlands, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. Besides, as early as the first week of the strike, the police were already organising their own government-sponsored anti-strike flying squads against the miners - as the Dartford blockade showed. They were also already appearing in large numbers in the Notts and Derbyshire areas to give "protection", as they called it, for the working mines.
In Wales, miners from the 10 pits which had voted to strike proceeded to tour the area, picketing mines which voted against. The NUM lodge Secretary at Penallta colliery explained what happened there: "more pits voted against strike action according to the area rule than voted for. Now, Penallta, we didn't have our general meeting till the Sunday. And a lot of men in the meeting were saying a majority of the pits had voted against strike action. I said well, I'm not concerned about the majority of pits, I'm concerned about Penallta and I got the vote for strike action. Now... the Monday night I got a letter off the area Executive calling on all members to support those who were on strike. So we couldn't go back to work... although 18 pits had voted for going back to work and we picketed then and the majority of our pits came out and we stayed solid.. There's a bigger rule - trade union solidarity."
Events developed along the same lines in Lancashire, despite similar ballot results. This change of mind among miners, that NUM officials such as the Penallta lodge secretary quoted before attributed to "trade-union solidarity", probably had more to do with the realisation that this time, the mobilisation was there to build a favourable balance of forces and that the strike had a real chance of getting somewhere.
By 25 March, around 145,000 miners were on strike, or 80% of the workforce, while most remaining working pits were concentrated in Notts and the Midlands. The strikers' flying pickets had achieved what the NUM leaders had been unable and unwilling to do. By showing that they really meant business they had succeeded in convincing the vast majority of miners that they had a stake in joining the strike. This time, the miners' strike was on. Within a few weeks, on 11 April, the pit deputies, who were organised in a separate union - NACODS - were to vote to support the strike by confining their activity to providing basic safety cover to prevent the pits flooding up.
It was only once the miners' strike had become an unquestionable fact on a national scale that, on 19 April, more than a month after it had begun, Scargill and the NUM national leadership made the choice to fully endorse it by calling a special conference to ratify the fait accompli. This time, to their credit, they were to stick with it to the bitter end, although with a policy which, as we shall see, deprived the strikers of the slightest chance of making any gains.
At this point it is worth saying something about the debate which developed at the time (and carried on long after) over whether Scargill should have called a national ballot or not and whether this would have better unified the ranks of the miners or at least prevented the Nottinghamshire split. Scargill answered to this at the April special conference by saying that there was nothing to be gained through a national ballot and that most miners had already voted with their feet. On this account he was certainly right. It was not for nothing if those who were arguing most vocally in favour of a national ballot were, in most cases, opposed to the strike. Posing the problem in terms of abstract democracy, as they did, was denying the decisive importance of the balance of forces when deciding whether to take strike action. No-one in his sane mind would have gone on strike against the backdrop of on-going pit closures and high unemployment, not to mention the material hardship involved, without a balance of forces which gave the strike a chance to win. But there was no way for the miners to gauge the balance of forces as long as they remained isolated in their pits. Only the dynamism and determination shown by the flying pickets could allow them to make such a judgment. From the point of view of the strikers, the way the strike had spread had been far more democratic than any form of balloting could have allowed.
A rich collective experience
The first thing that must be said about the strike is that, regardless of its outcome and the policy of its leadership, the striking miners made the best of it, at least within the limits imposed by the NUM leadership's policy. Over 110,000 miners remained on strike until the very end. Although it is difficult to have a precise idea of the extent of the involvement in flying pickets, the fact that over 11,000 arrests were made among them during the whole strike would indicate that their numbers were in tens of thousands. This alone is a kind of militant experience that no-one can forget.
But there was more to the strike than picketing. As a South Yorks local official recalls: "When the strike went into its third month no one batted an eyelid. It was the best summer we've had for years. Apart from a fortnight's holiday, the lads are used to being down a pit, to being pasty, to having muck in their eyes. For once in their lives they looked healthy. Standing on picket lines, shirtless, their peeling noses, burnt shoulders and red faces soon gave way to sun tans..."
He goes on to write "Not only did the strike bring out the best in the men, it revealed unknown strengths , resourcefulness and courage in the women, some of whom were on strike as members of the NUM. Without their grit and determination the strike could not have lasted as long as it did. Women who had never spoken in public before became powerful and passionate orators. Some took the fight down on the picket lines. Some developed fund-raising to the level of an art. All took to the struggle with conviction and in so doing changed their role within the village and the family - permanently. Soup kitchens were the obvious starting point and these provided meals for those who had nothing, provided children with parties, and as well as food they provided a focal point where people could congregate... the Hollies working men's club allowed us to use an upstairs room as our soup kitchen. There was very little space and it operated in a hot sticky corner with a three-burner cooker. Lasses gave their own time and were supervised by Kath from the pit canteen and between them they provided hundreds of meals for the lads who, on returning from picketing hungry-mouthed, really looked forward to it."
This long quote really sums up the rich collective experience that the strikers went through all around the coalfields from April onwards. Although it also underlines some of the limitations of the social consciousness of the strikers. As the quoted official says, the strike may have brought out the "best" in the men, but it seems, not to the point where they were able to recognise their own latent potential as cooks and supervisors of soup kitchens. Significantly, although the NUM had women members, there was not one woman in a leadership position in the union and women were certainly never entrusted with organising the NUM pickets.
That said, the miners and their families found the resourcefulness within their communities to more or less manage day-to-day, even if there was plenty of hardship and even if during the winter there were instances of people reduced to collecting coal on the treacherous slag heaps being accidentally killed or injured. In addition to being without their wages, they had to face other pressures which were applied by the government - tax refunds were withheld and supplementary benefit payments which were normally paid to families on strike were cut. And given the duration of the strike, only a small part of this burden was alleviated by the donations of money and food parcels from union branches and from the support groups which were set up across the country, mostly by left activists and students. But despite all this, the strikers did manage to stick to their guns. And this was undoubtedly their collective victory.
From one dead end to another
Notts - the cost of sectionalism
Right from the beginning, the strike was faced with a number of problems. One of them was, of course, the question of Nottinghamshire, which remained unresolved, since around 80% of the Notts miners continued to work.
In the first week, the strategy of having a large picket presence outside the Notts pits seemed to work and several Notts pits had to be closed by management due to successful picketing. But on the 15th March, a 23-year old Yorkshire picket, David Jones, was killed outside Ollerton Colliery possibly by a brick thrown against the pickets by anti-strike workers. After this demoralising experience, the picketing was wound down for a period of time. But before long, Notts was again a focus for more mass picketing, except that now there was increasing bitterness between the pickets and the Notts working miners - a situation which could only become more and more demoralising for the strikers and entrench the working miners' opposition to the strike.
And yet, the working Notts miners had little in common with the "scab" image that was forced on them both by the government's media campaign, which did its utmost to drive a wedge between them and the strikers, but also by the NUM leaders' policy. It should be noted, for instance, that all along during the strike the Notts working miners respected the overtime ban despite pressure from the bosses to break it - for instance a pay increase of 5.2% offered late in the strike, in August, when coal stocks were beginning to dwindle, if they agreed to work overtime. Besides, when Tory and other right-wing notables came to the area to pat them on the back, the working miners invariably gave them a very cool reception. If they had not joined the strike it was not because they had anything against the strikers, but because they could not see anything to gain from it, possibly also because of a deeper mistrust of the union leadership.
In retrospect, it is argued by some of the Yorkshire miners that they should not have rushed into Nottinghamshire during the first week of the strike, but should have allowed the Notts miners to have a chance to consider their options for themselves. The current Doncaster NUM official, Dave Douglass, goes so far as to call this spontaneous rush over the Nottinghamshire border "a premature act of indiscipline". He reckons that it was the massive police offensive parallelled by a political campaign for the Notts miners' "right to work" launched by the government, which prevented them from getting these pits out. Maybe so. But he does not question whether it was right, subsequently, to turn the Notts working pits into a major target for the strikers, thereby allowing the government to impose its divisive agenda.
Because this is where the real issue lies, as well as the limitations of the NUM leaders' militant stance. As far as they were concerned, and they kept hammering this idea all along the strike, the only weapon of the strikers was to "stop coal" across the country. Apart from the fact that this was a totally impractical objective, as events showed, the consequence of this narrow sectional choice was inevitably to drive a bitter wedge between strikers and non-strikers, thereby playing right into the hands of the government which had built its strategy precisely on developing such a split, in order to undermine the confidence of the strikers.
Orgreave - another dead end
The same sectional logic which led to the strikers' demoralising experience in Notts, when they failed to stop all coal production, led to another demoralising experience when they failed to stop all coal movements.
Huge efforts were put into trying to prevent coal getting to power plants, steel plants, from leaving coking plants and in blockading ports where coal was being shipped in. Of course, the strikers appealed to dockers, train drivers, lorry drivers, steelworkers, etc.. to support them. And in many cases, particularly on the docks, but also in some railway depots, such as Coalville depot in Leicestershire, they got solid support. By the end of June, in fact, the government even decided to switch the movement of coal from rail to road, to bypass action by railway men in support of the miners. But neither the efforts of the pickets nor the demonstration of solidarity they got from other workers, who had to face the risk of being disciplined or sacked as individuals, since they were not on strike, could have succeeded in stopping all movements of coal given the resources of the state which were lined up against the strikers.
The so-called "battle for Orgreave", which marked the peak of the strikers' attempts at stopping the movements of coal, provides a graphic illustration of the problem.
Orgreave was a coking plant supplying fuel to the Scunthorpe steelworks. It was selected by the NUM leadership for special attention by mass pickets, both for its convenience - it was five miles from Arthur Scargill's office - and because every day, lorries were successfully getting through and carrying their loads of coke up the M18. This "battle" begun at the end of May and lasted until 18 June, when a pitched battle, in which the police had the upper hand, ended in 93 arrests and hundreds of injuries. Scargill made several appearances amongst the pickets, duly got himself arrested and on the 18 June was injured himself when a cop used his riot shield to clobber the miners' leader on the head. Many of the strikers, who were sent to Orgreave by their officials under the illusion that this was to be another "Saltley Gates" - the mass picket which marked the decisive turning point in the 1972 miners' strike - did not get off so lightly. Some of the pickets at Orgreave ended up with permanent brain damage and broken limbs, not to mention long periods in jail. The police turned out in their thousands - complete with mounted cavalry and full riot gear. Whether the pickets were pushing forward or not, the cops waded in with their truncheons and their boots and beat the hell out of anyone who got in their way and then if possible carted them off to the waiting purpose-made giant black maria coaches, to transport them to police cells where they were usually left without medical attention.
Why did Scargill focus picketing on Orgreave? This could not be a repetition of Saltley Gates, where large contingents of Birmingham engineering workers had successfully joined ranks with the miners to push back the police and close the gates. At the time, the engineering workers had not come from nowhere: they had been mobilised by their union, largely as a result of a deliberate policy on the part of Communist Party and other left activists. There was no question of this at Orgreave. Sheffield was close by, but no preparation had been made in advance to organise Sheffield workers to come to Orgreave, neither by the NUM nor by any other organisation. Besides, since 1972, the police had learnt its lesson and it was probably ready to face a mobilisation on that sort of scale.
There was therefore not much point in the strategy used at Orgreave. Certainly it could do nothing to stop the movement of coke elsewhere within the country nor prevent it from coming in from outside - coke was already being brought in from Poland. And in any case, from the point of view of the miners' morale, Orgreave could only turn into yet another demoralising experience, in which the miners once again were to find themselves isolated in front of the police.
So, one can only guess that Scargill wanted to make a show of strength three months into the strike, to demonstrate that the strike was still militant, but above all to show that he was in control of it and that he retained the power and influence to mobilise thousands of miners from all around the country - even at the cost of getting them jailed and fuelling demoralisation in their ranks.
After the battle for Orgreave itself was lost, the NUM leadership carried on pursuing the same strategy of "stopping coal", but it became more and more token in practice, with power stations, coal yards and harbours being "picketed" symbolically by strikers who stayed there for the sake of appearance more than anything else - again, a form action which could hardly boost morale, but was justified by the illusory pretence that the strike could only be won by stopping coal.
The full measure of state power
The government, of course, did everything it could to counter the strike. The entire machinery of the capitalists' state was mobilised against the miners - and not only the courts and the police, but even the welfare system!
Of course, Thatcher insisted on maintaining the fiction that the running of the strike was entirely in the hands of the Coal Board. After all, wasn't Thatcher an advocate of a reduced role of government in the country's affairs? But although Ian McGregor, a specialist in job-slashing who had already presided over the trimming down of British Leyland and British Steel, was formally in charge of negotiations with the NUM, he was constantly prompted behind the scenes by Peter Walker, Thatcher's Energy minister, his advisors, and Thatcher herself.
As to the policing of the strike, the Thatcher government broke new ground in its central co-ordination of policing. Of course, officially, there is no such thing as centralised control of the British police. On paper the police is accountable to Local Police Authorities, which are supposed to be democratic institutions. But during the strike, this pseudo-democratic smokescreen was torn apart and the police acted in its real capacity - a gang of armed men at the service of the capitalist class.
For this purpose, Thatcher used the Association of Police Superintendents to set up the National Reporting Centre at Scotland Yard which co-ordinated the movement of police during the strike. And guess what? It would be hard to find a Local Police Authority which had been consulted about this! Already in early March, the NRC, at the request of the Notts Police drafted 8,000 police from half of the country's police forces into the policing of the strike. Later in the strike the government was forced to admit that plain clothes police were also operating as informers and provocateurs among the pickets. And of course it is now well known that London's Metropolitan police, became the backbone of the strike breaking force, replacing local cops up north, who might be too sympathetic to the miners' cause.
Leon Brittan, then Home Secretary, ruled that the Criminal Law rather than Civil Law should be used against arrested miners. All the powers available under new and old laws were used as well as the usual brute force, to arrest, hold without trial, intimidate and beat the hell out of strikers and their supporters throughout the strike. But these powers were also used to besiege whole villages, set up rings of steel around power stations, and use extensive road blocks to curtail the movement of flying pickets.
In fact already in early March, the government got the courts to rule that flying pickets should be withdrawn and Yorkshire NUM was found to be in contempt of court - but the court ruling was actually never used to prosecute anyone, even if it was used as justification to try and stop the movement of pickets. Ironically, Thatcher did not even implement the law passed in 1980 which entitled the police to limit pickets to six. All this goes to show that the threat of these laws, which has been so often used since then by union leaders to discourage militant action, is first and foremost a matter of balance of forces!
By August, however, the South Wales NUM faced contempt of court charges, for refusing to pay a fine for "illegal picketing" - and £770,000 of their funds was seized. The government even tried to declare the NUM's annual conference illegal! There was also an ongoing lawsuit against the NUM over whether its decision not to hold a national ballot was legal or not, culminating in Scargill being served with a High Court writ while sitting in the Labour Conference in October. This suit had been joined by a couple of individual Notts miners who, encouraged by the right-wing press and various Tory politicians, set up the Working Miners' Association - later to spawn the breakaway Union of Democratic Miners. Their aim was to have the strike declared unlawful.
On 4 October, the High Court gave the NUM five days to obey an injunction to call the strike off, and when it failed to do so, it was found in contempt of court and fined £200,000, which it did not pay. By 26 October, the High Court was demanding total sequestration of NUM funds. And thus began an incredible fiasco in pursuit of the NUM's assets, some of which had been hidden here and abroad in anticipation of this - a whole saga in itself which we will not go into here.
The extensive use of the courts against the NUM had little direct impact on the strikers themselves. But this was not its purpose either. It was part of a power game in which the state was putting pressure on the NUM machinery to capitulate sooner rather than later.
However, despite the pretences of the government, these were clearly not methods designed to deal with an ordinary trade union dispute. This was the full repressive power of the state machinery used against a section of the working class. And this, in and of itself, exposed once again the inadequacy of the NUM leaders' policy which insisted on limiting the scope of the strike to sectional methods and objectives, as if state repression on this scale could be resisted effectively when limiting the strikers to using their own devices.
Trapped outside their pits
In September, NACODS, the pit safety union, balloted to strike (by 82.5%) against an order by the Coal Board to cross picket lines in order to carry out their safety functions. Potentially this could now have brought the working mines to a halt, achieving what mass picketing had so far not achieved in the Midlands and Notts coalfields. However, it did not take the NACODS leaders long to change their minds when a "compromise" was offered - brokered by ACAS. On the very day (25 October) when NACODS members were meant to go on all-out strike, ACAS intervened with a formula which included an independent review procedure for closures. As a result, NACODS called off their strike. The NUM had also initially agreed to this deal, but at the last moment decided that the guarantees on planned pit closures were too ambiguous.
In November, the government decided to try to bribe miners back to work on the one hand - with a £650 bonus for Xmas, which they soon doubled - and refused to negotiate with the NUM on the other, unless it agreed to the closure of some pits. Although the strike remained more or less solid right through the winter, the stage-managed escorting of the very few strike-breaking miners back to work through picket lines was given huge media coverage in an attempt to demoralise the strikers. But the fact was that this small trickle back to work never became a torrent or even a stream.
By 7 January, the union claimed that only 1,200 strikers had gone back to work out of nearly 150,000 - although after the strike it became known that up to 5,000 miners had responded to the £1,400 Xmas bonus offer and returned. This was still a relatively small number, but even so, the main objective now assigned by the NUM to the strikers became the picketing of their own pits. And what did this mean? At such a juncture, it was utterly demoralising to be at the pit gate, and could only drive a wedge between those miners who were now less and less sure about the strike and those who had the determination to stand their ground. Indeed, the majority of striking miners were now stuck taking care of their own picket lines, exchanging abuse with a handful of strike-breakers who could not do any work, and exchanging blows with the police. Worst of all, they felt, and were, more isolated than ever.
A Derbyshire striker expressed how some of them felt about it when he complained after the strike that the NUM had made "scabs out of good union men - because the strike went on too long. You can't call a man a scab who's been out of work ten months".
By February 1985, the Court orders to take over NUM funds, to ban picketing and to back the sacking of striking miners all began to pile up. But worse, on the ground the strikers were reaching the limits of their stamina. A Yorkshire branch delegate said "I think Arthur Scargill was developing a bunker mentality towards the end of the strike. He was playing for a hard-line position where he could later claim that he didn't urge the men back to work - this was less than honest... In 1985, you were talking about total demoralisation - the men had given everything for a year, and now they were saying 'for god's sake, lead us out of this mess'".
As some areas were talking about organising a return to work, and the strike was evidently crumbling, on 3 March, the union called off the strike. Then a special delegate conference voted by 98 votes to 91 to return to work without an agreement with the Coal Board, exactly one year after the strike began at Cortonwood, on 5 March 1985. Only the Kent miners stayed out on strike in a vain attempt to get sacked miners an amnesty, but returned to work on the 8 March.
The strike was over. The way was now open for the government to close virtually as many pits as it wished. Thatcher had made the demonstration she wanted to make in front of the entire working class - that there was no point in resisting the turn of screw that the capitalist class was demanding.
"Solidarity" and the miners
The isolation of the miners' strike was the primary cause of its defeat. But it was not for lack of solidarity on the part of large number of workers across the economy.
There are many examples of this solidarity. The case of the Coalville rail depot, in Leicestershire, was already mentioned. From 3 April 1984 to the end of the strike railway workers from this depot successfully prevented trains getting out of the Leicestershire pits except on occasions when management used strike-breakers to drive trains and operate signal boxes. This, according to the secretary of the Coalville NUR branch, held back about half of Leicestershire's coal production for 35 weeks including supplies bound for Drakelow Power Station. But when, by September 1984, British Rail management attempted to victimise the Coalville workers and they appealed to their union, the NUR, they were told that they should not escalate their action to fight management's intimidation. In fact train drivers and signal workers in many other areas took action to black coal movements. The way ASLEF, the train drivers union showed its "support" was to pay drivers' wages whenever they were sent home off pay for refusing to move coal.
A better known instance of spontaneous solidarity came from printworkers at the Sun newspaper, who refused to print a picture of Scargill with his hand raised which editor Kelvin McKenzie had captioned "Mine Fuhrer". They also went on strike for three days when McKenzie refused to print a half-page message of support for the miners to coincide with the South East Region TUC day of action in support of the miners on 27th June.
Even in the steel industry, despite the overt hostility of the steel union (ISTC) leadership towards the miners, at plant level workers proved often willing to help out the miners in whatever way they suggested. For instance, in South Wales, miners allowed coal to be delivered to Llanwern in return for which the steelworkers limited production to 75% of output. As a result, the Llanwern steel workers actually lost their bonus (which at the time comprised up to 40% of their earnings), but still raised £4,000 at plant gate collections for the striking miners.
But what had the NUM to say to these workers who felt in solidarity with the miners? Nothing, except that they should help to black coal, including at the cost of risking their wages or jobs, and do charity work on behalf of the miners, by organising collections and fund-raising events. But at no point did the NUM turn to these workers to offer them a fighting objective for themselves, behind which they could have rallied in a joint fight with the miners.
Nor did the NUM act differently when other sections of workers took action in support of their own demands while the miners were on strike. And there were quite a few disputes during that period - disputes that Thatcher was keen to settle as quickly as possible in order to avoid the opening up of a "second front".
Thus, for instance, in the case of the railways, a planned programme of cuts and efficiencies to be introduced at the time of the pay negotiations in June 1984 was put on the back burner. In fact it was later exposed by the Daily Mirror, that British Rail Chairman, Bob Reid, had received instructions to this effect from Downing Street. All the rail unions had done was to threaten an overtime ban, when Reid rushed forward with a nearly-no-strings-attached improved pay offer. Other groups of workers like the postal workers and water workers were given similar pay deals that year and even if these were only 1-1.5% above the norm, the union leaders gratefully accepted - which was predictable. At the same time, in Liverpool, manual local council workers were staging strikes and demonstrations against the threats of job cuts resulting from the rate-capping policy of the government, which resulted in a quick retreat on the part of the government.
But at no time did the NUM use the opportunity to address itself directly to these sections of workers by pointing out to them that if the employers were so keen to settle, it was because they felt in a weak position due to the miners strike and that, if anything, this showed that the time would be right for these workers to push their advantage. And after all, weren't all these sections of workers threatened with the same austerity measures and massive job cuts as the miners? Wasn't it possible to find a common ground on which to wage a counter-offensive against these threats alongside the miners?
The dock strikes - wasted opportunities
The case of the two dock strikes - which lasted respectively, for 13 days at the beginning of July and for 35 days from the end of August - was even more of an indictment of the NUM's catastrophic policy.
The dockers were, together with steelworkers and rail workers, one of the sections of workers that the NUM had called upon very early on to help in the blacking of coal. The spark for both strikes was the attempt by the dock employers to put existing agreements with the dockers' union, the T&G, under the National Dock Labour Scheme, into question. Under the pretext that T&G members were blacking coal and iron ore shipments, the bosses tried to replace them with non T&G members under conditions outside of these agreements. However, any fight against these attempts were bound to come up against the existing division between the dockers who enjoyed the relative safety of the Scheme and those, mostly in smaller or newer harbours, who did not. Of course, the dock bosses could be expected to play on this division in order to get rid of the Scheme altogether and reduce manning, pay and conditions everywhere to the lowest possible level.
Despite its so-called "left-wing" credentials, the T&G leadership did not want a fight. All it wanted was to retain the status quo. In particular, there was never any attempt on its part to propose to all dock workers to embark on a fight aimed at consolidating the Dock Labour Scheme where it existed and extending it to the harbours where it did not. Had the NUM leadership been more determined to strengthen the side of the miners - by seeking allies in the rest of the working class - than to cling to its narrow sectional perspective, Scargill and the NUM would have had the political weight to call on the dockers to join the miners in a common fight against the threats on jobs and conditions. And after all, wasn't offering such a policy, backed by the militancy of the miners' flying pickets, the minimum that the NUM could do for dockers who had been blacking coal and iron ore actively on behalf of the miners for months?
Moreover, when the dockers found themselves in difficulty during their strikes, the NUM did nothing to help them. For instance when the police at Dover Docks unleashed over a thousand irate truck drivers who had been stranded sometimes for days, by the strike, where were the miners' pickets? Nowhere to be seen! And yet they could have helped during the course of the dock strike to convince lorry drivers that they too had a stake in fighting the capitalists' turn of the screw and if necessary, protect the dockers physically against the most hostile drivers.
But the NUM did none of these things. It had a lot to ask from the dockers but it was not prepared to offer them anything, neither in terms of political guidance nor even in practical terms. Instead the NUM had a deliberate policy of keeping the miners' pickets out of the docks as long as the docks were on strike. No wonder the miners found themselves isolated despite the considerable sympathy they enjoyed in the working class!
Of course, Scargill had often issued vibrant calls to the working class to support the miners. But in terms of active support - which can only be based on joint action for a common objective - Scargill was always very cautious to avoid infringing on the territory of other union leaders. All the approaches that were made concerned only the top level of the union machineries but never the rank-and-file.
Even then, leaving aside the unions directly related to coal, the NUM made no formal request for assistance to other unions or to the TUC during the first six months of the strike, until the TUC conference, in September 1984. All they got, however, was a resolution inviting all affiliated unions to consult with the NUM about how they could help in the blacking of coal. But with it came a vocal condemnation of "all violence" on the picket line by the TUC general secretary. This, however, did not prevent Scargill from slavishly hailing this conference, in a Sunday Times article, as a "historical turn" of the labour movement "toward a united and determined fight back." As if the outcome of the TUC conference was something to brag about! But what else could be expected from the TUC leaders? That they would decide suddenly to take on Thatcher, by fully endorsing the miners strike, when they were desperately seeking her government's favours? Not a chance. Scargill knew this as much as anyone else. And this only makes his later statements blaming the defeat of the miners on the lack of support of the TUC all the more hypocritical!
The need for a class policy
Of course, Scargill and the NUM leadership were reformists. And there is no point in blaming them for this. But this means that, for all their radical language, they never wanted to sink the boat of capitalism. While they proved militant enough to fight alongside the miners against Thatcher's job cutting plans, they could not represent a policy which had any chance of bringing the capitalist class to the point where it felt sufficiently threatened to put its turn of the screw against the working class on the backburner - and this, despite the fact that the pit closures themselves were part and parcel of this turn of the screw.
This is precisely why the policy of the NUM turned into a dead end for the miners. The pit closures could only be fought as part of a general challenge against the austerity policy that the capitalists were aiming to impose on the working class. First, because the capitalist class itself saw it that way - and as the determination and resources put into fighting the strike by Thatcher showed - it considered the defeat of the miners as a prerequisite for the success of its plans. And second, because stopping the pit closures was not necessarily the best objective for the miners themselves. Why hang on desperately to working in derelict pits and being subjected to the health hazards attached to mining, if other, more healthy jobs could be made available to the former miners? The real problem, which was posed at the scale of society, was the problem of jobs for all.
Was it the case that society had too many hands to carry out tasks which could have been vitally useful to everyone? Certainly not. Thatcher's plans involved the dismantling of social housing, the slashing of the workforce in the NHS, drastic cuts in transport in public utilities and public services in general. But if the objective of a fight back was to stop this savaging of public expenditure and, in particular social expenditure, across society, then it became possible to fight, not just to stop these jobs from being cut, but in fact for many more of them to be created.
Objectively, the miners were challenging the plans of the entire capitalist class with their strike. They could just as well had taken this statement of fact to its logical conclusion and seen their fight as part of a general fight of the working class as a whole against the plans of the capitalists and their state. Instead of a sectional dispute it would have been a political strike, openly directed against the policy of the state. But as such, it would have been a far more adequate response to Thatcher's mobilisation of the state against the miners.
Then the main priority would have been to find allies, any allies, among the working class. The miners had the numbers, the prestige and the determination to become a rallying point for organising all those who saw the need for such a fight back. To do this they would have had to be prepared to by-pass TUC leaders, if necessary, in order to address themselves directly to the largest possible numbers of workers, not by calling for their support but by offering them something worth fighting for. Whether they would have succeeded in overcoming the deep sectional divisions, which are fuelled by the trade-union machineries to protect their respective patches, remains an open question, since it has not been tried. But armed with a fighting programme, there was no objective reason why the miners should not have been able to win over to such a collective fight at least some sections of workers who were directly and immediately threatened by Thatcher's policies in the same way as they were - whether dockers, local government workers, steel and railway workers, etc...
By the same token, the issue of the working miners in Notts, the small minorities of strike breakers in other parts of the country and the fact that coal was being produced and transported - all these issues would have been relegated to the second place where they belonged. Because the miners' real weapon would have become their capacity to create a snow-ball effect, by "contaminating" a constantly growing number of workers in as many different sections of the working class as possible, so as to reach the point where the capitalist class felt that the threat to its profits was sufficiently serious to get rid of Thatcher and her plans and make concessions, before a real social explosion did far more damage.
Such a class policy directed at the whole of the working class, such a determination to force union machineries into action and to control them or do without them, could not be expected from the NUM leadership. But without it the miners could not have won. And the odds are that, in the future battles, given today's on-going offensive by the capitalist class, the working class will only be able to start regaining some of the ground lost if it arms itself with such a class policy. But if it does remember these lessons of the miners strike, there is every reason to think that it will start reversing the balance of social forces to its advantage.