Britain - The 1984-85 miners' strike and today's need for a fightback

Spring 2014

The following short article is the text of the editorial of the Workers' Fight workplace bulletins, which were published during the week starting on March 10th, 2014. It marks the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the miners' strike, in March 1984. We believe that the issues raised by this strike, its lessons and the experience it represents, are particularly relevant today, because of the importance that this strike still has in the collective memory of the working class and because of the similarities between the situation that the miners were facing at the time and the situation that the working class is facing in the present crisis.

It is 30 years since one of the longest and most significant strikes in post-war British working class history broke out in the coal mines. It was to last a full year and, even if the strikers did not achieve their goals, they had every reason to be proud of having stood up to the government's attacks.

Today, this strike remains an important event, contributing a wealth of experience, both positive and negative, on what it is possible for workers to achieve when fighting the bosses and what traps they should avoid. And it is all the more important to remember today, since the present on-going offensive of the bosses is, in many ways, similar to what it was at the time.

Facing up to the bosses' attacks

By 1984, five years after Thatcher had come into office, unemployment had doubled. The bosses were cutting jobs without investing and the government was doing the same in the public sector.

The miners had been specially targeted, but the miners' union, the NUM, was not at this point willing to organise a fight back. However, yet another plan to cut 20,000 mining jobs sparked off a strike in March. It wasn't initiated by Arthur Scargill, the NUM leader, but by the Yorkshire and Scottish miners who spread their strikes from pit to pit by flying pickets. It was these strikes which convinced the majority of the miners to join in. By 25th March, 145,000 were on strike - 80% of the workforce.

The miners were a considerable force. But their main weapon was - or should have been, because it was never used - the fact that they were fighting the same kind of attacks that most other workers were facing. Their flying pickets could have addressed many hundreds of thousands of workers who were also facing job cuts right across the economy, to convince them that the time had come to fight back together against the bosses' offensive.

Of course, this would have been illegal. But wasn't the miners' strike already illegal under Thatcher's first batch of anti-strike laws? And what gain has the working class ever made by respecting laws designed to protect capitalist interests?

Instead of helping the miners to use what should have been their most powerful weapon, the NUM leadership instructed them to stop all movement of coal. But what could easily have been achieved by convincing railway workers to join ranks with the miners in a strike for their own demands, could not possibly have been achieved by the miners alone.

If the miners eventually returned to work empty-handed, it wasn't for lack of determination. It was due to the jealous sectional outlook of the other union leaders who chose to leave the miners to fight on their own, because they were more concerned about controlling their own "troops" than about the interests of the working class as a whole.

As to Scargill, his policy led the miners into a dead end, because, rather than by-passing the sectionalism of the other union leaders, he left the miners to fight with their hands tied in their backs, by opposing any attempt to seek the active support of other sections of workers on the ground.

Taking control of our future

Since the miners' strike, many things have changed. But two things haven't: on the one hand, the viciousness of the attacks of the bosses and their politicians against the working class and, on the other, the spinelessness of the trade union leaders.

How many times have we seen these union leaders cowardly caving in to the bosses lately - whether it was Unite in last year's dispute at the Grangemouth refinery, or the postal workers union (CWU) over the privatisation of Royal Mail, or, more recently, the railway union (RMT) over the massive job cuts announced in the London Underground?

Rather than even trying to mobilise workers for an effective fight back, these union leaders have reduced the use of the strike weapon to the status of a bargaining tool in negotiations which they keep carefully out of the control of their members, who are themselves reduced to the role of footsoldiers.

But isn't the purpose of taking strike action to threaten the profits of the employer? And how can this happen unless it is used until all demands are met, instead of the few-hour stoppages which are the only form of strike action that union leaders dare to envisage these days - when they do anything at all.

Today, the real question for the working class is: how far will we allow the bosses and their government to get away with their attacks? At some point or another, they will have to be stopped and we will have to aim at regaining the ground lost. When this happens - and the sooner it does, the better - we'll have to use the experience of the striking miners by spreading our fight back and organising it ourselves, across all sections of workers, without allowing these union leaders to tie our hands.

10 March 2014