The 1984-85 Miners’ Strike

5 March 2024 is the fortieth anniversary of the start of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. Gary Ironmonger looks back at the tumultuous events. Gary was a 22-year-old miner at Cortonwood pit in South Yorkshire when the Miners’ Strike began. He was out on strike until the very end. 


Background to the strike

To fully understand the significance of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike you have to go back a further ten years to the 1974 Miners’ Strike against government wage restraint. That led to the Tory Government of Prime Minister Ted Heath calling a General Election with the slogan “who runs the country?”. The answer was “not you! It’s the miners”. This led to a victory for the miners that included a pay rise and the new Labour Government introducing the Plan for Coal which was designed to provide energy security for the country and gave increased job security for the miners.

The miners were then seen as the shock troops of the working class. Another result of the strike action was that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) became more left-wing culminating in the election of Arthur Scargill as NUM president in 1982 and Peter Heathfield as General Secretary by the time of the of the strike in 1984. Miners also developed a reputation for showing solidarity with other workers. In 1977 there was a significant number of miners supporting the mass pickets at Grunwicks, a long running dispute of mainly Asian workers at a photography processing factory in Willesden, Northwest London. In 1978 miners at some pits took strike action in support of the nurses who were in dispute over wages.

Many in the Tory Party were shocked by their defeat at the hands of the Miners and were determined to take steps to ensure that they would not suffer a defeat like that again.

In 1977 the right-wing MP Nicholas Ridley drew up a set of proposals, the Ridley Plan, for how a future Tory government could fight and defeat a strike in the nationalised industries. The key points of this plan were:

  • The government should, if possible, choose the field of battle.
  • It provided an analysis of the likelihood of the government winning a strike with any of the nationalised industries. The power workers were considered the strongest group and the miners were in the middle group
  • Coal stocks should be built up at power stations.
  • Plans for importing coal should be made.
  • Non-union lorry drivers to be recruited by haulage firms
  • Dual coal-oil fired power stations to be installed.
  • Cut off finances to strikers as far as possible.
  • Reorganise the police so they would be able to play a more mobile and combative role on picket lines.

Clearly, coal was a key factor in this list of requirements for the Tory plans to defeat future strikes.

In 1979 a Tory Government was elected with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. From the start the government was anti-trade Union and had strong ideological beliefs in deregulation and a free market economy. A series of anti-union laws were brought in, starting with the 1980 Employment Act, which introduced the statutory requirement to have secret ballots rather than votes at union meetings in order to take industrial action. In 1982 further legislation was introduced to make secondary action illegal, undermining the principles of solidarity which was at the heart of the trade union movement. Unfortunately, the trade union movement didn’t organise any significant resistance to these laws.

As a result of the economic policies of the Government there was a recession in 1980-81 which led to high inflation and high unemployment. In 1980 inflation was as high as 18%, eroding the buying power of wages. By 1984 unemployment was at 11% and as high as 16% in mining areas. Even after the recession ended unemployment remained persistently high. The working class was feeling insecure and economically precarious.

The 1980-81 recession also meant that the demand for coal was falling and production was being maintained in part as a result of the bonus scheme that was controversially brought in in 1977, initially in the Nottinghamshire area. So, even with the pit closures that were taking place as a result of exhaustion or poor geological conditions and the effects of the overtime ban introduced in November 1983 in response to the inadequate pay proposal, production was maintained. This allowed the power stations to easily build up large stocks of coal which was one of the recommendations of the Ridley Plan.

In 1980 there was a bitter steel strike that lasted for three months and although the outcome was a 16% pay rise as opposed to the initial offer of 5%, the resolution of the strike led to a sharp drop in employment in the steel industry and the closure of some plants. The appointment of Ian MacGregor as the chairman of British Steel in 1980 led to more plant closures and job losses and by 1983 the number of workers at British Steel had fallen from 166,000 to 71,000. In 1983 MacGregor was made chairman of The National Coal Board and everyone knew he was appointed to speed up the closure of the pits. Although the Tory government had backed down in 1981 when a strike was developing against pit closures and coal stocks at power stations were low, by 1984 they were confident that they were in a strong position to take on the miners. The rate of pit closures announced was increased and, significantly, this included pits that were deemed to still have workable reserves.

Cortonwood lights the match

The trigger point for the strike was the announcement of the closure of Cortonwood pit on the 1 March 1984. On the 4 March, Cortonwood voted to go on strike from the 5 March and asked the Yorkshire Area to make the strike area-wide at its meeting on the 8 of March.

I can remember the Cortonwood meeting on 4 March well. There was around 400 men there and the atmosphere was electric. The branch officials told us that the pit was going to close and proposed that we go on immediate strike and ask the Yorkshire Area to expand the strike to the whole of the coalfield. An almost unanimous vote backed this action and there was a real sense that something big was about to start.  After the meeting I went home and told my brother who worked at Houghton Main pit what had happened and that it wouldn’t be long before we were all out on strike.

At the time of the vote there were already several pits out on strike as a result of management actions taken to undermine the overtime ban. Wath, Manvers and Kilnhurst pits were linked underground, with coal being transported underground to Manvers where it was wound to the surface. As each pit had different break times the continuous flow of coal was dependant on the key workers at each pit working through their breaks. The overtime ban stopped this and multiplied the effect of the production loss. When management tried to impose a common break time it resulted in strike action.

The Yorkshire Area Council at its meeting on the 8 March agreed to the expansion of the strike based on the outcome of a 1981 ballot that had delivered a majority for strike action in the event of any pit closures on grounds other than exhaustion or poor geological conditions.

It was clear even before the pit closure announcements that wider strike action was brewing and the question of how this would develop was a critical one for the NUM. Although the government had backed down in 1981 there had been other pit closures proposed that did go through. One of these was Lewis Merthyr in 1983. When the pit closure as announced in February 1983 there was an underground sit in. This was then followed by strike action in South Wales and an area ballot that voted 55.75% for strike action. This then led to a national ballot which failed to get a majority for strike action and Lewis Merthyr was closed in June 1983.

After this setback there was a sense amongst many in the leadership of the NUM, especially at Area level, that the men were not willing to back strike action as they now had nice cars and mortgages. Consequently, they chose to expand the strike on an area-by-area basis in 1984. An area-by-area approach was a tactic that had been successfully used by the NCB to bring in the bonus scheme after it had been rejected by a miners’ national ballot. It was introduced in Notts first, with the help of Notts NUM leaders, and then area-by-area until it covered everywhere.

National Ballot

Should there have been a national ballot? In order to draw lessons from the strike this is an important question to answer, especially now we have the benefit of hindsight. However, the answer to the question is not a simple yes or no because having a ballot before, or to confirm existing, industrial action is a question of tactics rather than principle. Socialists and trade unionists opposed the anti-trade union legislation that imposed the requirement to have a secret ballot before strike action because it was a means of reducing the potency of trade union action. It acted as a break on militancy within the workplace and has led to a reduction in industrial action as a consequence. As far as socialists are concerned workers should have the right to organise industrial action on whatever basis is relevant to the circumstances. This means supporting strikes that have been provoked through a specific incident leading to an immediate walkout as well as larger actions supported by workplace meetings. The important question for a socialist is that workers have the right to strike and workers should be able to call for solidarity action through picketing.

The leadership of the NUM could have called a national ballot, although the NUM leadership would have had to have acted quickly so as not to dissipate the mood of the miners who were already on strike. Given the history of the NUM many miners expected a national ballot because there had always been national ballots before previous national strikes. The view of the NUM leadership at that point was that a national ballot was a very risky strategy and there was a high risk that the ballot could have been lost and that the men on strike would become demoralised. Previous national ballots against pit closures between 1981 and 1983 had delivered votes against strike action. Although polling during the strike indicated that 62% of miners supported the strike the votes at the right-wing areas that had ballots delivered votes against the strike.

Hindsight clearly shows that not having a ballot was problematic for many reasons, both external to and internally for the NUM. Winning a national ballot would not have stopped the attacks on the strike but it would have left the NUM in a stronger position if the ballot was won. It would also have killed the strike if had been lost, so it would have been a high-risk strategy.

The NUM leadership appeared to have already decided that the pit closure programme and the unresolved pay dispute would lead to strike action and that this would be expanded on an area-by-area basis without a national ballot, relying on the principle that “you don’t cross a picket lines”. Once this decision had been made there wasn’t any going back on this and the strike had to be fully supported as it was developing. The question of a national ballot had at this point became redundant and the refrain that you have to have a ballot had to be called out for what it was, which was a means of weakening the strike.

We know the question of a national ballot was raised constantly throughout the strike. As would be expected the Tory government, mass media and National Coal Board management used the lack of a ballot as a means to attack the strike as undemocratic. The scabs in Nottinghamshire (Notts) used this as their justification for scabbing. The super scabs in the National Working Miners Committee (NWMC) with establishment support were able to use this as the grounds for taking court action against the NUM leading to the strike being declared illegal and the sequestration of union funds. The right wing of the Trade Union movement led by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the leadership of the Labour Party all used the lack of a national ballot as an excuse not to fully support the strike.

Although at the beginning of the strike I was expecting a national ballot to be called, I like many others in the same position didn’t see the lack of a national ballot as problematic, other than it gave many people an excuse to attack the strike. Throughout the strike the only times I was asked about the ballot was after the Area-by-Area strategy had been adopted and I made it clear that the time had passed for asking this question and you either supported the strike or you didn’t, and this was an unhelpful question to be asking if you supported the strike.

Spreading the strike

Although I worked at Cortonwood I lived in a village that had two pits, a drift mine called Dearne Valley and a much bigger mine Houghton Main. My brother and most of the miners in the village worked at Houghton Main. Two brothers at Houghton Main were both winders. Bill Coping was a big Arthur Scargill supporter as was his son also called Bill. Young Bill was the driver of the car that I used to travel to picket lines with. However, Bob Coping had opposite views and was an opponent of Arthur Scargill and had decided he was going to work. This meant that the first picket lines I attended were in my local village and after that it made most sense to be a part of the picketing operations run by Houghton Main. It required a big police presence to enable him to get through the picket lines and it is highly likely that this was the reason that he stopped working after only three days. From the State’s point of view was it really worth tying up the police numbers required just to get one man into work when it was clear there was no wider support for scabbing?

Although the Yorkshire Area Council had ratified the strike in Yorkshire, they didn’t initially take the lead in organising the picketing to expand the strike into other areas. However, by 12 March picketing was taking place throughout Nottinghamshire and the area leadership started to play a role in organising this. Our first forays into Nottinghamshire were reasonably effective. While the media concentrated on the larger pickets, especially at Ollerton, most of the picket lines were much smaller with no more than 30 or 40 in attendance and often fewer.

Houghton Main NUM held its union meetings at Low Valley Working Men’s Club. This became the strike headquarters for Houghton Main throughout the strike. Each morning the pickets turned up in the early hours and received instructions of which pit was being picketed and the car driver received an envelope with petrol money plus a pound for each of the pickets. This method, called the envelope system was used to keep the main target pits location secret and also gave the area council more control of the picketing. However, while there may have been a main target pit not all Yorkshire pits were directed to the target pit as the aim was to get picket coverage of as many pits as possible.

The high police presence was already established early in the strike so on many picket lines the pickets were outnumbered by the police. Occasionally, at the being of the strike, a main picket was allowed to speak to men entering the mine but it wasn’t long before this stopped. In the main the pickets were corralled into an area close to the pit entrance and while their presence was generally visible contact with the local miners was limited.

However, even if there was limited contact, the effectiveness of the picketing can be summarised by an early picket line at Hucknall. Around 30 pickets were assembled at the pit and the Hampshire police ensured there was limited contact with the local miners. One of the local miners who was a strike supporter was coming to the picket line on a regular basis to give us updates of what was happening inside the pit yard. Basically, a few men had gone underground but most were staying in the canteen while there was a picket line at the colliery. So, we were informed, if we maintained the picket line, he and the other supporters of the strike could persuade the men in the canteen not to go underground.

This situation lasted for several hours. Then the local police superintendent in charge of the policing at the pit came to the picket line and simply said. If you don’t leave now, you will be arrested. No one moved and the order to make arrests was given. The Hampshire police who had up to that point been friendly with the pickets started to ask the pickets to move on or they would have to arrest us. However, no one moved on and it was clear that the Hampshire police weren’t keen on making arrests so the superintendent rescinded his order. Fifteen minutes later a group of about 20 local police officers marched out of the pit yard and relived the Hampshire police. At this point the order to make arrests was given and several of the pickets were immediately arrested. After their arrests the picket line soon broke up and the local strike supporters were robbed of the ability to persuade the local men not to go underground.

The two anecdotes are useful for getting a fuller understanding of the early strike situation. The police, even at this point, were demonstrating that their role was to break the strike, not to play a neutral role between pickets and scabs. They knew that no criminal offences were being committed by the pickets by any standard of measurement but broke up the picket line purely to enable the strike to be broken. It shows that picket line effectiveness was a question of being there. The police and NCB management also knew that they had to use their resources effectively and that meant that the police couldn’t be out in force everywhere.

The strike spread throughout the coalfields and Scotland and Wales were soon solidly on strike. Picketing was effective in other areas such as Lancashire and North Derbyshire. However, Nottinghamshire, the second largest area, was proving to be problematic and the situation became more difficult after they voted in an area-wide ballot not to support the strike.

The police tactics were also making picketing more difficult in Nottinghamshire. The police roadblocks were proving effective at reducing the number of pickets that could make it to the picket lines. It was impossible to get into Nottinghamshire by the main routes, the two biggest being the M1 and the A1, as there were roadblocks at all of the roundabouts. This meant that routes had to be found on roads that crossed over or under the A1 or M1 at points where there were no roundabouts giving access to the M1 or A1. Finding these roads wasn’t easy and it led to much longer journeys to make it to the picket lines. Even when routes were found you could still be turned back at points closer to the pits.

Getting to a picket line every day of the week was an achievement in itself and required good navigation skills. This led to frustration amongst many pickets and led to a go-slow protest drive down the A1 by some pickets. Inevitably this was met by police violence to the ones in the lead cars.

Occasionally subterfuge was used to get through the roadblocks. In one case a couple of Danish students who supported the strike were stopping at our house, so we took our passports with us and put their bags in the boot of the car. We drove down the A1 and when we were stopped at the police roadblock, we told them we were students on a student exchange driving down to Dover to catch a ferry. After seeing our passports and looking at the luggage in the boot we were told we could proceed. They said they would contact the roadblocks down the road to let us through so we wouldn’t be stopped again!

The strike was officially made a National Strike at a Special Delegates conference on the 19 April. At this point the leaders of the Notts miners called on them to observe the decision and come out on strike. However, at this point the die was already cast and the scabbing operations was well developed. There were some of the senior figures in the Nottinghamshire area such as Roy Lynk and David Prendergast who were happy to head this scabbing operation. The splits within the miners were getting entrenched and the strike was shaping up to be a long and difficult one.

Battle of Orgreave 18 June 1984

Picketing had been taking place at Orgreave, a British Steel coke plant coking plant, in Rotherham, South Yorkshirebefore the famous Battle of Orgreave took place on the 18 June. The picketing was on a much smaller scale and hadn’t been effective in stopping the movement of coke. A mass picket was called for the 18 June and there was a national mobilisation for this.

The police were prepared and were at Orgreave in large numbers. The pickets were marshalled into an area of grassland near to the coke plant. As usual the movement of the lorries was the trigger point for a shove by the pickets. Although there was a large picket the police were there in sufficient numbers to hold the lines. Eventually the pressure of the big push ended and after this point the police decided to use a horse charge to disperse the pickets. The police then sent in the snatch squads, groups of police with batons and short shields. These snatch squads were particularly violent on this day. The pickets retreated to the village of Orgreave and the police continued their offensive tactics, following the dispersing pickets into the village. Clearly if any riot was taking place, it was the police that were the perpetrators.

At the end of the day there were 95 miners charged with violent offences, of which 71 were charged with riot. Fifteen of these endured a 58-day trail, in which the prosecution case eventually unravelled to the point where charges were dropped because of the unreliability of the police evidence.

After the closure of Cortonwood pit, I was moved to Kilnhurst and then Silverwood pit in 1989 when Kilnhurst closed. At Silverwood I worked with Arthur Critchlow who was one of the miners charged with riot at Orgreave. Arthur can only be described as one of the nicest people you are likely to meet. Arthur appeared on a recent Channel 4 programme about the strike alongside two other miners who had been charged with riot at Orgreave. Like Arthur, they also came across as nice people. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone when you consider that the miners charged with riot were not chosen because they had been threatening anyone but were arrested as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time during a period of prolonged and vicious episode of organised police violence. That is, they were arrested at random and those arrested could have been anyone who was on the picket line that day.

Commenting on Orgreave after the events Jack Taylor, the Yorkshire area president once said, “You were talking about lads in running pumps, with no shirts on in many cases fighting for jobs on one side and on the other men above five foot whatever in uniforms and big boots doing it for money”. It could be added that ‘the men doing for money’ were also tooled up, trained, and had no fear of being held responsible for their actions. Every picket at the time knew there could be severe consequences for them, not only as a result of police violence but as a result of wrongful arrest and the possibility of being sacked as a result of the charges.

Most people who were around at the time will have got their information about the events from the news reports of the day. One crucial element of the news story is that the BBC reversed the chronology of the events to show miners throwing missiles and the police responding with a horse charge. By July 1991 the BBC acknowledged that this was not the case, claiming it was an accident caused by trying to get the news on air in haste. However, if this was the case, they could have found this out much sooner and given an apology on air the next day.

The importance of the events around Orgreave were significant for the way it set the blueprint for the use of police violence in the Yorkshire pit villages once scabbing started in the Yorkshire coalfield. It also led to miners coming to realise how dangerous picketing could be for them. The fact that the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign is still fighting to get an enquiry into the events around Orgreave, and that successive governments have refused to do this, is a reflection of how important the State believes it is to continue to cover up the role of the police in events.

The failure to close down Orgreave is often counterposed to the success the miners had in closing the Saltley Gate coking plant in the 1972 strike, as both events were about stopping the movement of coke. Clearly the police learning lessons from Saltley Gate and taking a more offensive approach to the picket lines was one factor in the different outcomes. Another factor was that the picketing at Saltley Gate involved not only miners but other trade unionists in the Birmingham area who came out to support the picket lines. The solidary and secondary actions that were there in 1972 weren’t as strong in 1984.

Solidarity

This doesn’t mean there wasn’t solidarity action by other workers supporting the strike. The rail workers were very supportive and the Coalville depot in Leicestershire didn’t move coal throughout the strike. The response of the State was to haul more coal by lorry using non-union labour. The leadership of the rail unions supported those rail workers refusing to move coal and there was an expansion of the solidary action with rail workers refusing to move iron ore too. The refusal to move coal and iron ore by rail led to the organisation of more concerted movements of these items by road using non-union drivers.

During the Summer there were two dock strikes. One started on 16 July over the use of scab labour to move iron ore from Immingham docks to Scunthorpe steelworks and one on 25 August over the movement of scab coal from Hunterston docks to Ravenscraig steelworks. In both cases the movement of the coal broke terms of the National Dock Labour Scheme, which made it a criminal offence for non-registered dock workers to be employed at any of the 60 docks covered by the scheme. In both cases the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU) and the NUM failed to link the two strikes together even though they were both about protection of jobs and conditions and had been triggered as a result of the miners’ strike. The TGWU wasn’t prepared to fully expand the disputes and they were settled by compromise agreements, which in the case of the Hunterston dispute provided for an agreed amount of coal to be moved from Hunterston to Ravenscraig.

Although there was plenty of localised solidarity action there was no effort by the leaders of any trade union to open up a second front strike to lay down a more serious challenge to the Tory Government, even though they knew that the Tories were planning to further emasculate the unions and reduce the rights of workers. The miners were going to struggle to win alone but their defeat was going to have repercussions for all sectors of the working class.

The inaction of the TUC should be of little surprise given that it had provided no resistance to the implementation of the anti-union laws passed by the Tories in 1980 and 1982. The NUM leadership were also sceptical of the TUC and didn’t go directly to the TUC for assistance. As a result, there were no attempts to coordinate significant support for the miners and certainly no attempts at trying to expand the dispute to bring more workers out on strike. The government, aware of the Ridley plan principle of taking on Unions one at a time, made sure that they didn’t create the condition for forcing the TUC or any of its constituent unions into a position where they would be forced to come out on strike. They actively encouraged the NCB and other nationalised industries not to use the 1982 law, which banned secondary picketing. Instead, the court actions were taken by small transport companies and the National Working Miners Committee. This gave the right-wing dominated TUC the excuse to not get involved. Just like in 1926, the TUC was incapable of providing proper support to workers in struggle and as a result workers suffered the consequences of this inaction.

The Labour Party, the political wing of the trade union movement, was equally disastrous in their support of the strike at leadership level. Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, whose grandfather had been a miner, was against the strike from the beginning. Although described as a left winger at the time of his election to the leadership of the party in 1983, he was taking the Labour party politically to the right and abhorred the idea of spontaneous class action. The two excuses he constantly used was the lack of a ballot and the violence on the picket lines. It took until November 1984 for him to attend a picket line. Apparently, the archbishop of Canterbury had managed to find his way to a picket line well before Kinnock.

In contrast Labour members at the 1984 party conference passed a motion firmly putting the blame for the picket line violence on the police. Kinnock found himself in the position of not supporting the strike but having to be wary of coming out against the strike. However, after the strike he was able to go on the attack. He refused to back a motion supporting the reinstatement of sacked miners by a future Labour government and said he would ignore the conference decision that supported it. He also used his speech to attack the strike, its leadership by Scargill, and the left within the Labour and Trade Union movement.

Support groups

Once the strike was established, miners support groups were created throughout the country. These groups generally linked themselves to a specific pit. Bradford Trades Council created a support group and twinned itself with Houghton Main colliery. As I became more active in the strike, I was not only a regular picket but became an advocate of the strike. Initially this meant picketing in the morning and catching a bus to Bradford in the afternoon to speak at factory gate meetings and evening solidarity meetings. Although many of the support groups were focused on collecting money to support the strike many, many hours were spent rattling the collecting tin. As well as more general support groups there were more specific support groups formed such as Lesbian and Gays support the Miners. These groups were inspired to support the miners as they knew the strike was an important struggle against a reactionary government.

In addition to the support groups, we also saw a more impressive example of self-organisation of the working class with the creation of women’s support groups and the formation of Women Against Pit closures. Miners’ wives were well aware of how big an impact losing pits was going to have for them and the communities they lived in and wanted to be as active as the men in defending jobs and communities and many started to organise in the early days of the strike. The organisers included women who were already involved in left politics as well as newer activists. Many of the early groups were organised to form food kitchens, using the scant resources available to them. The women’s groups were able to organise impressive operations. The main food kitchen for the Houghton Main miners was in nearby great Houghton. Every day, hundreds of excellent meals were cooked on the limited resources in the Miners’ Welfare Hall. For me, like many pickets, the soup kitchen was one of the ports of call after picketing to go and have a hot meal.

In addition to the communal feeding in the soup kitchens, support groups also organised food parcels to be distributed amongst the mining families to help with the feeding of people at home. In both cases money and donations were required to fund these operations, which led to the women involved taking a more dynamic role in the strike. Often it wasn’t miners going out to speak to support groups but the women in WAPC.

Women also joined the picket lines, mainly within their own villages where there was local scabbing. The police often demonstrated misogynistic behaviour. Often this was in the use of misogynistic language and name calling but was also more serious. Some women who had been arrested were strip searched as the police aimed to humiliate them and attempt to break their spirit.

From early on in the strike women proved to be adept organisers. In May 1984 a WAPC-organised march against pit closures in Barnsley attracted 10,000 women. In August a national march against pit closures was organised that was attended by 40,000 to 50,000.

Many of the leaders of this movement remained politically active after the strike. Some of the groups refocused their activities to more general political and community activities. In 1990 some of them became active in the struggle against the poll tax.

Some feminists accused the women’s support group of reinforcing the role of women as continuing their role of doing unpaid work for the family unit. However, it is clear that the groups played a more active role that that and many saw it as life-changing and feminism in action.

The support groups also held public meeting where miners were able to keep everyone updated with what was happening and try as far as possible to counteract the misinformation being peddled by the press. John Reith, the founder of the BCC, said in 1926 that he knew his role was to support the government during the 1926 general strike. In 1984-85 the BBC was doing the same in the way it reported the strike.

The printed media, own by the press barons, were even more vitriolic in their attacks on the miners and the strike. This did lead to conflict between the newspapers and the unions. In one case, on the 15 May ‘The Sun’ was going to use a picture of Arthur Scargill with his hand raised under the headline ‘Mein Fuhrer’. Their attempt to portray Arthur Scargill as a fascist was too much for the production workers and they refused to print the paper. This led to the paper being published without the headline or a picture but a statement from the proprietors saying “Members of all The Sun production chapels refused to handle the Arthur Scargill picture and major headline on our lead story. The Sun has decided, reluctantly, to print the paper without either.”

Although this was the most diabolical example of how the press tried to undermine the strike it was not the only example. The general tone of the reporting was aimed at demonising striking miners and giving support to the police. In many cases the press became the publishers of police misinformation. The police used the press to great effect after Orgreave and were later to use the same tactics of distortion and media manipulation in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster.

Scabs

The press was also very supportive of the National Working Miners Committee. This shadowy group was set up by a few super scabs and was supported by a shadowy right-wing businessman called David Hart. Although independent of government, David Hart communicated with the government and no doubt received advice from them. This was a situation that suited both David Hart and the government. He was able to maintain his self-importance and the government could maintain its stance of not interfering in the strike. In a recent TV programme, his brother described him as the political SAS who was disappointed that after the strike his role was not fully recognised. He was able to get the super scabs organised and funded. The funding came from anti-union businessmen both in the UK and internationally. John Paul Getty alone donated £120,000.

The NWMC used some of the money to take out advertisements in the press encouraging men to return to work. The also used the money to employ expensive barristers to take the NUM to court in order to get the strike declared illegal. This was in order to weaken the strike through sequestration and thereby starve the Union of funding. The tactic worked and the National Strike was declared illegal. Scargill responded by saying that the strike was still official and the NWMC went back to court to get a judgement that the NUM was in contempt of court. The NUM was fined £200,000 but didn’t pay the fine and sequestration was declared on the 25 October. The sequestration created financial problems for the NUM and eventually the NUM ended up back in court and an apology of sorts was given and control of the funds was returned to NUM.

The NWMC were also actively going around the country helping to recruit scabs in areas that had been up to then solid and a trickle back to work in solid areas started. Consequently, the focus of picketing was turning from trying to maintain picketing in Nottinghamshire to picketing the local pits. As the scabbing expanded mass picketing was becoming less frequent and in Yorkshire more localised.

Endgame

The NCB now felt emboldened and on 15 August decide to put pressure on the Pit Deputies and Overmen to cross picket lines. Up to that point they were able to be paid if they felt the picket line was difficult and many supported the strike as they knew their jobs were at risk too and they didn’t want to cross picket lines. The National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirer’s (NACODS) organised a ballot and 82% voted to strike. If they had a national strike, it would have closed down all the pits because without the safety inspections nobody could have worked underground. This led to the NCB going into negotiations with NACODS that resulted in a rescinding of the order to cross picket lines and also a revised procedure for the progression of any proposed pit closures with a final step of arbitration. This agreement was accepted by NACODS and another chance to move the strike in favour of the NUM was lost.

As winter came the NCB turned up the psychological pressure on those miners who were on strike but not active and were wavering. In November 1984 they took out advertisements in the national press saying there was still time to return to work and earn up to £1,500 and receive holiday pay for the Christmas period. Although this had some effect it didn’t lead to a flood of men returning to work. The trade union movement and support groups went into overdrive in the run up to Christmas and there were many Christmas parties organised for miner’s children with many presents being donated too. The increase in international solidarity was particular noted.

After Christmas the striking miners were on the back foot and the efforts of activists were concentrated on the local pits. It was obvious that the chances of winning the strike were reducing. As January 1985 wore on there were some very cold days but the power stations had sufficient resources to keep the lights burning. The NCB stepped up its psychological warfare and advertisements to return to work were appearing regularly in the press. They also started to put pressure on older miners by introducing an enhanced redundancy scheme for a time limited period. I.e. you could get up to £30,000 redundancy payments but only if you returned to work by a certain time. Unfortunately, this had an effect on some of the older men and more started to return to work. I was told by someone who returned to work a week before the end of the strike that he had phoned the pit and asked if the redundancy package would still be avail after the strike was over. The response was, ‘No. If you are interested in enhanced redundancy you have to return before the deadline runs out’.

Eventually the strike had to come to an end, and the numbers returning to work increased. South Wales called for an end to the strike on condition that the sacked miners were reinstated. However, the NCB rejected this, believing they were in a position that meant there was no need to offer concessions at this point. The Kent Area felt that there should be no return without the sacked men, which as a popular view amongst almost all of the regular pickets. However, the strike was called off at a special conference on 3 March 1985 and officially ended on 5 March.

Some Kent miners tried to keep the strike going unofficially by sending out pickets, but they were few in number and unable to gain any traction. Although many had sympathy with the position of no return without the sacked miners, the reality was that within a few weeks those of us that would have been out on strike would have been a dwindling minority. Although it was a bitter pill to swallow, we had to accept that we had been defeated and had no other option. Although the marches back to work behind banners and brass band provided a spectacle and a final show of defiance there was no doubt that it was a difficult walk back down the pit lane.

Conclusions

The strike ended in a crushing defeat not just for the miners but for the working class as a whole. After the strike ended the pace of pit closures accelerated. The review procedure that had been created as part of the NACODS settlement had no effect because the enhanced redundancy payments introduced by the NCB as each round of closures was announced was enough to encourage a demoralised workforce to vote to accept the closures.

Roy Lynk was rewarded for kissing Thatcher’s boots by a kick in the face from those same boots seven years later when they announced the closure of Silverhill colliery where he had worked in 1992. His pathetic response was to send back his OBE and have a one-man underground sit-down protest. The mines were privatised in 1994 when there were only 30 deep mines left, and in 2015 Kellingley colliery was closed marking the end of deep coal mining in Britain.

The Tories were emboldened after defeating the miners. In 1989 they announced their intention to end the National Dock Labour Scheme. After unofficial action, the TGWU, fearing the potential consequences of sequestration, organised a national ballot which was challenged in court. While the union awaited the outcome the legislation was passed.

In the years since 1985 the Tories have introduced more anti-union legislation, making it even harder for workers to organise and strike. The number of union members continued to shrink as the unions became weakened through their general inaction in face of the State attacks and until recently the numbers of people on strike has been significantly less that in the years leading up to the strike.

The one positive arising from the strike was that it showed the power of the working class when it is organised and, although defeated, there were times when the outcome of the strike could have been different, especially if NACODS had joined the strike in October instead of settling for what was a poor deal.

In the last year we have seen an uptick in strikes and some victories for workers as a result. However, not all of the strikes have been successful. We have seen how, instead of increasing effectiveness through coordinated action most union leaders have chosen to do the opposite. They appear to have fallen for the concept that the Tory anti-union legislation introduced, that strikes are purely between an employer and the workers within that workplace, that is, that there is no role for solidarity.

The fact that workers are still going on strike to defend wages and conditions shows that there is a willingness to fight back even if the Trade Union leaders in general don’t maximise the impact of these actions. The role of socialists is to support these struggles and to explain that the reason we, as workers, are compelled to struggle is due to the general inequality at the root of capitalism and that unless we are able to overthrow capitalism workers will be compelled to fight the same battles over and over again.

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