On March 1st, 1984, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party announced the closure of Cortonwood colliery in Yorkshire - signaling her government’s determination to ram through a massive programme of pit closures and destroy the power of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Miners had no choice but to fight, or see their lives and communities devastated. The longest major industrial battle in British history had begun - a battle that still defines the political landscape of today.
The full force of the state was used against the striking miners. 20,000 police were coordinated by Scotland Yard and they used massive computer-backed data gathering for intelligence. Tactics such as road-blocks, political questioning, curfews, beatings, illegal fingerprinting and photographing, snatch squads, phone taps, infiltration and agent provocateurs were widespread. Alongside this was the mobilisation of the media and the law. In the press, Thatcher compared the pickets to IRA bombers. James Anderton, Chief Constable of Manchester said mass pickets were “acts of terrorism without the bullet and the bomb,” while the Police Federation warned that its members might be unable to serve the public under a Labour government after the Labour conference criticised police violence!
In pit village after pit village, mining communities were under siege. In August, at Easington Colliery in Durham, one scab went back to work - and for five days all hell broke loose as riot police were sent in to protect the lone worker. “The riot police arrive. Marching through the street, with helmets and shields, in through the pit offices, into the yard, staves drawn, advancing. Everyone running. everyone throwing things, fire extinguishers turned on. Stones, bricks, anything that comes to hand.” Jack Dormand the local MP said the action by the police to get just one scab back to work had been unnecessary and irresponsible but that “the Home Office has told him (the Coal board manager) to get men into his pit at whatever costs.”
Up to 3,000 police occupied the village. They stopped the buses and searched people. As one miner commented, “Easington was cut off from the rest of Britain for days while the police occupied it like a conquering army.” As one woman resident put it, “I never ever thought I’d see scenes like this in Britain. I never thought I’d see what I’ve seen on the streets of Easington. We’re occupied. We’ve been occupied by the police. We’ve had violence in this village. We’ll never forget this - never. Not after this.”
The strike involved enormous hardship, with many receiving no strike pay or benefits. Yet despite all the state could throw at them, for a year the miners and their communities stood firm in a magnificent display of solidarity. But it wasn’t just the miners - the women also played a central role. They transformed the strike, and it transformed them. At a meeting at the Easington Miners Welfare, Mick McGahey, Vice President of the NUM, referred to the “housewives in the County who understand the problems.” One woman replied, “We no longer regard ourselves as ‘housewives’. We are soldiers in the struggle.”
In mining villages, women played a key role in the soup kitchens and in the distributing of food parcels, but they also took part in the picketing and spoke across the country. Meanwhile, in every town and city in Britain, people formed miners’ support groups. The 14 support groups on Merseyside, for example, sent over £1 million to the miners during the strike. It was estimated at the end of the strike that over £60 million had been collected in support. As important as money was the tidal wave of donations of food, clothes, toys for Christmas, and much more.
Solidarity took other forms too. Train drivers in many areas refused to move scab coal, despite a lack of firm support from their union leaders. Print workers twice refused to print editions of the Sun because of its attacks on miners. And twice during the summer of ’84, Dockers across Britain went on strike.
All this solidarity could and should have been the basis for a movement which would have seen the miners win victory and drive Thatcher from office. The blame for the defeat of the strike lies at the feet of the trade union leaders and the Labour Party. They at best mouthed support for the miners while doing little or nothing in reality, and at worst actively opposed attempts to build solidarity. The key turning point came in the autumn of 1984. The TUC membership had voted to stop all coal and oil movement. But Trade Union leaders refused to implement this. Backed up by Labour leader Neil Kinnock, the leaders insisted on sticking within the Tory anti-union laws. As the strike finally drew to an end in early 1985, the Coal Board’s industrial relations director, Ned Smith, made a frank admission that had the TUC implemented the boycott of oil and coal, the miners would have won. By then, though, it was too late. The strike had met a tragic and unnecessary defeat.
But the miners strike wasn’t just about protecting jobs and communities, it was a defining moment in the struggle between capital and labour. It was a class war, and unfortunately capital won. Prime Minister Thatcher made no bones about it. In her memoirs, she wrote, “The coal strike was always about far more than uneconomic pits. It was a political strike.” At the pit gates at Easington, the pickets knew this all too well. “They’ve put us in a corner and if we don’t fight our way out, there’ll be nothing left anyway. If we lose this strike we can forget about the union; they’ll be able to do what they like with us.” Curbs on unions had come before 1984, but the noose was tightened after the miners went back to work. Employers began to feel confident in taking on any group of workers. And while British workers were once described by right wing economists, “as the laziest workforce in the world,” we now work the longest hours in Europe for the lowest pay.
But struggles as epic as this are also an education and an inspiration. Women Against Pit Closures continued to fight and in 1994, in a squatted courthouse in Brighton, some of those women came to speak to a group calling themselves Justice? - part of a nationwide campaign to oppose the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The women told us we needed to be organised and to stick together; that to win we needed to break the law and embrace direct action, and that we needed our own newsletter to get our message across. Not so long after that meeting, the first ever SchNEWS came rolling off the press, promoting direct action and solidarity with people in struggle ever since.
* Banner Theatre’s new play ‘Burning Issues - The Miners 1984-2004’ begins this Saturday (6) at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. For other dates, 0121 682 0730 http://www.bannertheatre.co.uk
* Recommended reading: People Versus State - David Reed & Olivia Adamson ( http://www.rcgfrfi.easynet.co.uk). State of Siege - Politics and Policing in the Coal Fields Coulter, Miller and Walker (Canary Press 1984) Also check out www.minersadvice.co.uk for more books and general info.
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