In 1982 and early 1984 respectively, Arthur Scargill and Peter Heathfield were elected National President and Secretary of the NUM together with Vice President Michael McGahey, this ï¿½troikaï¿½ would become involved in one of the most important periods of NUM and British trade union history.
It was in the autumn of 1982 that Arthur Scargill disclosed at a press conference a secret Coal Board document, leaked to the Union, which had been prepared for the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. This document clearly showed that between 75 and 95 pits were earmarked for closure over the coming ten year period.
In the months that followed, fear of closures grew in the coalfields; in October 1983, with a number of pits under threat and the Coal Board refusing to negotiate on wages unless the Union agreed to job losses and closures, the NUM informed the new NCB Chairman, Ian McGregor, that it was calling an overtime ban from November 1.
The ban was very successful, cutting production over the next few months by between 25 and 30 per cent; then the Coal Board confirmed its intention to close twenty pits and axe 20,000 jobs in the coming year.
It was, however, a decision to close Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire, Snowdon in Kent and Polmaise in Scotland that actually sparked off the 1984-1985 minersï¿½ strike.
On March 8, 1984, the NUM National Executive Committee granted permission for areas to take strike action in defence of pits and jobs. On April 19, a Special Delegate Conference held in Sheffield, home of the Unionï¿½s national headquarters, called on all areas and members to support the strike.
In the large Notts coalfield, however, miners (with 5,000 honourable exceptions) tragically refused to give this support; some of their leaders argued that a ballot should have been held, ignoring the fact that in 1981 Notts miners had supported a national unofficial strike against closures without any ballot vote.
The 1984/1985 minersï¿½ strike produced an unprecedented conflict between the State and the minersï¿½ Union. During the first week of the strike a young Yorkshire miner, David Jones was killed on a picket line at Ollerton in Notts; a few months later Joe Green, also of Yorkshire, was killed on a picket line outside Ferrybridge Power Station.
In the course of the dispute, which lasted altogether sixteen months, a total of 11,000 miners were arrested; 7,000 injured; eleven people died, and 1,000 men were sacked, victimised for supporting their Unionï¿½s policy in the most bitter industrial conflict ever seen in trade union history.
Railway workers and seafarers took solidarity action; print workers and sections of the T&GWU gave tremendous support. There was international assistance as well, as there had been in 1926, with trade unionists worldwide supporting the historic fight of Britainï¿½s miners and their families.
The struggle of 1984-1985 revealed a new dimension in British political life with the creation of womenï¿½s groups in mining communities which not only staffed food centres and collected cash but took their place on picket lines in defence of jobs and what was obviously a fight to save the National Union of Mineworkers.
The Government responded to the minersï¿½ dedication with increasing savagery and a massive, co-ordinated police operation was set up to combat effective picketing. The coalfields of Britain became battlefields in which civil liberties and human rights were smashed by the truncheons of riot police.
Scenes at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire in May, June and July 1984 horrified participants and observers alike. At the height of the picketing, 10,000 miners faced 8,000 police equipped with riot gear, horses, dogs and motorised vehicles.
It was against this turbulent and emotive background that the TUC and Labour Party Conference in September and October pledged support to the NUM, but as in 1926 failed to give a clear call for other unions to come out in solidarity action. As in other recent disputes, the TUC appeared paralysed with fear about breaching Tory anti-trade union laws which prohibited key forms of supportive industrial action.
Other individual trade unions, excepting railway workers, seafarers and key sections of the T&GWU, did not respond to the NUMï¿½s call for support, and in some cases, as with the leaders of the EETPU, actually opposed miners in their struggle.
The odds against the NUM were overwhelming; imported coal was flooding into Britain; tiny harbours around Britainï¿½s coast were used as almost impromptu landing points. Obsolete oil-fired power stations were put back into use at enormous financial cost, whilst nuclear stations were run beyond the time limits normally maintained for safety reasons.
By October and November of 1984, the Union had had all its funds sequestrated and had become the first trade union to be placed by the High Court in the hands of a receiver.
Despite these attacks, the NUM fought on into 1985 for the future of the coal industry.
But after one year of national strike action following four months of partial strike action in the form of an overtime ban, the NUM at a special conference at the TUCï¿½s London headquarters on March 3, 1985 voted (by a slender majority of three) to end the strike and return to work without having negotiated a settlement with the Coal Board.
The strike had not been about wages, better conditions or any material gain. It had been waged on principle; the principle that minersï¿½ jobs were held by each generation of workers in trust for those who would come after them, and must not be wantonly destroyed.
The Tory Government had spent ï¿½12 billion of the nationï¿½s money to try to defeat the National Union of Mineworkers. This they had failed to do; despite the fact that the NUM did not achieve its ultimate objective. The resolute stand of men and women over sixteen months marked a tremendous step forward in workersï¿½ power and solidarity.
This strike had set a new example in working class struggle, marking another milestone in a long road. It had been hard, bitter, painful, and as in 1926, there were those who said that never again would the British trade union movement see such a conflict. As in the aftermath of 1926, only time will tell.
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