“The policies of this government are clear – to destroy the coal industry and the NUM.”
Arthur Scargill, President, National Union of Mineworkers
“History will record that the British miner decided on a strategy of industrial action because he could not accept that the role of families was to go to unemployment exchanges.”
Emlyn Williams, President, South Wales National Union of Mineworkers
“We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands, but we always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”
Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister
“It was the greatest defeat ever inflicted on any trade union movement … And the rest of the British trade union movement fell with us.”
Dai ‘Dosco’ Evans
“I remain of the conviction that the lasting damage willfully wrought by the state upon its own people is a stain on this nation’s history. That it was done for little more than reasons of ideology makes it all the more shameful.”
The National Coal Board’s (NCB) announcement in March, 1984, of the imminent closure of Cortonwood colliery, Yorkshire, and Polmaise colliery, Scotland, together with 20 other planned pit closures and the loss of 20,000 jobs led to a swift response from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Yorkshire and Scottish miners came out on strike, swiftly followed by Durham and Kent. On March 8, NUM national president, Arthur Scargill, announced that the strikes were official under Rule 41 of the union’s constitution and called on the other NUM Area coalfields to support the action. Support in Wales was initially confused with the Executive Committee (EC) of the South Wales National Union of Mineworkers (SWNUM) recommending strike action during their conference of March 9, and local NUM lodges in South Wales voting 18 to 13 to stay in while respecting any picket lines.
Emlyn Williams, SWNUM president, and Kim Howells, the Area’s research officer, responded to the lodges decision by arranging a meeting with Broad Left activists on Sunday, March 11, following which pickets were sent to every colliery in South Wales the following morning. These pickets were crucial in generating the momentum for widespread strike action in the Area. Faced with pickets, miners arriving for work turned back, and once a lodge had agreed not to cross picket lines it spread the strike. By the time the EC met on Monday, March 12, it had little choice but to accept the existing situation and call the Area out on strike. By Wednesday, March 14, a state of total stoppage existed across the South Wales coalfields.
From the start the main strategy of the South Wales miners was to bring every NUM Area out on strike. Within days South Wales was sending bus-loads of miners to picket sites across England and Wales. By late March the Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Lancashire, and Midlands miners had come out, with Nottinghamshire remaining recalcitrant,as they were to do until the end.
In addition to picketing collieries the South Wales miners’ targeted the power industry in an attempt to limit electricity generation. Twenty-two coal-fired power stations across England and Wales were picketed by SWNUM members, along with oil fired and nuclear facilities. At Didcot power station twenty-four hour picketing by Welsh miners led to power workers voting to refuse deliveries of coal by road. In South Wales all coal generated electricity production had ceased by September 1984.
Welsh miners also targeted steel production, focusing on the local works at Port Talbot and Llanwern. For safety reasons and to prevent damage to the blast furnaces and ovens the SWNUM agreed to allow Llanwern the minimum amount of coal to allow the plant to keep the furnaces running safely. Steel output was cut by forty per cent, but it soon became apparent that the agreement was not being honoured and that imported coal was being delivered to the steelworks. In response the SWNUM imposed a total blockage on the works began in June that saw steel production fall by thirty-three per cent in two days.
In response fleets of haulage lorries were organised to carry coal from the docks at Port Talbot to Llanwern, with up to 200 lorries making the journey in convoy twice a day. Strike action such as the occupation of the wharf cranes at Port Talbot steelworks and the Newport Transporter Bridge created headlines but picketing the lorry convoys proved ineffective and dangerous. In September 1984 two miners from Penallta were tragically killed on picket duty when a lorry ran them down. Ultimately steel output actually increased, with Llanwern reaching a three year highpoint in production.
On August 1, 1984, the SWNUM bank accounts, including Union food funds, were sequestrated by the state following a refusal to comply with a High Court order banning picketing at Port Talbot steelworks. This illegal action by the government severely hampered strike activity, reducing funds for travel and sustenance while picketing. Fortunately many local lodges and support groups had been able to withdraw their funds from banks before the sequestration came into full effect and were able to continue to operate on a cash basis.
Throughout the Summer and Autumn of 1984 support for the strike among SWNUM members remained one hundred per cent solid, while other Areas saw a return to work as the first strike-breaking began. Following the break down of the NUM-NCB talks in October the NCB began a determined back to work campaign. On November 19, nineteen men at Cynheidre broke the strike. The following day eighty-five men had returned to work. Of these the majority were from Cynheidre and Celynen South. By January eighty-seven of the one hundred and thirty-six men who had returned to work were from Cynheidre.
Solidarity within the South Wales Area remained strong throughout the strike. By November 1984 ninety-nine per cent of SWNUM members were on strike compared to the national average of seventy-four per cent. In December twenty-one out of the twenty-six pits nationally to remain free of strike breakers were in South Wales. The response of the EC to strike breaking was tough. Men faced disciplinary action from the Union, picketing at sites where men had broken the strike was increased, and safety cover at those pits was withdrawn. An action that risked damage to the pits.
By Christmas 1984 the mood had begun to change. Where the prevailing sentiment had been that victory was possible the hardships of ten months without pay and without any signs of an acceptable resolution, largely due to the intransigent attitude of the government and the NCB led by Thatcher and Ian McGregor, led to a psychological turning point. While support for the strike in South Wales remained strong until the very end the consensus of opinion was that victory was no longer possible.
In January the NCB intensified its back to work programme, offering bonuses of up to £325 to any worker who returned to work. The government in its turn refused to negotiate an end to the strike, while another High Court order attempted to restrict the number of pickets at any one location to six people. The SWNUM now sought to ensure the survival of the NUM, rightly convinced that Thatcher’s government aimed at its destruction as part of their assault on organised labour and regulated markets. Rather than accept a negotiated settlement with the implicit acceptance of pit closures the SWNUM argued for a national return to work without an agreement that would allow to continue strike action on a guerilla basis.
On Tuesday March 5, the miners returned to work among chaotic scenes. At Merthyr Vale the miners refused to work until a prominent strike breaker had been transferred out of the coalfield. At Penrhiwceiber and Six Bells NUM members were sent home for the day after NACODS claimed they were unmanageable. At Trelewis Drift men refused to cross token picket lines of Kent miners. At Maerdy and other pits miners’ marched to work en masse behind the union banner and colliery band. The last great industrial action of the British work force was over.
Defeat was perhaps inevitable, not least because Thatcher’s government was prepared to use unlimited resources to avenge the defeat inflicted on the previous Conservative government by the miners’ which had seen the Heath government brought down in 1974. In 1979 when Thatcher took office she said to Willie Whitelaw, “The last Conservative government was destroyed by miners’ strike. We’ll have another and we’ll win.” The unions, and particularly their ‘Praetorian Guard’, the NUM, were targeted by the Conservatives and the Thatcher government from the start.
Nicholas Ridley’s 1977 leaked secret report on nationalised industries had already spelt out how the government would deal with major strike action in the coal industry. Coal stocks had been built up at power stations, non-union lorry drivers had been recruited to carry coal to power stations, coal imports had been arranged, power stations had been switched from coal to oil firing, and legislation had been passed allowing the government to financially penalise strikers by withdrawing previously claimable benefits from their families.
The release of declassified material from government archives belies the strenuous government denials and the ridiculing of Arthur Scargill when he stated in 1983 that the government intended to close seventy pits and not the twenty claimed in official statements on the future of the coal industry. In fact the government was already discussing the closure of seventy-five pits over the period 1983-85 with a loss of 64,000 jobs. This at a time when unemployment in Britain had doubled from one million to two million under the same administration.
Further denials of intervention proved false as the government effectively shaped the activities of the NCB, the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board) and British Rail, while co-0rdinating an at times brutal police response that systematically infringed civil liberties. The media too, sided with the government, while the courts used available measures to restrict the movement and actions of pickets with the clear underlying political purpose of weakening the NUM’s ability to win the strike.
Ironically, coal remains the fuel most commonly used to generate electricity in Britain, accounting for thirty-nine per cent of the fuel used. Of the 60.7 million tonnes used in 2013, 49.4 million tonnes were imported, the majority coming from Russia. The current Cameron administration, heirs to Thatcherism, are now calling for British energy suppliers to pursue the unproven alternative of shale gas while we sit on coal reserves that could potentially fuel Britain for centuries.
The French energy firm, EDF, have been given a contract to build and running the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant, underpinned by a government guarantee that gives EDF twice the standard wholesale electricity price. The new plant will be the most expensive nuclear power station in the world. The costs involved are arguably greater than those that would have been incurred by developing British coalfields and investing in the development of clean coal technology.
The defeat of the miners’ in 1985 was a defeat not just for the coal industry but for the whole working class. It allowed Thatcher’s government and subsequent administrations to aggressively pursue their deregulation of the market and their attack on organised labour. The balance of power shifted strongly in favour of the employer, which in turn has led to increasingly exploitative practices such as zero-hour contracts. The Labour Party’s transformation to New Labour and a party of Westminster has left the working class without a genuine voice, while the decline of the trade unions has eroded their role in any political settlement. Meanwhile income inequality in Britain has drastically widened. Just five families in today’s Britain own more wealth and assets than the bottom twenty per cent, some 12.6 million Britons. If ever working labour needed a victory which proved to people they need to protect their rights, it is now.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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