News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.
Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.
June 18, 2019
By Stephanie Hung
The 1980s coal miners’ strike in the United Kingdom was not a struggle about energy or fuel, it was about power and the dominance of capitalism. In 1984–85, hundreds of thousands of striking miners posed a real threat to the global wave of neoliberalism overtaking the UK and elsewhere, and this conflict came to a head in the village of Orgreave in South Yorkshire. The retelling of the miners’ strike is meaningful for not just our historical assessment of class struggle, but how we view our struggle now and the future.
On March 5, 1984, a group of young coal miners in Yorkshire received news that their mine was slated to be shutdown indefinitely. This was a surprise to no one, after the government had been closing mines over the past three years, affecting pit communities all over the country.
The next day, the state-run National Coal Board (NCB) announced its plan to cut 4 million tons of coal production, which meant closing 20 pits and cutting tens of thousands of jobs. Many workers decided to walkout, paving the way for neighboring areas to picket one after another. By the following week, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) president, Arthur Scargill, backed these strikes and called for a national strike against the closures.
The strike was announced without a national ballot, which opposition forces used to try and discredit Scargill and others in the NUM leadership. According to Scargill, NUM’s vice-president, Michael McGahey, believed the union should not be “constitutionalised out of taking action” and the national secretary, Peter Heathfield, stated in an address, “I hope that we are sincere and honest enough to recognize that a ballot should not be used and exercised as a veto to prevent people in other areas defending their jobs.”
The majority of miners participated in the strike in Scotland, South Wales, Yorkshire, Durham and North East England, but support was lower in union areas like Nottinghamshire, South Derbyshire, and Leicestershire, and many of the workers returned to work. Flying pickets aimed to pressure workers from working, which were not always peaceful.
Striking miners saw support from other sectors, such as railway workers and dockers. Women also joined miners on picket lines, organized soup kitchens for miners and their families, and formed the group Women Against Pit Closures.
Meanwhile, the Tory government led a concerted effort to discredit the miners by conducting smear campaigns and manipulating the media to portray the strikers as a threat to rule of law and democracy. Thatcher labeled the miners as the “enemy within.” Evidence later revealed that under her guidance, MI-5, GCHQ, and the NSA were mobilized to spy and infiltrate the NUM’s leadership. Undercover agents were “sent into NUM to destabilize and sabotage the union at its most critical juncture”; “dirty tricks, slush funds, false allegations, forgeries, phony cash deposits, and multiple secretly sponsored legal actions” were tactics used by the government to undermine the resistance. Years later, Thatcher and other former officials would defend these secret, large-scale, state-sponsored violations of civil liberties by deeming the NUM leadership as “subversive”.
On June 18, 1984, mass picketing targeted the Orgreave coal processing plant in South Yorkshire in an attempt to block its deliveries. Police forces of up to 8,000 violently clashed with strikers. Pickets were met with police units from multiple counties and scores were violently beaten with batons, charged and crushed by mounted police, and attacked by police dogs.
It became one of the most brutal clashes of the 1984 strike and Britain’s industrial history. The miners’ lawyers claimed that police footage showed officers were the first to attack protesters, although police and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed otherwise. Nearly 100 miners were charged with rioting, but charges were dropped the following year, with all miners acquitted.
Meanwhile, in Nottinghamshire, many miners were less supportive of the strike from the start. They felt their mines were in less danger of closing and had viewed the strike as unconstitutional, so in the summer of 1984, the membership of Nottinghamshire NUM decided to vote out leaders who supported the strike.
Members of Nottinghamshire and nearby South Derbyshire NUM set up a new union, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. By January 1985, the numbers of strikebreakers had increased, and about 50 percent of strikers were back to work the following month.
The strike disintegrated and officially came to an end on March 3, 1985. One concession the NCB agreed to was to delay the closure of five pits, but it did not meet any of the other NUM demands. The coal industry was eventually privatized in 1994. Since then, many former mining communities have fallen into poverty. The NUM became weak and many miners, even the most militant, took redundancy payments from the NCB.
The state’s efforts to incapacitate the union and create division among its members was not unique to this strike. Time and time again, we see that the higher the financial stakes, the more extreme the measures those with power are willing to take.