Trade Union and Employment Forum

The Miners’ Strike, 30 Years On conference

Organised by H&P Trade Union Forum and the British Universities' Industrial Relations Association (BUIRA)

Roger Jeary, Former Director of Research at Unite, 2004-2012, and a member of the Trade Union Forum Advisory Group

This March the 30th anniversary of the 1984-85 miners' strike was recognised by many events around the UK and there are no doubt more to come. On 29 March 2014 I was in the audience of this conference. We were treated to an impressive list of strike participants and leaders alongside journalists who reported the strike, politicians and leading academics who have studied it. The result was a fascinating and, at times, emotional reminder and insight into this significant watershed in trade union activism in the UK.

Listening to Nicky Wilson, President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and an active participant in the Scottish miners during the strike, we heard about the context of the strike and vivid illustrations of the appalling treatment of the miners and their communities at the hands of the state and the police during the year-long strike. In an interesting reflection on the debate about whether the NUM should have held a national ballot, Nicky made clear that as a miner living in a mining community it was never a question of having to vote, it was what miners felt in their hearts had to be done as their livelihoods were put on the line by the Thatcher government.

Nicky was followed by Ian Lavery MP, a former President of the NUM. At the time of the strike Ian was 20 years old and an apprentice; he had grown up in a mining village, in a mining family of many generations. He painted the picture of mining communities and what the strike meant to them. He recalled questioning his father, a miner too, about the events that led up to the strike - striking was never a question for them, it was the right thing to do. As an MP, Ian continues to raise issues arising from the strike in Parliament and is adamant that a public enquiry into police and state action at the time is essential. He drew the analogy with the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, when 96 people attending the FA Cup semi-final were killed, and the questions being raised about South Yorkshire police actions. The same police force handled the 'Battle of Orgreave', the violent confrontation between police and miners picketing the coking plant on 18 June 1984.

Terry Thomas, Vice President of the South Wales Miners at the time of the strike reminded the audience that the decision to go on strike was made by the miners of South Wales not Arthur Scargill. He believed that a national ballot at the time of the strike would not have been won. Previous ballots to defend individual closures in 1983 and 1982 had not been successful and there was no reason to believe that 1984 would have been any different. The strike was determined by regional decisions and Terry recalled the role of the South Wales miners, who themselves had to be persuaded by miners from other regions to vote for a strike, in persuading others around the country to follow their decision.

Interestingly, Terry gave a personal insight into the legal issues which eventually became one of the key reasons for the end of the strike. He was personally sued in the High Court by individual miners (supported by the National Coal Board and the state) as a leader of the strike for the monies spent by the NUM in what was argued was an illegal strike in accordance with the NUM Rule Book. This required a ballot when calling a national strike. This legal action was the forerunner of further legal actions which led to NUM funds being sequestrated and the union being placed in administration.

At the same Terry was pursued by his local council for unpaid rates, which he could not pay, so attempts to secure his share of the £2.5 million of union funds spent on the strike were, to him, farcical. His view of the end of the strike was an emotional picture of the role that the mining communities played in the decision. Families were torn apart and exhausted and just as the strength of the communities had provided the impetus to pursue the strike, so it was the pressures from the communities that played their part in bringing it to an end.

Professor David Howell, of the University of York, provided an overview of the structures of the NUM and their relevance to the strike; he also spoke about the decisions and rationale of the Nottinghamshire Area in not supporting the strike and how this had impacted upon the strike.

The symposium heard from Anne Scargill and Betty Cook, who helped organise the wider support for the miners during the strike. They established Women against Pit Closures and continue to support workers in struggles today through joining picket lines and demonstrations. Anne presented a vivid, and at times emotional, account of her experiences during the strike. Her recollections of her personal treatment after being arrested by the police explained her continued distrust of them today. Betty recalled the police intimidation she experienced at the soup kitchens they had help set up, and the invasion of the village where she lived. Her recollections were presented with humour despite the hardship suffered; she explained how the strike had radicalised her and ultimately led her to a new and more fulfilled life where she is able to support strikes around the world.

Professor Peter Ackers, of Loughborough University, analysed why the political objectives of the strike could not succeed. He argued that the social democratic consensus had been broken by the 'Winter of Discontent' in 1979, and subsequent years had seen the demise of trade union legitimacy in the eyes of the public. For this reason he suggested that the miners' strategy, based on mass picketing, was misguided, as public opinion was against it and the consequence was a major political defeat for the trade unions.

There followed an interesting presentation from Nick Jones, a former BBC industrial and political correspondent, who covered the miners' strike. He presented a pictorial history of the headlines of the day, showing how newspapers covered the strike. Nick asserted that had this happened today, modern media and social media would have resulted in a very different public perception and awareness of the events. The violence of the police would not have gone as unreported in 1984-5. He explained how journalists were kept behind the police lines which was why there were so few pictures which depicted the violence of individual officers against striking miners.

Nick interviewed Lord Kinnock, who was Leader of the Labour Party at the time of the strike. Neil made no secret of his disapproval of the approach adopted by Arthur Scargill and criticised the lack of an overall strategy He described the 'war' as 'one side wanted to fight the war the other side wanted to win it'. Neil had argued for a ballot but believed he should have been more assertive at the time. His criticism of Arthur was combined with a scathing dismissal of the left of the Labour Party as treating the strike as a game. He believed that the Labour Party document, 'The Case for Coal', could have modified the closure programme and argued that the cost of Thatcher's 'victory' was the equivalent of £47 billion today. Neil said Arthur was not a 'trade unionist' because he was not a negotiator; had the Scottish Miners' leader, Mick McGahey, been elected NUM president Neil believed the outcome of the strike would have been different. Negotiations failed in July 1984 and never got off the ground in the Autumn, as a result of Arthur's refusal to accept a plan put forward by the Labour Party, which Ian MacGregor, head of the NCB, was prepared to negotiate on.

The implications of the strike on the state and the law was discussed by Professor Keith Ewing, of King's College London, Lord Monks, former General Secretary of the TUC, and Robert Taylor, Labour Editor of The Observer during the miners' strike. Keith said the strike did not have any significant effect on labour and trade union law. Most of Thatcher's union legislation was already on the books by the time the strike started. The NCB didn't use this legislation during the strike mainly to avoid encouraging wider support from the trade union movement and cause the Nottinghamshire miners to join the strike.

The NCB and government strategy was to use the Rule Book through which individual miners took legal action against the union. Through cases taken in September 1984 by individual miners against the union it was determined by the courts that the area strikes in Derbyshire and Yorkshire were unlawful; and it was judged that they were part of a national strike, which would be in breach of union rules through the absence of a national ballot. Injunctions were granted which required the union to call off the industrial action.

The union did not comply with this instruction and this led to further actions against the union by individuals as described by Terry Thomas. In these cases individual officers of the union were sued for monies spent by the union on the strike. The remedies on these cases were not granted because the individuals had the support of the membership. However, as the union refused to implement the injunctions requiring them to call off the action and refused to pay the fines awarded against them, its funds were sequestrated and a receiver appointed to administer the affairs of the union. Other significant rulings included allowing the police to apply road blocks to prevent pickets from moving about the country.

Lord Monks explained that the NUM had sought to keep the TUC out of the dispute with memories of the TUC impact on the general strike of 1926. During the early months, the TUC had therefore distanced itself from the day-to-day activities of the strike. Eventually, at its September 1984 Congress, the TUC issued a statement supporting the NUM but conditional on the union agreeing to enter into negotiations to seek a resolution to the dispute. This was described at the time as 'giving Scargill a blank cheque but forgetting to sign it'. John recalled that the NACODS' (The National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers) intervention provided a potential move towards a settlement when they voted to refuse to provide the essential safety cover for mines during the dispute unless certain conditions were met by the NCB. Because the government, which patently did not want a settlement, could see that the action by NACODS would effectively give the NUM victory, it met all the demands of NACODS and their action was called off. This was followed by Thatcher telling her Cabinet and the NCB 'no more talks until they are back at work'. John suggested that the outcome of the miners' strike was not just a defeat for mining unions, but for the union movement overall. It emphasised the loss of ability to win industrial disputes through the use of strikes and heralded the introduction of the 'partnership' concept, which never really materialised.

Robert Taylor focussed on the state and its main actors in the strike. Thatcher was, of course, the principal player and had a much wider agenda than defeating the miners under Scargill. Robert suggested that she not only hated Scargill but also the other 'enemies within'. She hated the NCB which, since the Second World War, had fostered a culture of partnership and collaboration; she detested the TUC and Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which were part of the tripartite consensus that formed the social contract; and she hated the civil service and Tory 'wets'. In fact, she disliked intensely anything that smacked of democracy. She used police forces to exercise repression by the state.

Robert identified several key consequences of the strike: the privatisation of nationalised industries, the weakening of trade unions through subsequent legislation, and the rise of New Labour as a party dedicated to market economics. Employers were more willing to use the Thatcher legislation after the strike and industrial relations psychology had changed, heralding in a new period of industrial relations where employers felt able to use the 'right to manage' as the basis for justifying decisions which impacted upon their workforces.

Drawing the event to a close, Dr Alastair Reid, of the University of Cambridge, and Professor Michael Gold, of Royal Holloway, suggested that while it was difficult to draw policy lessons from the debate, it did seem that there was a need to look at the long-term structural relationship between trade unions and government. Michael compared the UK with other European countries, such as Germany, which had dealt with a similar rundown of the mining industry without the repercussions to industrial relations experienced in Britain.

This event was a remarkable synopsis of the miners' strike and its impact on the lives of those involved and affected. The diversity of views and exchange of experiences between trade union, politicians, journalists and academics created a fitting memorial to one of the most significant industrial disputes of our time.


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