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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 March, 2004, 18:39 GMT
Miners' strike: No ordinary dispute
By Peter Bain
University of Strathclyde

On 5 March 1985, an estimated 100,000 coal miners returned to work after a year on strike, the longest national industrial dispute in British history.

Despite failing to prevent the National Coal Board (NCB) implementing its programme of pit closures, many strikers marched back to work defiantly, with union banners flying and bands playing.

Throughout, the conflict had been conducted with a steely determination and open bitterness.

For the miners, this was clearly typified by Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

The mining industry was hit badly by the 1984 strike

On the coal board side it was not its recently appointed chairman Sir Ian MacGregor but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who seemed only too willing to assume this role, famously describing the striking miners as "the enemy within".

From the start of the strike in March 1984, despite the commonplace industrial relations issues that seemingly lay at the heart of the conflict, it was evident that this was to be no ordinary dispute.

That both sides had been anticipating and preparing for possible conflict is clear if developments during the run-up to the strike are considered.

In the previous 12 months, the NCB had closed 23 pits, employing 21,000 miners, meeting with only sporadic resistance from the NUM.

Overtime tactic

It was also estimated that the NCB's plans could result in as many as 100,000 jobs disappearing (of 184,000 in total) over the next five years.

However, in October 1983 an NUM delegate conference imposed a national overtime ban within the industry.

Such a tactic - aimed at cutting production, reducing coal stocks, and aiding threatened pits - had been a precursor to the miners' successful national strikes in 1972 and 1974, and Scargill talked of the overtime ban lasting through to the winter of 1984-85.

In April 1979, Margaret Thatcher's government had assumed office committed to an unambiguous programme of reducing trade union power and influence.

According to The Economist, plans to combat "enemies of the next Tory government" had already been drafted for Thatcher by MP Nicholas Ridley.

The 1984-85 miners strike was a landmark in British history
The battleground upon which the government should take on and defeat the unions, it was argued, had to be carefully selected and prepared.

The coal industry was seen as the most likely arena for such a confrontation.

Towards this end, the 'Ridley Report' recommended importing coal and building up stocks (especially at power stations), converting power stations to oil/coal-fired, encouraging the recruitment of non-union drivers to move supplies, cutting off social security payments to strikers and organising large mobile police squads to counter picketing.

All the resources of the state were to be mobilised by the government during the strike since, given their special place in the lexicon of the labour movement.

Defeating the miners was seen as a body blow to the confidence and combativeness of trade unionists far beyond the pit villages.

Threatened pits

The flashpoint triggering strike action was the announcement by the NCB, on 1 March 1984, that the Cortonwood pit was to close in five weeks' time, ignoring the joint NCB-NUM colliery review procedure.

Cortonwood was neither high on the NCB's list of 'uneconomic' pits nor did it have a 'militant' industrial relations reputation.

Indeed, the workforce had been assured that their jobs were secure for at least another five years - and the pit baths had just been refurbished.

From the NCB/government perspective, however, Cortonwood's particular attraction was that it lay in the NUM (and Scargillite) heartlands of South Yorkshire.

On the one hand, if the pit was allowed to close without resistance, then this would have a 'demonstration' effect on miners throughout Britain and facilitate further closures and privatisation.

On the other, as the Sunday Times said, if the miners were provoked into striking then this would occur at a time of the government's choosing - in early spring, when the demand for electricity and coal started to fall, and when any resistance was thought likely to be short-lived.

Miners clash with those crossing the picket line
Over 9,000 miners were arrested during the strike

However, within a few days most of Britain's coal fields had been shut down after picketing by miners from the most threatened areas or pits.

The action was sanctioned by their national executive, under Rule 41, allowing areas to call strikes without a ballot.

Although more than 80% of the miners had struck, the principal exception was the concentration of profitable "super-pits" in Nottinghamshire, where only a minority of NUM members came out and officials called for a national ballot.

Despite immediate implementation of the 'Ridley Report' measures, and Thatcher's establishment of a special inner cabinet of senior ministers who met twice weekly to direct strategy, the miners' action was initially very effective.

The Financial Times warned of imminent lay-offs in car and engineering plants as production was restricted at the giant Llanwern and Scunthorpe steelworks due to coke shortages.

Subsequent concessions from NUM officials to allow coal supplies to 'their' regional steelworks, and the failure of a TUC-agreed boycott of the movement of coal, were to cost the miners dearly as the strike wore on.

Defence of jobs

The leaders of some unions - and of the Trades Union Congress and Labour Party - sought to justify their less than full-hearted support for the strike by criticising the NUM's refusal to conduct a national ballot.

Strike supporters argued that those taking action "in defence of jobs and communities" had an inalienable right to do so and that any ballot would be dominated by a government and media campaign of unprecedented scale and hostility.

A massive movement developed in solidarity with the miners and was able to organise financial and physical support - The Guardian estimated 60m was donated.

But it was unable to provide the industrial muscle necessary to overcome government strategy or what some saw as the cautious approach of the leaders of the labour movement.

The government also tried to avoid doing anything that might generalise the dispute or bring it into conflict with other groups of workers.

While "the enemy within" - to use Margaret Thatcher's words - had undoubtedly lost an important battle, the war, in many people's eyes, still seemed to carry on
Thus it did not use new anti-picketing laws (which the TUC was formally committed to resist) against the miners, and eschewed making provocative pay offers to other public sector workers.

Nonetheless, the government was pursuing a high risk strategy that almost blew up in its face on a number of occasions.

For example, over the first mass picket at the Orgreave coking plant in May 1984, the threat of a national dock strike in July and when the NCB almost provoked the pit supervisors into a national dispute (shutting down Nottingham as well) that October.

By Christmas, after nine months, at least 100,000 miners were still holding out but, in January 1985, police and judicial activity intensified to hasten a return to work.

Over the course of the dispute, 9,778 miners were arrested - almost one in 10 strikers - and the NUM's funds were sequestrated for refusing to obey legal injunctions to call off the strike.

Strike ends

But, as more miners drifted back to work, it became clear there would be no negotiated settlement and, on 3 March, an NUM delegate conference voted by 98 votes to 91 to end the strike two days later.

The 1984-85 miners strike was a landmark in British history.

While seen by some as proof that Thatcher had decisively laid to rest the power of the unions, others pointed to the deleterious effects of unemployment doubling to over three million between 1979 and 1983.

The miners' defeat undoubtedly signalled their demise as a powerful union and paved the way for further legislative action against an embattled and divided labour movement.

However, the situation differed from the catastrophic defeat of 1926, when the miners had been left to fight on alone for seven months after the collapse of the general strike.

In the late 1980s, unemployment did not reach the levels it had during the depression of the late 1920-30s and neither was there a comparable fall in working-class living standards.

Furthermore, in 1926, the miners constituted about 15% of all British trade-unionists, but only 2.3% in 1984.

Immense cost

Thus, while many union leaders concluded that the lesson of the 1984-85 strike was to avoid confrontation with employers or government at all costs, the effects were uneven.

Although confidence overall had been adversely affected by the miners' defeat, some unions and strategically placed groups of workers were able to retain varying degrees of their strength and bargaining power (not least in the public sector), while bitterness at the way the miners had been treated lingered long after the dispute ended.

Conversely, employers generally felt stronger and more confident in their dealings with the unions.

However, the immense cost incurred - both financially by the government in breaking the miners' unexpected level of resistance and in terms of the incalculable effects of the prolonged conflict upon the social fabric - made many wary of provoking outright confrontation with their own workforce.

While "the enemy within" - to use Margaret Thatcher's words - had undoubtedly lost an important battle, the war, in many people's eyes, still seemed to carry on.

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