Correspondence on the 1984-5 miners' strike

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Dave Douglass responds on the article: 25 Years since the Miners' strike

We are publishing below Dave Douglass' response, alongside our reply, to the article '25 Years since the Miners' strike (posted online 9 July 2009). We welcome comments on all our articles in order to develop the discussion between revolutionaries and will answer all serious correspondence.

Dave Douglass:

26 July 2009

I'm probably on a hiding to hell here but let's try again. I've explained this sequence to you before and you simply take no notice of facts. Your ability to distort actual events in order to fit your anti union position would qualify you for the Sun journalists of the year award. The miners were not on strike in defiance of their union the NUM. We went on strike through our union and in defence of our union the NUM.

As you well know the union was not 'forced to make the strike official but only in one area' how and why was it 'forced' to do so? I presume here you're talking about the NEC - although you don't understand or care actually about the different levels and functions of the union. The strike started in the Yorkshire Area, and was official in that area. The area went to the NEC under rule 41 to declare the strike officially recognised as such by the National Executive. This was because the Yorkshire miners intended to picket out the rest of the country that was the point of doing it that way. The NEC also declared the strike in Scotland and Kent official under rule 41 in the same way and at the same time. The Areas then rolled on into other areas to bring out the rest of the country in picketing action. Your suggestion that the NEC wished to stop picketing just doesn't make sense; they only chose to go down the rule 41 route in order that this could take place. It's possible that you mean 'only in one area' as against ‘nationally'. If so the NEC had no authority to declare a 'national strike' in that manner, a national strike per se would require a national ballot. The area-by-area picketing route was counter-posed to not picketing and having a national ballot instead. Of course, we could carry on picketing and then have a national ballot if we chose, but only the rank and file could make that choice. We chose on 19th April at a national conference NOT to have a national ballot and to carry on picketing instead. These were all decision of the miners expressed through the union. All of this makes nonsense of your article, which says the NEC and Arthur Scargill were against picketing and trying to stop picketing. You take a single incident and try and inflate it into a whole policy. Yes, the Yorkshire area tried to restrain the pickets from Doncaster flooding over into Nottingham in the first hours of the strike starting in Yorkshire. The Nottingham Area was holding an Area Ballot (Like Yorkshire and Scotland had already had) to decided on strike action or not. The question was delicately balanced, the militants in Nott's thought rough scenes and fighting at the gates prior to the ballot would just swing it the other way, so asked us NOT to come into their coalfield until the result of the ballot was out. The rank and file in Doncaster said "bollocks" and picketed anyway. We always had intended to picket Nott's if the ballot was lost anyway, it wasn't a question of a once and for all decision. This was a tactic for a short period; the rank and file didn't accept it. The ballot was lost in Nott's, some say it was due to the premature picketing, I doubt that, but it didn't help. The point is though this didn't mean 'the union' however, you describe it, was against picketing as you say; this is just simply wrong or worse is a deliberate distortion. ‘At the same time, left wing officials asked the pickets to withdraw and Arthur Scargill talked about taking the heat out of the situation'. Yes, this is true, but so far, out of context as to be yet another deliberate distortion, you do not say WHY or WHEN this happened. You give the impression this was some standing policy on the question of picketing. It was never that.

In fact this is one incident arising after the death of Gareth Jones on the picket line at Ollerton. Jones had been killed either by police or the lads say by a brick thrown by a scab. As pickets flooded into the village, there was a resolve to burn the whole place down. Revenge was consuming the pickets and there was a strong chance of murder and multiple serious injuries on all sides. Now I for one didn't mind getting stuck into the scabs or police, or killing the odd one or two of them in revenge or just for the fuck of it, but the whole of Nott's and all of its inhabitants started to take on the colour of the enemy. The point was to actually win over or force out the Nott's scabs not declare war on Nottingham as a whole. Many innocent Nott's people of all ages could have been caught up in a search for revenge. In that context and in that context only Arthur arrived and tried to take the heat out of the situation. In that context and in that context only 'left wing delegates' called on pickets at other pits to stay at their posts and not abandon everywhere else in order to take action in Ollerton. Those are the facts. No one in that situation and none of the picket's delegates or AS wished to condemn the pickets or did so. Who is it who condemned pickets for defending themselves against the police? Arthur Scargill on each occasion refused to do so and so did the Yorkshire Area officials and Executive Committee. Kinnock and an army of commentators since have condemned Arthur for refusing to do so, you on the other hand stand truth on its head and say he did, and 'the union' did too. Well I was at the Yorkshire Area NUM Council meeting when some right wing North Yorkshire Area branches tried to get a resolution through condemning 'brick throwing and sabotage' It was massively defeated, and the Yorkshire Area Leadership led by Jack Taylor called for a vote against that resolution. So I don't know where this information of yours comes from, I didn't see any of you at the Council meeting or any other conference or mass rally where these things were debated en mass. You say we lost the strike because 'the union' stopped the pickets in the early weeks of the strike. What utter nonsense something like 20,000 pickets were in operation and in all areas all through the strike. Other than the one incident, I've explained, and this was a strategy meant to last two days and in any case few took any notice of, it has no basis in fact. You are so determined to see 'the union' as the enemy you are blinded to the actual events, worse you try to blind other people who are not so afflicted by telling lies. This is the kind of actions we would normally associate with bureaucrats and parliamentary politicians isn't it?

For the facts on events, and who did what and why please see my forthcoming book Ghost Dancers, Christie press out next year, which deals with the run up to the strike, the strike and its aftermath and the whole process through John Major and the current situation It will deal in detail with the actual disputes and battles within the union between the rank and file and within the bureaucracy etc. for ongoing news coverage of what's happening and happened within the NUM and the pit communities see the rank and file website (a site Arthur Scargill tried to close down - now that's something he did try to do).

David Douglass, NUM

ICC's response:

18 August 2009

Dear David Douglass,

25 years after it happened the 1984-85 miners' strike in Britain is full of lessons for the whole working class. Addressing the ICC you claim "You say we lost the strike because ‘the union' stopped the pickets in the first weeks of the strike". We don't. We say that the strike was defeated because of its isolation and the major role that the NUM played in this isolation before, during and after the strike. Yes, workers' struggles can take place inside the framework of the unions, but the relationship is that of a body to a straitjacket. If you look at the two waves of wildcats in the construction industry this year you can see how the struggle developed against the wishes of the unions. If you look at the recent Vestas occupation, with a young workforce that was mostly not unionised, you can see a struggle that was lost through being limited, essentially to one site. We don't make a fetish out of whether strikes are ‘official' or ‘unofficial', but we do always try to show what role the unions play, in particular in how they stand in the way of the extension of the struggle. In Britain illusions in the unions are particularly powerful, and we know well that this situation is not going to change overnight.

The most important thing, that can never be underlined too often, is that the miners' strike was lost because it was isolated, because it didn't spread to other workers. When the dockworkers struck in the summer of 84 there was the possibility of two major sectors of the working class coming together in a struggle that could have inspired and involved other workers as well.

One of the main reasons that the miners were isolated was because of their misplaced confidence in the NUM. The struggles of workers in Poland in 1980 showed the capacity of the working class to extend their struggles across a whole country. It also showed how dangerous it is to have any faith in ‘free trade unions'. The miners in Britain not only had confidence in the NUM, they also got sucked into the idea that it was essential to make the strike solid in the mining sector, to get the Notts miners out, rather than see the necessity to spread the strike to other workers.

As we said in WR 273, "The unions had utilised a split that had opened up between the Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire coalfields to fixate the miners on closing down the Nott's coalfields. It sent miners to black coal at the ports and it mobilised them into the blockade of the Orgreave Coal Depot where pitched battles with police became a daily ritual. This was all to the detriment of trying to spread the struggles to other sectors of the working class. The best opportunity to spread the strike beyond the corporatist framework came right at the beginning, before the union imposed its stranglehold on events: Early on in the strike, pickets went to the power stations, train drivers refused to cross picket lines and seamen blacked coal shipments. Many of the workers' initiatives went beyond or against union instructions. With all workers confronting the threat of the dole, there is already the potential steadily developing for a generalised struggle, and this is what the unions have been so anxious to avoid all along." ('Miners' strike: workers take the initiative', WR 70).

Certainly there are aspects of our intervention which, looking back over a quarter of a century, we can see require a different emphasis. For example, after the end of the miners' strike, there was a widespread idea that things looked hopeless, many workers saying ‘if the miners can be on strike for a whole year and still not win, then what chance have the rest of us got'? The defeat of the strike had a much bigger impact than we acknowledged in our press, although we did insist that the length of a strike was no sign of its strength. Also, towards the end of the strike, when it was clear that the miners were defeated, we still gave the impression that the struggle still had a potential which a careful analysis of events couldn't justify. However, having said that, our emphasis on the need for the self-organisation and extension of the struggle remains entirely valid.

Clearly you have a different point of view. For a start you are on record as a supporter of a nationalised coal industry, in the name of opposition to the regime of the ‘private' coal owners. In reality all nationalised industries are just as ‘private' as any individual company when it comes to the interests of the working class. State capitalism is just as much an exploiter of workers as any 19th century entrepreneur. And if you look at the career of Ian MacGregor, from the board of nationalised British Leyland, to head of British Steel to boss of British Coal, you'll see someone just as loathed by workers as any pit owner from the past.

The most obvious point that leaps from your letter (received 26/7/9) is that it is exclusively concerned with the miners. No other workers are mentioned, or the possibility of the extension of the struggle.

When you say, "The miners were not on strike in defiance of their union the NUM. We went on strike through our union and in defence of our union the NUM" that is in a sense the crux of the matter. It was because of miners' confidence in the union that they didn't create their own forms of organisation

Details of picketing are not the most important thing because the corporatist framework of the NUM was a trap for the workers, all workers, not just miners, from the beginning. It was the NUM that sprung it and the only question for us was how the working class could get out of this trap. We've seen it too many times, a large, usually strongly unionised, sector taking on the government, being beaten down by a war of attrition and isolation, locked into a corporatist framework as much by the unions as by the state.

Even the simultaneity of several large sectors fighting together is not enough to take on the bourgeoisie if the latter is serious, as it was in taking on the working class in the early 1980s, because they all tend to corral the workers within their own boundaries and institutions. The trade unions were fighting organs of, representative of the proletariat in the hey-day of capitalism. Now, they're empty shells, all the proletarian content taken out, sucked dry through their consistent support for imperialist war, for worker killing worker. This is a position in which all unions are implicated with their inherent nationalism and their undying defence of the capitalist economy.

The defence of the union was a big part of the problem; it was the defence of the NUM and its corollary, the defence of British Coal, which isolated and strangled the strike. It wasn't just the bad leadership, or bad decisions by the NUM but the role of the union in keeping miners isolated from other workers, a task that was equally shared by all the main unions in the country. Our position is diametrically opposed to the defenders of the unions. While that point of view was concerned with the miners ‘winning a strike', we base our intervention on the lessons and needs of the historical struggle of the working class. Effectively there are two opposing class viewpoints.

The combativity and solidarity of the miners was obvious, but it was equally obvious to us that they were being led into a dead end by the NUM and the whole trade union structure, where they would be finished off by other arms of the state. The defence of the NUM and not the workers was the underlying problem of the strike. It could have been overcome; it wasn't insuperable as the mass strikes in Poland, 1980, had shown. But for this the miners needed to take the struggle into their own hands directly. A successful turn to the struggle of the miners would have actively included other workers and this would have inevitably come up against the NUM. Unfortunately the isolation and confines of the NUM held and the workers were controlled by it along with the action of the other main unions.

You say we "don't understand or care actually about the different levels and functions of the union". On the contrary, we understand full well the function of the trade unions for capitalism, as agencies of the state. And, though details are not really important here, the Byzantine manoeuvres of the union, the Rule Book and so on, on top of the various regional fiefdoms of the NUM with their own infighting and manoeuvres were probably not ‘understood' by most miners let alone other workers. The question of ballots was a particular red herring, another fetter imposed on the struggle, another manoeuvre taking place within the whole rotten framework of ‘Defend the NUM'. Similarly, the ‘picketing out', which took place within the framework of the union and its Rule Book, reinforced the union's grip on the workers, whereas what the miners needed was to discuss, delegate and go to other workers.

Your remarks about Ollerton after the death of a picket ("there was a resolve to burn the whole place down. Revenge was consuming the pickets and there was a strong chance of murder and multiple serious injuries on all sides. Now I for one didn't mind getting stuck into the scabs or police, or killing the odd one or two of them in revenge or just for the fuck of it") are symptomatic of the cancer and bitterness that came directly from the NUM and went on to greatly contribute to the defeat of these isolated communities turning in on themselves. It was symptomatic of the isolation imposed by the NUM and on the other hand shows the need to open up and go out to other workers. It was because of the NUM that the Notts miners were portrayed as the enemy, rather than all the unions that kept the miners isolated. The miners were divided and it seems you would have been happy to reinforce that division with violence. There is no role for revenge by any part of the working class. It's a basic principle that relations within the working class are based on solidarity not violence. That's one of the lessons of Kronstadt 1921.

Overall, in our intervention we will continue to patiently explain what role the unions play, and the need workers have to take their struggles into their own hands. At the moment we are well aware that workers' struggles remain in the framework of the unions. Communist minorities have an essential role in the development of an understanding of what the means and the goals of the workers? movement are. Showing what led to past defeats is one of the most important responsibilities for revolutionary organisations.

Fraternally, WR