It is twenty-five years since the massive year long miners' strike in Britain. Nearly 120,000 workers spent an entire year on strike from March 1984 to March 1985. Today we return to look at this strike not as an abstract academic piece of history, but as an opportunity for workers and communists to draw what lessons we can from the strike itself, and to help us understand the historic period in which we work today.
To place the miners' strike in its context, it came shortly after the major defeats that the working class had suffered in the struggles in developing from the mass strikes in Iran in 1979 and in Poland in 1980. In the UK itself there had also been a massive strike wave in the winter of 1979, which is commonly refereed to in the British media as the ‘Winter of Discontent'. Massive strikes, resulting in 29,474,000 work days being lost to strike action, spread across the entire working class in Britain as a response to the government's enforced pay rise limit of 5 percent. The limit was smashed by 17,000 workers at Ford Motors winning a 17% increase, and the rest of the working class joined in the struggle.
As rubbish piled up in the streets, bodies remained unburied, factories didn't work and hospitals only admitted patients who the workers decided were emergency cases the Labour government of James Callaghan collapsed.
In the upcoming election the right-wing Conservative Party played on the fears of the terrified middle classes and Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. Despite her reputation as a great politician today, Thatcher's first term in office started badly. In 1981, after promising that she would destroy the power of the working class, and in particular the mineworkers who her party still hated for bringing down their government in 1974, her government was forced to make a humiliating retreat when 50,000 miners went on unofficial strike against a government plan to cut 30,000 jobs. By 1981, the country was once again in chaos, young people across the country had taken to the streets to riot in response to police brutality, and this continued all summer. At the same time Northern Ireland was in flames following the deaths of 10 hunger strikers.
Then, in 1982, came the Falklands war, and it was basically the war that saved Thatcher from losing the next election and being another failed politician. The military Junta in Argentina, with inflation running at 600% and workers about to launch a general strike, had decided to restore national pride and their falling popularity by occupying a few small islands, which were home to less than 3,000 people.
Unfortunately for the Argentine generals who were under the impression that the British wouldn't respond, a war was just what Thatcher and her party needed (and the Labour party, now in opposition, staunchly supported her in this enterprise). The flag was raised, a fleet was sent, striking nurses were condemned for being unpatriotic when ‘our boys' were fighting, and, after 74, it was time for Thatcher and the Conservative party to turn upon what she called ‘the enemy within', the working class. The state began to stockpile coal in preparation for the forthcoming strike.
The strike started in March 1984 after the National Coal Board tore up the agreement made after the 1974 strike and announced the closure of 20 pits and 20,000 job losses. Miners started to walk out on strike on 5 March. Workers spread the strike to other pits using flying pickets, and within a week the union was forced to declare the strike official, but only in one area, Yorkshire. At the same time left wing union officials appealed for the pickets to withdraw and condemned pickets for protecting themselves from the police; the leader of the miners' union, Arthur Scargill, talked about ‘taking the heat out of the situation'. Despite this by the middle of the second week about half the workforce of 196,000 had joined the strike.
As the strike continued to spread, the state used all of the weapons in its arsenal. The police were used as a paramilitary force which closed off entire areas to stop flying pickets as well as attacking picket lines and strikers' villages. The courts were brought in to declare that flying picketing was illegal. Politicians from all parties attacked the strikers, the right with their open hatred of the working class, and Labour in their condemnation of workers' violence; and as a background to all this, the media constantly whined on about how the workers were ‘undemocratic'.
Of course all of this was to be expected. What many workers didn't expect was that it would be the actions of ‘their own' unions that would lead the struggle to defeat. One of the major divisions between the mineworkers was the fact that in some regions, Nottinghamshire and North Wales, the majority of workers did not support the strike. However, in the early weeks before the National Union of Mineworkers had stopped the flying picketing, the workers themselves had been successful in bringing out their comrades in those regions. The union put a stop to this though. The practice of workers going directly to other workers to appeal for solidarity was opposed by the practice of bureaucratic union manoeuvres. An example of this was the closure of Harworth pit by 300 flying pickets acting against a massive police presence and the instructions of the union. When the flying pickets had been stopped the local union officials were then free to organise against the strike, holding their own ballot and campaigning for a no vote.
With the mineworkers divided amongst themselves it was time to isolate them from the rest of the class. Although there was widespread sympathy for the miners within the working class, and although railway workers, dock workers, and seamen took solidarity action by refusing to transport ‘scab' coal, the leaders of the Trade Union Congress not only refused to support the strike, but some actually gave the government information to help it beat the strike. As was to be expected, and concealing his own role in the strike, Scargill said "at the very point of victory we were betrayed". Yet it would have been wrong for workers to expect the unions to organise solidarity action. Even at the point that 25,000 dock workers walked out with very similar demands, the unions were trying desperately to stop the strikes linking up, and to keep workers divided.
In the middle of the summer the union decided to increase the pressure upon the government by closing down the steelworks. In fact these very steelworks had only been working because the union had given them permission to use coal in the first place. The decision to change strategy was connected to the fact that they were using more coal than the union had allowed them. On 18 June the miners arrived to picket Orgreave British Steel coking plant. In many ways this was reminiscent of an action in the 1972 strike at a coke depot near Birmingham. At that time, striking miners' succeeded in closing the depot. This time though about 6,000 workers confronted about 8,000 police, and were beaten in a pitched battle. There was a crucial difference between Orgreave in 1984 and Saltley in 1972. In the first case striking miners were joined by about 100,000 engineers and other workers from the city of Birmingham whom the miners had appealed to for solidarity. Not only were the numbers massive but also the strikes of these workers and the threat of the mass strike terrified the state.
The bourgeoisie was very clear about how it viewed the working class. Talking about the events at Orgreave, Thatcher stated that "We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty." For our rulers the working class is a much more dangerous enemy than foreign states.
Even following the events of Orgreave there were still chances to extend the strike. In July and August when the dock workers came out, and in October when mining engineers were within 24 hours of walking out on strike. Thatcher later admitted that if that had happened the Government would have had to have backed down.
As the year turned to winter it became more and more obvious that the miners were going to be defeated. Support for the strike started to dwindle and thousands of workers gave up the strike and returned to work. By the start of the following March, when there was an organised return to work only 60% of the workforce were still on strike.
The years that followed saw a full scale assault upon the working class with different sectors of workers being isolated and defeated in strikes, including the dock workers, ferrymen, and a one year long strike by 6,000 printers. These defeats, but the defeat of the miners' strike in particular, dealt a significant blow to the class struggle in Britain and even internationally, as many workers had looked to the UK miners as an example of militancy and defiance. However, the wave of class struggles in the 1980s continued, with important movements among railway workers and healthworkers in France, education workers in Italy and so on. Even in Britain struggles did not simply disappear - the British Telecom workers won important concessions in a strike that showed signs of workers deliberately trying to avoid being trapped in a long isolated siege as with the miners and the printers. However, 1989 saw the collapse of the eastern bloc and the onset of massive campaigns about the ‘end of the class struggle' and the disappearance of the working class. The doomed fight of the miners, and the dismantling of the mines and other traditional industrial sectors, added further grist to the mill of these campaigns: how could there be a class struggle if the working class didn't exist anymore? The result of all this was a retreat in the class struggle which lasted for over a decade.
Since 2003, we have seen internationally a revival in workers' struggles. It is quite telling of the level of the defeats inflicted in the 1980s that the working class took so long to recover. Nevertheless after all the theorisations of pseudo-Marxist intellectuals, like André Gorz, who saw the end of the working class and wished it goodbye, the past few years have shown a revitalisation of struggles across the globe. The lessons that the UK miners' strike can teach us today about the role of the unions, the weakness of workers in isolation, and the need for workers to take matters into their own hands by going directly to other workers to extend their struggles, will be vital in the years to come.