1984-85: How the NUM served to defeat the miners

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We've just passed the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the miners' strike in Britain, a strike which began in March 1984, lasted nearly a year and involved some 120,000 workers; a strike moreover which had its roots in the whole period beforehand of international class struggle. Despite returning to this question over a couple of decades, and particularly on anniversaries, we make no apology for looking at this issue once again given that the lessons of this strike and its defeat, the role of the trade unions - particularly the National Union of Miners - are important not only for the working class in Britain but also for the proletariat internationally.

The strike itself broke out after a long period of rising international class struggle - a strike wave in Britain, strikes in Germany, Belgium, the USA, Italy and Poland, to name but a few - with the workers more and more tending towards self-organisation and, in this process, coming up against the constraints and diversions of the trade unions. If there are some revolutionary, anarchist or libertarian elements that are unaware of the fundamental role of the trade unions in policing and attacking the working class (indeed some of these elements actively work within the unions and bolster their ideology), then there are elements of the ruling class that are well aware that the trade unions belong to them and and know how to use them to the greatest effect. Such was the case with the 1984 miners' strike where the state used repression on the one hand and the National Union of Miners and its leader Arthur Scargill on the other, in order to crush the miners and deliver a message that "struggle doesn't pay" not only to the class in Britain but to the proletariat internationally.

Under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher the British bourgeoisie prepared well and carefully from the very early 80s in order to take on the miners. A shadowy Cabinet Office group, MISC 57, was set up in 1981 in order to lay the ground. This included buying up land next to power stations so that coal could be stockpiled and the group also identified the power, steel and rail workers as too dangerous to be involved. The watered down, sanitised 2001 memoirs of MI5 boss Stella Rimington show how MI5 used its agency not only against the NUM leadership (there is absolutely no contradiction with one element of the British state spying on another) but also on the ground against miners[1]. There was widespread bugging by GCHQ and the involvement of MI5 agents in the NUM leadership. Such infiltration is not at all unusual in the trade unions as these structures, ruled from the top with Byzantine rule-books, lend themselves, indeed offer themselves, to infiltration by the secret services. What many naive believers in "open democracy" on the left see as a "conspiracy theory" is the real activity of the state against the working class. Joe Gormley, for example, a president of the NUM was, like many union leaders, a Special Branch informant. An early proposal to use troops against the miners was rejected as too dangerous - a wise decision by the state given the number of soldiers on leave that eventually fought alongside the miners on the picket lines and in protests. Another key weapon in the repressive apparatus was the police who were given carte-blanche to crack down on the miners, the mining communities and other workers, and provided with bottomless funds to do so. The state was set up to go on the attack: a MI5 section - DS19 - was set up for directing the police, surveillance and providing agent-provocateurs; the courts dished out sentences against miners which went beyond their powers; there was similar lawbreaking from the DHSS which turned down legitimate claims of miners' families; and the media of course with the blatantly lying BBC heading the pack entirely at the service of the British state and against the working class.

But it was the trade unions, with the NUM at the forefront, that provided the real line of defence for the British state and the defence of the national interest. The miners were given decent pay rises in the early 80s (not least as a result of their struggles) and the Thatcher clique concluded secret deals with the ISTC steel union, the NUR rail union and the power workers union in order to keep their workers out of the strike - which they did using their union rule-books and union discipline. The GMBU, with workers in the rail and power industries, ordered its workers to cross miners' picket lines, as did other unions including the NUR. The NACODs pit-deputies' union ignored an overwhelming ballot by their members to join the strike and the dockers' union, whose workers struck in July, kept their workers and their strike isolated from the miners' actions. And of all the unions, all of them "scab" unions as all unions have been for decades, the great National Union of Miners clearly demonstrated its own scab nature at the end of the strike by leading the 60% of miners still out, "with heads held high" as the union put it, across picket lines of miners who had been sacked or were on bail. Despite acts of solidarity and support from individual workers or groups of workers, the whole of the trade union apparatus showed in practice its support for the state against the miners. To back up this formidable opposition to the miners, many of whom were being radicalised by the overt repression of the police and other state agencies, the whole gamut of leftism, whose concern is always in tandem with the unions for the national interest, was mobilised behind the NUM and other trade unions in order to maintain credibility in the fiction among workers that it was inside the union structures and in defence of the union that the miners had to be supported. And the unions, the NUM and the other major unions, supported the workers like the rope supports the hanged man. The overt repression of the police and the subtle divisive repression of the NUM and other unions worked hand in hand against the miners specifically and the working class in general. The defeat of the miners' strike was never a done deal and the bourgeoisie had some worrying moments when the strike threatened to extend and get out of control. But it was the NUM and the Scargill "factor" that kept the miners trapped in the union framework and it was this framework/prison that proved decisive in the defeat of the miners and their strike.

Scargill’s role

Arthur Scargill became president of the NUM in 1982. He was the perfect foil for the Thatcher clique, the other side of the coin in the left versus right game that the British bourgeoisie was getting down to a fine art. He was deliberately set up as a bogeyman and the more the bourgeoisie attacked him the more he drew the majority of the miners behind him This is an old trick of the ruling class and the modus operandi of the British bourgeoisie - particularly using its popular press and TV stations - in many important strikes through the 60's, 70's and into the 80's. Union leaders were labelled "socialist firebrands", "reds" and so on but many of these "wreckers" managed to get knighted, made Baronesses, or some other title that got them into the House of Lords. Others ended up with part-time plum jobs on various state bodies with some of them presumably getting a pension from the security services for whom they had worked. We saw a glimpse of this game recently with the appearance of the media's Bob Crow appreciation society on the occasion of his death. Not a lot of chance of this for Arthur because this was a very important strike for the bourgeoisie to win. He had to be elevated to supreme pantomime villain and he was just right for the role. Scargill started his political life as a Young Stalinist and this career bureaucrat knew all about rising through the union ranks from his position as a minor legal functionary of the NUM to become the leader at the top of the union. And today, the pathetic figure of Scargill is reduced to ongoing legal battles with his union. Despite his inestimable services to the state, there will be no knighthood for Arthur Scargill.

In 1981, a wildcat strike by tens of thousands of miners - which threatened to get even bigger - pushed the Thatcher government to withdraw its pit closure plans and severely dented the latter's credibility in the eyes of the ruling class. Thatcher was on her way out but the British victory in the Falklands War, facilitated by the US, gave renewed vigour to the British bourgeoisie and it turned to dealing with the "enemy within"  - the working class, the main battalion of which, due to their militancy and will to fight, was the miners. The repressive plans mentioned above were put in place and the ruling class relied on the NUM leadership, along with the other main unions, to play the role that it had consistently played in the past: isolating the miners and leading them into an ambush and subsequent defeat. Scargill and the NUM started this ball rolling with a ridiculous overtime ban began in November 1983, which gave the bosses all the warning they needed in order to build up coal stocks and their own repressive forces. None of Scargill's whining and evasions in his "memoirs" alters this or any of his and his union's role in the defeat that followed[2]. There were plenty of workers' initiatives that counter-posed a class dynamic particularly based on their self-organisation. This included the very effective 'flying pickets' when the strike started in March 1984, which the union tried to curtail. But the union had the misplaced confidence of a great number of the workers behind it and this reinforced the role of the NUM, with its nationalist demands for "British Coal" and "Defend the NUM". The union fixated the miners on the Notts collieries and set-piece battles, like the ones around the Orgreave coking plant that, in the face of repressive forces, the miners could only lose. While the only dynamic that will take a workers' struggle forward is self-organisation and extension to other workers, Scargill, the NUM and the other unions, turned this militancy back into warfare between the miners, growing isolation and unwinnable ritualised battles.

It's not a question of "bad leadership" or of the personality of Scargill. It was the whole union structure of the NUM and the other major unions that defeated the miners and delivered a blow to the rest of the class in Britain and internationally. We can see this more clearly in the correspondence between David Douglass, a rank-and-file NUM official and the ICC published a few years ago[3]. The strike says Douglass was "through the union and in defence of the union" which was one of the major problems as the miners were unable to break with this framework and involve other workers - many of whom were involved in their "own" struggles at the time. He insists on the importance of "the different levels and functions of the union", which again was a problem not only for other workers to get involved but were incomprehensible to many miners. Rule books, area divisions, branch ballots and all the rules around them, regional areas under distinct Stalinist-like leaderships in competition with other areas - the NUM had all these divisions within itself and they helped to strangle any initiative of the miners to cut through all this shit and move the direction of the strike towards a result.

There were many positives expressed in this strike from the actions of the workers themselves: the militancy and combative spirit of the working class; the solidarity and sacrifice of the miners and their families; the expressions of self-organisation and the active involvement of other workers and not a few serving soldiers. And the role of the women directly in the struggle who, while the "feminists" were demanding a bigger place at capitalism's table, were radicalised, took to the streets in their thousands and tens of thousands and continued supporting workers' strikes and protests long after the miners' strike was over[4]. But the overwhelming lesson of the miners' strike for the working class today is that not only are the trade unions useless for taking a struggle forward - they are prisons policed by officials and rules whose main function for the capitalist state is to keep workers isolated and divided. We can look back and see that that was exactly what the NUM and the other unions did in 1984/5.

Baboon, 13.5.14 (This article has been contributed by a sympathiser of the ICC)


Historic events: 



Class Struggle in the 80s