Scargill’s memoirs of the 1984-85 strike: Hiding the NUM’s role in sabotaging the struggle

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On the 25th anniversary of the miners' strike in Britain there have been plenty of reminiscences in the media: televised reunions between police and strikers, pictures, news items, all wrapped up in a general message of what a shame it all was, how the miners were led by ‘extremists' or, on the other hand, how the Thatcher government, ‘took on the unions' and defeated them.

In addition to this obscuring of the real lessons of the miners' strike, topping them even, comes Arthur Scargill. "Now, for the first time, the then president of the NUM writes his account of the most divisive and bitter industrial dispute in living memory" (The Guardian 7/3/9).

Before we turn our attention to Scargill's account of events, the first thing we want to do is to situate the miners' strike in Britain in the international context of the class struggle. The mass strike in Poland of 1980 had suffered a major set back, not least through an alliance of Russia, Britain and the United States and the Solidarnosc trade union - but within a year or two workers were once again fighting back against the austerity measures being imposed by the ruling class across the planet. The strikes in Britain were part of a wave affecting Italy, Germany, Belgium, the US, France, Holland and others. The strike by the miners, because of the stakes, numbers and the militancy involved, became a focal point for the world's working class. The ground had been laid and the stakes were high. In fact, in 1981, 50,000 miners came out on wildcat strike against a plan to shut 50 pits and get rid of 30,000 jobs. It was in this wave that Scargill's Yorkshire NUM did its utmost to keep its miners working and there was no talk from him about ‘class war' and ‘struggle', earning for him instead the labels of "scab" and "traitor" from the pickets and, on occasions, the need for a police escort. Prior to the 1981 movement, the miners were involved in struggles from 1972-74 which were very positive, again part of an international wave, and indeed their struggles go back through the century in a constant fight against attacks where both Labour and Tory governments have cut miners' wages and tens of thousands of jobs with the acquiescence of the NUM.

Another point to emphasise about the 1984 strike is the development of the self-organisation of the workers which, in the first weeks of the strike, took both the unions and the police by surprise, and this despite the repression prepared by the police on the one hand, and the division of miners into different areas and regions as set up by the NUM on the other. From the first day of the strike it was the workers who took the initiative to call other miners out. The NUM were running to keep up and it called for an all-out strike over pit closures - in Yorkshire only. The flying pickets were particularly successful in calling other miners out, not through intimidation or force but by discussion and argument. By the end of the first week the NUM was trying to cut down on the mass picketing, bringing it in line with NUM general policy. And while the government quietly announced improved redundancy payments, the NUM announced that there would be no strike pay. By the second week the militant minority had brought out over half the miners and Harworth pit in Nottinghamshire was closed down by 300 Yorkshire pickets despite the massive police presence and against NUM instructions. In South Wales, where the majority of pits had already voted against joining the strike, the miners came out in response to the actions of flying pickets from Yorkshire. The initial vote not to strike was something of a parochial revenge against Yorkshire for not joining the South Wales strike and movement a couple of years earlier (something that Scargill was abused for by the miners, but more importantly, was due to the divisive regional set up of the NUM). This therefore showed the ability of the workers to discuss contentious issues, clarify them and take action. In the first weeks of the strike, miners were moving around in numbers very effectively, organised and in some cases armed for self-protection against the police; and they were bringing out other miners with no hint of violent confrontation. The left wing NUM official, Henry Richardson, appealed for the pickets to withdraw. Police and their coaches were pelted with bricks and stones; a High Court injunction against the NUM was ignored by the miners; the Yorkshire NUM leader, Jack Taylor, moaned that the union had never condoned violence, and Scargill said: "I want to take the heat out of the situation". Despite many deep illusions persisting with workers about the unions, the initial movements of the miners in those first weeks, despite the NUM's attempts to cripple them and the state to intimidate them, showed that the lessons of the period internationally, the self-organisation and extension of the struggle, had to a verifiable extent been assimilated and put into effective action by the miners. Not only were other pits and NUM areas targeted by the pickets and brought out, but the flying pickets called out a larger number of miners by focussing their attention on areas where there wasn't such a massive police presence such as there was in Nottingham. And not only were the attempts at active solidarity aimed at other miners, but pickets early on in the strike went to power station workers, rail workers and seamen, with many of these initiatives tending to go beyond or against their union's instructions. In the face of this the bourgeoisie was not passive. A massive, organised police force occupied areas of South Yorkshire and Nottingham, implementing a programme of cordoning off whole areas, intimidation and provocations, while the media developed a campaign about miner fighting miner and the need for democracy. But it was the efforts of the NUM and Scargill that fatally undermined the strike. At the same time as the state was organising its forces, Scargill and the NUM set up a campaign around the demand to "stop foreign coal" and other corporatist and nationalist slogans similar to that of the recent BNP, Labour Party and trade union campaign around "British jobs for British workers".

Scargill's Guardian article is typical of the memoirs of smug bourgeois politicians: slippery and very selective, anxious to prove that he was right all along if only everyone had listened to him. Having learned of the National Coal Board's plans to shut 95 pits and cut a hundred thousand jobs, he says: "It became clear that the union would have to take action, but of a type that would win maximum support and have a unifying effect". The actions of Scargill and his NUM were tailored to have the opposite effect to "maximum support and unification". To build on his previous scabbing over strikes, Scargill, now NUM president, brought in an overtime ban in November 1983 of which he is very proud, saying that it had "an extraordinary impact". Its impact was to give plenty of notice to the Coal Board, allowing it time to manoeuvre, to build up, maintain and move coal stocks; it also allowed time for the government to prepare its forces of repression. Over this 5-month period miners' wages were effectively cut by 20% a week, reducing their capacity to build up sustenance for the strike (particularly with no strike pay). Along with his fixation on the slogan "Block Foreign Coal" - workers' solidarity replaced by nationalism - Scargill's overtime ban hobbled the miners from the beginning, the very point where a wildcat strike can be most effective. Like all trade union rule books, the NUM's reinforced the possibilities of machinations, confusion and bureaucracy, areas in which Scargill was an expert. Such a rule book favoured the manoeuvres and manipulations of the ‘leadership', as with Rule 41 permitting "areas to take official strike action if authorised by our national executive committee" as Scargill puts it. The question wasn't a national ballot for a strike or not, but the extension and self-organisation of the struggle versus the union's bureaucratic rule book and its division into antagonistic areas and fiefdoms of union bosses and cliques.

Within the framework of its defence of Britain's coal industry and the nationalism that goes with it, the NUM directed miners into set piece wars of attrition that flowed directly from its overtime ban, especially the concentration on coal stocks and Nottinghamshire at the expense of widening the struggle. Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire was set up by Scargill for mass picketing and in fact it became a focal point, a fixation of forces where the miners felt the force of the law. It was a trap that diverted the miners away from spreading the struggle. The ex-president criticises other areas of the NUM for not supporting him over Orgreave (by not sending more pickets) and for dispensations given to steel works. But this area-based union with its rule book was a nest of vipers, each looking after their own interests and manoeuvring against the others. Scargill compares Orgreave to "Saltley coke depot in Birmingham in 1972 - a turning point after which that strike was soon settled". What he doesn't say is that the main reason it was "settled" in '72 was because the miners' picket was joined by one hundred thousand engineers from Birmingham (and other workers), threatening to take the movement away from the NUM's control completely and onto a new level of struggle that the state was quick to see. Another dead-end, another pointless and energy-sapping point of fixation, was the set up with the Nottinghamshire NUM and the emphasis on picketing out those pits still working. The fixation on this heavily policed area (that the miners had avoided when spreading their struggle under their own initiative) was to the detriment of the self-organisation and extension of the struggle to other workers - the only chance it had of succeeding. Scargill raises the question of not calling a national ballot saying that: "The real reason that NUM areas such as Nottinghamshire, South Derbyshire and Leicester wanted a national strike ballot was that they wanted the strike called off... Three years earlier in 1981, there had been no ballot when miners' unofficial strike action - involving Notts miners - had caused Thatcher to retreat from mass closures..." What he doesn't say is how ridiculous he would have looked going for a ballot when the majority of militant miners had already voted with their feet and their actions. And he doesn't say that it didn't prevent him calling for a ballot for his Yorkshire NUM in 1981/2 when miners elsewhere were wildcatting against a wage cut; something many miners remembered.

Scargill in his post-25 year justification not only criticises other NUM areas but the steel unions, the electrical union, the Labour Party, the TUC, the T&GWU, the rail unions and the Nacods safety deputies' union. All of them were certainly looking after their own interests and some of them were doing their own secret deals with the Thatcher government. Just like the NUM they all had their own agendas and "rule books" to follow and just like the NUM all these unions were fully integrated into the state apparatus. He says, "at the very point of victory we were betrayed". But the lesson of the 1984 miners' strike for the working class today is that all unions, with their rule books, their bureaucracy, sectional and corporatist set ups, and relations with the Labour Party, are part of the state and work against the self-organisation and extension of struggles under the control of workers themselves.  

Baboon. 31/3/9

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