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Miners’ remember their inspirational strike that defied the state

This article is over 13 years, 5 months old
Former miners tell Mike Simons why they were right to challenge Margaret Thatcher’s offensive
Issue 2142
Women were at the forefront of the strike (Pic: John Sturrock)
Women were at the forefront of the strike (Pic: John Sturrock)

Ian Mitchell – Silverwood miner

Arthur Scargill was head and shoulders above any other trade union leader at the time or since.

The miners elected him with an overwhelming majority because all of us knew Margaret Thatcher and the Tories were coming for us.

We wanted someone who would fight and had a record of winning.

Voting for Scargill as president when there were three million unemployed was a vote for the right to work and a sign that we were prepared to fight for it.

Scargill was absolutely in tune with the rank and file militants, particularly in Yorkshire. We had seen what had happened to steel workers and engineering workers and we weren’t going to see our lives wrecked like that.

We wanted to fight and when the strike started, we wanted to spread it fast.

We wanted a repeat of 1972 when militant action brought the country to a standstill.

That is what Scargill wanted too, but there was a weakness. Unlike 1972, which was led by the rank and file, in 1984, there was a section of the union leadership, who were supposed to be Scargill’s allies, but who were holding us back.

At times it seemed as if Scargill was acting with his hands tied, and he was, because the leaders of the union’s Scottish, Welsh and Yorkshire areas were out to undermine him. It wasn’t until quite late in the strike that we had enough people who were prepared to act independently of the union officials if needed.

We saw it at the Orgreave coal coking plant. It has gone down in history as Scargill walking into a trap laid by MacGregor, Thatcher and the police. In reality it was the climax of an attempt to stop the steel industry.

The militants and Scargill campaigned to focus our action on hitting industry – but the NUM area leaders tried to sabotage our action.

We had a simple calculation. If we stopped Orgreave we would have stopped steel production. That would have stopped the car industry and a lot more. And that would have had the ruling class begging to end the strike on the miners’ terms. Thatcher would have been history.

There is a myth that the strike was unending misery from beginning to end. It was hard and people were short of everything. Miners died scavenging for coal to keep their homes warm. But it was also the best year of my life, as it was for many other miners’ families.

There was a real strong sense of solidarity among people and peoples’ lives were transformed. They saw things, and each other, differently.

They saw solidarity as the basis of a better world. That didn’t die with the end of the strike.

I’ll never forget the run up to Christmas 1984. There was so much pride that we were still out, that people had resisted the propaganda and the enormous amounts of money on offer to go back.

We filled the kids’ stockings with toys, the kitchens laid on fantastic meals – all thanks to the solidarity of trade unionists. 

In the end we were beaten but it wasn’t a rout. We still resisted. Kent miners tried to stay out in solidarity with the thousand men who had been sacked during the strike.

Three weeks after we went back management tried to sack me and another lad, and people simply wouldn’t go down the pit.

Management had to back off.

A year after the strike there was loads of unofficial action in the pits. Where we held it together during the strike, we could hold it together afterwards.

Twenty five years on, remembering what we did isn’t about nostalgia. It is about remembering one simple lesson – it is always better to fight than to give in to the bosses.

Steve Hammill – Silverwood miner

Everyone knew there was going to be a showdown between the miners and Thatcher.

Her plans to smash us had been in the press. While the Tories prepared, we prepared. We debated our response at NUM branch and area meetings across the coalfields and at our conference.

We agreed unanimously at our conference that there would be a national strike if the government or coal board tried to shut a single pit in contravention with the agreements they had signed with our union.

The issues were simple. The Tories said loud and clear, for them it was about the right to let the free market rip. For us it was about the right to work, about the defence of our jobs and communities.

When they announced the closure of Cortonwood, it was a deliberate provocation and we had to respond.

We didn’t wait for a ballot and we didn’t need to wait for one.

We had a mandate for a national strike, we had momentum, with thousands of lads picketing or ready to picket. When we went to the Nottingham and Derbyshire pits we mostly got results.

It wasn’t until Thatcher threw the police at us and the media began a massive campaign of abuse that the momentum stalled.

The tool they used was to call for a ballot. But this was not about uniting the miners. It was about breaking the momentum of the strike and getting us back to work.

Later in the strike, Neil Kinnock, then Labour Party leader, and some trade union leaders used this argument as an excuse for their failure to deliver any meaningful solidarity.

Ultimately the Tories forced us back. But the way we fought prevented them doing what they really wanted to on the backs of defeated miners – smashing the living standards of every worker in the country.

Jim Tierney – Castlehill miner

The strike was absolutely solid across Scotland, even towards the end. You could count the number of scabs on your fingers and toes.

We had lots of support from other workers and local businesses, which meant that the strike centre was well stocked and people didn’t go without a meal.

I was sacked during the strike after the police framed me for an attack on a scab van. I was well known in the area because I organised the picketing across Fife and Stirlingshire.

The Tories were organised, while our side wasn’t. But even so, we came so close to beating them. The trade union and Labour Party leaders stabbed us in the back.

If our side had been united we could have forced the Tories to back down. The Tories’ victory meant the widening of the division between the haves and the have-nots.

The anger and the bitterness that was there in the 1980s is still here today.

Paul Symonds – Frickley miner

Sometimes in history you are asked to stand up and be counted, and that is what the miners did.

Some people say the miners had no option but to fight. We did have an option.

We could have carried on working like many Nottinghamshire miners, but we didn’t. We decided to draw the line and we decided which side we were on.

Thatcher picked the fight. She wanted revenge on the miners for our victories over the Tory government in 1972 and 1974 and she wanted to smash trade union organisation.

But when the fight started, no one knew how big it would be or how long it would go on for.

When you go into battle the outcome is always uncertain. If you always knew what the result would be, there would never be a fight.

We knew we had a cause worth fighting for, and we knew then and we know now that we could have won and at times came close to winning.

Today people talk about why there was not a negotiated settlement. No negotiated settlement was possible. Even when MacGregor wanted to settle, he was told by Thatcher to get on with the fight.

The only outcome the Tories would accept was total surrender. But that would have meant the organised labour movement laying down before the Tory government, and that would have been the worst of all defeats.

Instead, we fought for a year.

We made the Tories pay a price far beyond anything they ever planned for or dreamed of in their worst nightmares.

The end of the strike wasn’t the end of the resistance, either in the pits or in other industries. The Tories wanted to break the trade union movement permanently. We stopped that happening.

Was the strike worth it? Absolutely. Twenty five years on, with thousands of people being thrown out of work every week, we need to revive some of the miners’ fighting spirit.


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