Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2894

‘There’s got to be defiance today’ says former striking miner

Ian Mitchell was a young miner during the Great Strike having started in the pits after the miners’ victory against the Tories in 1974. He was sacked in 1988 and blacklisted which made it almost impossible to find another job. He spoke to Socialist Worker about the struggle then and now.
Issue 2894
Miners Great Strike miners

Strikers lobby in Yorkshire during the Miners’ Strike (Picture: John Sturrock, Socialist Worker’s photographer at the time)

SW: How did the strike begin?

IM:In 1984 the strike started over Margaret Thatcher’s threat of pit closures. She laid out a programme of closures to 20 pits. The estimates that 20,000 jobs would go was actually just the tip of the iceberg and in fact tens of thousands of more jobs were at risk. 

Of the 1,300 men in our pit—Silverwood in Yorkshire—1,000 met at a branch meeting and we unanimously agreed to strike. We knew a key lesson from the successful strikes in the 1970s was that we had to spread the action quickly. We sent pickets out to any pit that refused to join us immediately to try to convince them to strike with us. 

Neither Thatcher nor the head of the coal board Ian MacGregor thought we’d be able to last being on strike for a full 12 months. 

The reason we lost was that we were let down by the TUC and leaders of other unions whose workers accepted pay-offs and didn’t deliver the solidarity that was required for us to win.

SW: How do the new anti-union laws today relate to those in the 80s and how can they be overcome?

IM: We broke every law in the book and until quite late in the strike the Tories didn’t dare to use the law against the union. They were confident enough to go to the courts only when we had been weakened by Labour and the union leaders. 

The lesson is if you’re going to comply with them then yeah you’re fucked but if you defy them, you can beat them. The new laws now, the minimum service levels, the Tories are trying to enforce completely undermine the point of a strike. 

It’s really important the union leaders do not go along with this.  During the miners’ strike there was talk of all the union leaders going to jail, in fact not one union leader was ever jailed. There’s got to be defiance from the union leaders and rank and file members to refuse to adhere to them.

SW: How did you notice striking miners’ ideas change and what ideas of yours changed during the strike?

IM: The role of women and groups like Women Against Pit Closures were pivotal in keeping the strike going. The quite deep sexist ideas and attitudes towards women of many miners changed during the strike because women were fighting side by side with the men. They challenged men’s views. 

It didn’t make sense to be racist when black people were on picket lines bringing you solidarity, money and food. 

And when it came to police brutality black people supporting the strike would tell strikers how they’d been targeted and beaten up by the police. Homophobic ideas were challenged by the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners who fundraised for many pits. 

We used to discuss and debate international struggles. One of the hardest things for the British working class to get their heads around was Ireland as there was so much propaganda pumped out. 

But when the Irish republicans  of the IRA tried to kill Thatcher in a bomb at the Brighton hotel the chant on the picket line the next day was “I…I…IRA” and I’ll never forget the cops’ faces. 

I lost complete faith in the Labour Party because of its role.  The TUC made promises but never delivered. Neil Kinnock as Labour leader at the time sat on the fence at best, worked his arse off behind the scenes trying to get a deal that would’ve been detrimental to us. 

That’s why I joined the SWP because I saw the need to be with an organisation that combined ideas and action. We were fighting against the idea that profit is first and people are second. The Labour Party was completely out of sync with us. 

SW: What would you tell a climate activist today who may question whether it was right to defend the closure of mines? 

IM: You’ve got large workforces employed in jobs that are detrimental to the environment, you can’t just go and sack them or treat them like scum. You’ve got to find an alternative to transfer their skills.  But in a society run on greed and not need that doesn’t happen. 

The Tories burnt a lot of oil and ramped up gas usage in trying to defeat us and had an idea to make the majority of Britain run on nuclear energy.  After the miners’ strike the reliance on fossil fuels increased. The job was dangerous but we were well paid and our communities had a social glue before the strike. 

Our areas were decimated by the fallout from the defeat of the strike, leaving most men in those communities unemployed.  Rightly a demand of recent fossil fuel workers on strike has been for a just transition to retrain in renewable energy.

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