By Ian Mitchell
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 392

I was there… The Battle of Orgreave

This article is over 7 years, 7 months old
Issue 392

On the afternoon of 18 June 1984 thousands of striking miners were fleeing from a politically orchestrated attack by baton-wielding riot police. This day is known as the Battle of Orgreave.

Between 23 May and 18 June there was an attempt by miners to shut the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire, which was feeding the steel works in Scunthorpe.

Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill had led the mass picketing that closed the Saltley Gate fuel depot in the victorious 1972 strike. Surely we could do the same at Orgreave. After all, it was in the heart of South Yorkshire, surrounded by pits solidly on strike.

Recently released Cabinet papers show Margaret Thatcher’s obsession with keeping industry – including the steel works – fully operational in order to defeat the miners. Clearly, the police were going to be Maggie’s boot boys at Orgreave.

Similarly, Scargill understood the importance of stopping key industries such as steel. Yet against his wishes deals were struck between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) area leaders and the steel unions. The NUM gave dispensations to the various UK steel plants.

At Scunthorpe we were told that without this coal the ovens would collapse, putting steel workers on the dole. This was proven a lie. Steel workers supporting our strike blew the whistle and told us that Scunthorpe was already producing 51,000 tons of the 61,000 weekly target.

Yet the Yorkshire NUM leadership was slow to act to end the coal dispensation. It was pressure from below that forced their hand. An unofficial picket of Scunthorpe steel works was called – which leading Yorkshire NUM officials denounced. However, rank and file miners showed their determination to picket and the Yorkshire NUM stopped the coal dispensation.

An open letter, to which I was a co-author, applauded this decision and called for the union to build mass pickets to close Scunthorpe. Hundreds of rank and file miners signed it.

However, the target for mass picketing had changed. On 23 May, British steel bosses organised to move coking coal between Orgreave and Scunthorpe steel works. With the support of Thatcher this would involve a huge convoy of lorries driven by non-union scab labour.

Word quickly came through to the Silverwood pit strike centre. A few hundred of us went down to disrupt the second convoy of lorries coming out of Orgreave. The cops were completely off guard. We didn’t stop the convoy but we caused major disruption.

The next day we expected thousands to be sent to Orgreave – let’s hit them before they get their act together, we thought.

We were flabbergasted to be told that the instructions from the area strike HQ in Barnsley were to go to Nottingham coalfields. Heated debates broke out.

On the one hand, NUM officials were arguing that we had to put all our efforts into picketing the Notts pits. Others – including myself – were arguing that we needed to shut down steel. Orgreave was a chance to inflict a major blow on Thatcher and turn the strike in our favour. And then we could re-focus on Nottingham.

Despite the death of picket Davy Jones and mass arrests, the majority of Notts miners continued to scab. Failed attempts to get into Nottingham were draining morale.

Each day was a repeat of miners either defying the instruction to go to Nottingham or coming to Orgreave after fruitless attempts to get through Notts roadblocks.

It took a week before the first all-Yorkshire picket was called involving about 5,000 of us. The police outnumbered us but we put them under severe pressure. Despite some arrests and cracked heads we came away buzzing. We couldn’t wait to get back there the next day and build the momentum.

That night an official at Silverwood told us to “prepare to be disappointed”. The next day we received instructions yet again to go to Nottingham.

Feeling the pressure from below, the Yorkshire NUM did sanction further mass pickets. This let off steam but the momentum needed to shut Orgreave was never allowed to develop. Many pickets fought with incredible bravery.

On the morning of 18 June, with the support of pickets from across Britain, we had the police at breaking point and came close to closing the plant. Following the police riot in the afternoon the NUM abandoned Orgreave. Within weeks we found ourselves at our own pits fighting to stop a drift back to work.

Some say Orgreave was a trap set by Thatcher. However, the gut instincts of the rank and file to close steel were spot on. Scargill should have appealed over the heads of the Yorkshire NUM to the rank and file for mass picketing at Orgreave.

If the NUM had built a sustained campaign of mass picketing and appealed for solidarity then Orgreave could have been another Saltley.

Ian Mitchell worked at Silverwood colliery from 1974 to 1988.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance