By The Walrus
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Why Numbers Matter

This article is over 19 years, 10 months old
Secondary picketing could have won the 1984-85 miners' strike.
Issue 284

Most press coverage of the 20th anniversary of the miners’ strike has been pretty crass, turning it into nothing much more than a glorified punch-up. There was plenty of violence, of course, mainly courtesy of Maggie Thatcher’s boot boys – entire regiments of coppers shipped into mining villages with ruthless instructions to spare no quarter. But the main reason for the eventual defeat of the miners a year later was that the tactics adopted by the miners 12 years earlier – in the fantastic strike of 1972 – were not replicated.

The key to the miners’ victory in 1972 had been the devastating use of ‘secondary picketing’. There were two important versions of this – flying pickets and mass pickets. The flying pickets were contingents of strikers organised into relatively small teams to pick out selected targets, such as major power stations or pits which had not yet joined the strike, and attempt to close them down as rapidly as possible.

Contrary to media mythology, flying pickets never resorted to physical intimidation. Their job was to explain their case to other workers and appeal for the most effective solidarity they could provide – either secondary strike action, bans on overtime or stopping the movement of coal. The notion that you can persuade anyone to join a strike by threatening to bash them up is, quite frankly, ludicrous.

Much of the masterminding of this operation was centred on Yorkshire, where Arthur Scargill emerged as leader of a highly effective group of rank and file mine workers known as the Barnsley Forum. Between 1967 and 1972 this movement had won a series of important battles with the Coal Board. In other industries like the docks, the car industry and engineering similar developments had been taking place – with the main initiatives coming from shop steward and factory level rather than from the national union leaderships.

Despite the fact that the leader of the NUM in 1972, Joe Gormley, was a complete and utter right winger, this relatively small but extremely determined coterie of miners were able to bring about one of the most devastating defeats ever inflicted on the ruling class in this country. And the linchpin of the victory was another form of picketing – the mass picket.

Having shut down as much as they could through flying pickets, the central focus of the 1972 strike shifted to Saltley in Birmingham, the largest coke depot in the country. The miners knew that if they could stop lorries moving in and out of this huge compound – where an estimated 138,000 tons of coke were stored – they would have the government on its knees. But the miners did not have the resources to do this on their own against an increasingly large police mobilisation. They would need support from other workers in the Birmingham area. After nearly two weeks on the picket line at Saltley and daily batterings from the police, the miners sent out delegations to the car plants and didn’t so much appeal for solidarity as demand it.

Shop stewards and convenors called mass meetings at all the major factories in Birmingham and, on the morning of 10 February 1972, workers began to flood out. What happened next is described by Scargill, as an estimated 15,000 car workers joined 3,000 miners on the picket line: ‘…and then over this hill came a banner and I’ve never seen in my life as many people following a banner. As far as the eye could see it was just a mass of people… There was a huge roar and from the other side of the hill they were coming the other way… They were coming from every direction and our lads were just jumping up in the air with emotion.’

To cope with this sea of people there were only 800 police. The chief constable of Birmingham was left with no choice but to give in to the pickets’ demands and close the gates at Saltley in ‘the interests of public safety’. So vast were the odds stacked against the forces of the law that there was no violence at all. One of the shop stewards who took part in the mass picket was quoted as saying, ‘For the first time in my life I had a practical demonstration of what workers’ solidarity meant. We all felt so powerful. We felt we could rule the world.’

Just as the miners’ victory in 1972 was an inspiration for other workers, the humiliation of Ted Heath’s Tory administration sent the next generation of Tories – like Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit and Nicholas Ridley – into apoplexy. For them, the settling of scores with the miners developed into an obsession bordering on the deranged. The appointment of Ian MacGregor as hammer of the miners, the deliberate building up of coal stocks, and the mobilisation of the police force as a private army were all elements in Thatcher’s strategy to punish the miners for their audacity in 1972 and, in the process, frighten the rest of the working class.

We know from the memoirs of senior government ministers that the miners came close to victory on many occasions. But there were crucial ingredients missing in 1984-85. Flying pickets could have been used to shut down the whole of Nottinghamshire in the first few days of the strike. And when mass pickets were called, as at Orgreave or Cortonwood, they were nowhere near as effective as they had been at Saltley.

There were still many tens of thousands of workers in the north of England who could have been mobilised onto a mass picket. But when it came to calling on the support of other workers, there was much less clarity of purpose among important sections of the NUM leadership than there had been in 1972, and at important moments the regional NUM leaders in Scotland, Wales and Yorkshire buckled under the pressure. For example, the Yorkshire leaders did a deal to recall flying pickets who had already gone to Nottinghamshire at the start of the strike. And the same individuals repeatedly undermined attempts to build sustained mass pickets at Orgreave and elsewhere, which could have provided a focal point for other workers, as they had done at Saltley.

In addition, the rank and file shop stewards’ movement had suffered a series of setbacks during the late 1970s. As a result, there was not the same confidence to organise from below the kind of picketing which could have shut down power stations or key locations like the Ravenscraig steelworks or the docks. It also meant that, on the day of the Orgreave mass picket, quite unlike Saltley, no serious attempt was made to mobilise workers from the nearest large conurbation of Sheffield. These weaknesses could have been overcome if they had been properly recognised. By contrast, the other side knew exactly what it was doing and how to go about it. Next time round we must learn from the defeat of 1985 – but also from the triumph of 1972.

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