In 1972 280,000 miners went on
strike. They pursued their claim with flying pickets, seeking solidarity action
to stop coal stocks moving and being used. Everywhere they were met with
tremendous enthusiasm. They picketed Saltley Gate, a coke plant in Birmingham.
The West Midlands working class marched out of work to greet them.
mood was electric as almost all of Birmingham’s 40,000 engineering workers went on
strike, and some 10,000 marched on Saltley Gate. They joined 2,000 miners at
the gates. The 1,000 police on duty were simply overwhelmed.
"At first there were only ten
of us, then twenty, fifty, five hundred and finally ten thousand", That is
how the picketing built up outside Saltley coke depot." The Militant
reporter continued, "Men from Dunlops, British Leyland, Rover, Drop Forge,
GEC, etc. were there. Birmingham industry was at a standstill and ten thousand
people flooded the square outside the depot, stopping the movement of traffic.
The police closed the gates for the day. Victory was ours. I cannot describe to
you the feeling of joy, relief and solidarity that descended over all of us
there. Leaflets I brought to hand out were taken out of my hands in bundles by
total strangers, who distributed them for me. It was like what Petrograd 1917 must
Arthur Scargill also described what
"Some of the lads were a bit
And then over the 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 marching towards
Saltley. Our lads were jumping in the air with emotion – fantastic situation. I started to chant ‘Close the
Gates! Close the Gates!’ And it was taken up, just like a football crowd."
With no alternative, the Chief
Constable of Birmingham ordered the gates of the depot closed. It was to be a
turning point. By 14 February fuel supplies were so low that many industries
were forced onto a three-day week. The Tory government took fright at the scale
of the movement. Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary, was later asked why he
had not used troops to assist the police. In reply he said, "I remember
asking them one single question: “If they had been sent in, should they have gone in with
rifles loaded or unloaded?” Either course could have been disastrous."
was the spirit of Saltley gate that the ruling class was determined to quell.
Excerpt from In the Cause of Labour by Rob Sewell
class was terrified of the power of the miners, and of the working class as a
whole. The Saltley Gate incident showed that they had lost control of the
situation – because the miners had the active support of the entire working
class. In 1974 the miners struck again. Heath called an election on the slogan,
‘Who runs the country?’ ‘Not you, matey,’ came the reply as Labour formed a
class did not forget this humiliation. After 1974 the Tories began to
contemplate vengeance. As we reported they worked out a calculated plan (The
Ridley Report) for the bosses to regain the initiative and settle accounts with
an over-mighty working class.(http://www.socialist.net/ridley-report.htm) Here is the gist of it:
The government should, if possible, choose who
and when to fight;
The plan grouped industries together based on an
assessment of how easy they might be to beat;
Coal stocks were to be built up at the power
Coal supplies should be arranged via non union foreign ports
Non union lorry drivers should be recruited;
Coal/oil dual fuel generators should be built at whatever cost;
The state must "cut off the money supply to the strikers and make the
union finance them";
It was necessary to organise and equip a squad of mobile police, ready to
use riot tactics to defeat pickets.
So , as soon as Labour was turfed out in 1979, Thatcher
and the Tories began a systematic confrontation with the labour movement. They
started by introducing anti-trade union laws to strengthen their hand – making
secondary picketing illegal and demanding a ballot before any industrial
They appointed Ian MacGregor as head of the nationalised
British Steel. He provoked a strike there and eventually massacred 80,000 jobs.
Thatcher recognised him as the man! So she moved him to British Coal. Scargill greeted his appointment with the
policies of this government are clear – to destroy the coal industry and the NUM." He was spot on. Arthur was
ridiculed for the number of pits he predicted the government wanted to close.
But the Tories’ intention was to destroy the coal industry if that was the only
way to crush the NUM.
There were a few hiccups in their well-laid plans. In 1981
they threw down the gauntlet to the miners by announcing 50 pit closures. The
miners responded by walking out all over the country. The Tories realised they
were not ready and backed down.
Thatcher presented the ruling class case as the
ineluctable logic of economic necessity. Nothing could be further from the
truth. The bosses wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in building up
stockpiles of coal for the sole purpose of smashing a union – the National
Union of Mineworkers. They argued that the NCB was losing money. But the miners
were hard at work digging coal. During the dispute left wing economist Andrew
Glyn produced a pamphlet, ‘The economic case against pit closures,’ that showed
that sacking the miners – so paying them dole to produce nothing – would prove
far more costly. And so it proved.
And the strike was
eventually triggered by the decision to close Cortonwood colliery in South
Yorkshire, part of a closure package of 20 pits. After all, argued MacGregor,
the pit was loss-making and hadn’t produced an ounce of coal in months. This
was because the miners were cutting their way to a rich new seam. Macgregor,
sat in London, had the mentality of an accountant, and was utterly ignorant of
the problems of geology and the mining industry.
More accurately, he was hired to destroy the power of the
NUM whatever it cost, not to get rid of ‘uneconomic pits.’ The closure
announcement signified the Tories were ready to take on the working class.
In 1981 the NUM armed itself for the coming conflict by
replacing the outgoing right winger Joe Gormley as President with the fiery
Arthur Scargill with 70% of the vote. At the time of the strike the 3 person NUM
Executive were all left wingers.
After his election Scargill strove for 3 ballots, two on
pay and one on pit closures. In all 3 cases he did not get a big enough
majority to get a strike. The experience left the NUM Executive ambivalent as
to whether they could win a ballot. This had important implications for the
conduct of the strike, which we shall explore in a subsequent article. Scargill
was gearing up for another action on pay (which he saw as the great unifier)
when the dispute broke out spontaneously over pit closures.
The mood among miners was overwhelmingly for action. The
strike spread spontaneously. Flying pickets moved from region to region
picketing out pit after pit. Secondary picketing was, of course, completely
illegal under Tory laws. It was also stunningly effective.
By March 13th 1984 141 out of 171 mines had been picketed
out. The majority of the rest were occupied by a handful of scabs who could not
form an effective team to dig coal and spent their whole shift being paid to
play cards. Only 11 pits were working normally.
To repeat the oily words of the Ridley Report, the state must “cut off the money supply to the
strikers and make the union finance them". In plain English the plan was
to starve the partners and children of the striking miners. Quite rightly, we
do not deprive the children of convicted murderers of food and clothing, but
the strikers were so much worse than that!
That was the plan. A
magnificent movement of solidarity swept the country. Millions of pounds were
raised on the high street and in workplace collections, shop stewards held
votes in factories where workers pledged a portion of their earnings as a
donation to the miners’ cause for the duration of the strike, soup kitchens were
set up in mining areas and miners’ wives and partners groups sprang up all over
the country to organise solidarity. And this was all spontaneous.
Not a word was spoken in
favour of this movement by the heads of the Labour and trade union movement.
The impetus came entirely from below.
The Tories flooded the mining
areas with paramilitary police, who conducted riots against the local people.
The Metropolitan Police showed a particularly thuggish disposition away from
home. The full force of the state was mobilised against the miners. NUM
headquarters harboured a spy. Phone tapping of leaders of the dispute was
routine. Anti-union laws were used against
the NUM, which was effectively hounded out of legal existence and its funds
sequestered by the capitalist courts.
But it wasn’t the
institutionalised violence of the capitalist state that wore down the miners.
It was the betrayal – no other word can be used – of their cause by the Labour
and trade union leaders. MacGregor confided to his diary that in 1985 he was
regularly meeting Norman Willis, General Secretary of the TUC, at his Belgrave
flat where “I made the tea and poured the whisky.” As George Bernard Shaw says,
“One side preaches class struggle; the other side practises it.”
We shall return to this
question too. The defeat of the miners was a defeat for the whole working
class. It set the movement back a long way. The lessons have to be learned. The
past must never be repeated.