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Thatcher's enemy within: 25 years after the end of the miners' strike
When the 1984-85 miners' strike ended, most of Britain's 180,000 miners had been on strike for a year in a battle to save their pits, their communities and trade unionism. The full force of the state, the police, media, courts and benefits agencies, were all used against the miners. Strikers were jailed, even for going to buy a pint of milk.
Pit villages and towns were under siege. The hated Margaret Thatcher even called miners and their communities 'the enemy within'. Britain's rulers had a plan. To break unions and to start their 'race to the bottom' in wages.
Former miners from Littleton Colliery, Cannock, Staffs, marked the 25th anniversary of the start of the strike last year. At the former site of the pit, 100 of them gathered like a mass picket to declare "The miners were right".
Speaking there, former NUM official, Sean Farrell summed things up in a passionate speech: "They smashed a profitable coal industry and the communities that went with it. Communities that had values, and represented the best of Britain. Thatcher represented the worst of Britain: Greed. She called us the 'enemy within' and did everything to break us."
Four ex-miners recently reflected on the strike with Dave Griffiths, the Socialist Party's West Midlands organiser.
Chris Stewart recalls: "I was 23 when the strike started, not active in the union, but I voted for action. Many of the fitters and electricians down "the Teddesley" were prepared to back the union as well as a lot of the face team. I now realise that if a person is on strike they are assumed to be an enemy of the state and any means will be used to force, coerce, starve, beat or lead you back to work."
Nick Platek: "Initially I voted with my feet for areas like Wales who faced the slaughter of their coalfields. We all came to realise that the attack was actually the wholesale destruction of our industry, jobs and union."
Chris: "Littleton was not prepared, nobody was, for the length of the strike. The two unions, Midlands Area and Power Group NUM, were both moderate and did not want action. When South Wales NUM pickets came up, we were amazed that they had been paying in to a levy to pay £7 a day strike pay.
"The Tories were prepared. With the Ridley plan: private hauliers, modifications to power stations. They prepared the police and cut benefits."
Dave Griffiths: "In areas like the Midlands, strikers faced huge organised scabbing operations. A future Tory MP was an early scab at Littleton as police and management tried everything. National news reports gave police/employer figures of miners going back to work. Over the first three months they probably reported that 300,000 of the 180,000 miners were back at work!"
Chris: "We weren't helped by the right wing [of the union]. They hated the new leadership and hoped to give them enough rope to hang themselves. To do this they used our loyalty to our union and we suffered. They didn't have the courage to resign and through leaks and smears did their best to undermine the leadership.
"Could we have won? At the time I argued that it was an industrial dispute and I was wrong. It was a British civil war. I believe we would have lost whoever was in charge. The Tories and Maggie needed us smashed."
Dave Griffiths disagrees: "The miners could have won, if the support they had from other workers had been turned into action." See 'A Civil War Without Guns' for a discussion of this, advertised below.
Nick: "The principle remains the same as it was 25 years ago - whatever area or race or colour, never turn your backs on brothers who need your help. I still meet up with fellow workers. I can say they are true friends who cannot be bought off. The feeling I had, the bond with fellow workers and supporters is something money cannot buy."
Chris: "For each individual and their family who stuck it out, that was a victory. The same applies to any support group who enabled those miners and families to go back undefeated. The NUM was still there after the strike and just because men returned to work they did not turn their back on the union. The udm (lower case deliberately) [Union of Democratic Mineworkers, set up to oppose the NUM] only got footholds in most areas, no matter how the National Coal Board helped them. Union branches were led by strikers years afterwards, even though the majority returned to work at some time.
"All the lads go over tactics that may have changed things. People were being bussed into pits, not just to start the trickle back but to tie large numbers of pickets down. We should have caused chaos. Brought old cars and stopped them three abreast on motorways and done the same around the City of London and container ports."
On the mining industry in general, Chris Brown says: "We thought we were fighting for a good cause 'the plan for coal'. [The NUM made proposals for more efficient use of the energy from coal etc]. Look what has happened in the 25 years since we went on strike. The country is in a mess, not just through industries disappearing.
"When gas went up last year there were arguments in Europe. People were talking about putting sanctions on Russia over gas supply. But let's get real, if Russia turns the gas off we're in shit street.
"The Tories shut the mines, steelworks, the car industry and what was left over was sold off to fat cats. When you see people who can't afford their fuel bills going cold and dying, thank the Tories. When you see petrol prices going up - thank the Tories. Remember you can get oil out of coal. This was first done in Cannock Chase in 1927.
"When you see our soldiers fighting wars over oil, or the government threatening countries with sanctions - if they had kept the mines open we wouldn't be in this mess. We have over 300 years proven reserves. Any government in their right mind would invest in coal so we don't get held to ransom."
Nick says: "I've often heard miners say they're glad that the pits shut. But this is because of the hard conditions. That comment depends though on whether you got another job or landed on the dole. It also depended where you were from. Some areas had other industries that miners could be absorbed into. Other areas such as Wales were more dependent on mining and other employment was harder to find.
"That's why Tyrone O'Sullivan and his miners at Tower Colliery put their redundancy money back into the mine and made it profitable. This was hardly mentioned in the media. After all, you can't have the ordinary working class running their own industry and sharing the profits can you?"
About working in the pits, Nick says: "Would I like my sons to work in mines? If it was like at Tower where no boss fiddles the dust levels, and there is better technology to make the job safer. And with early retirement so miners could enjoy the fruits of their labour, then OK. It would also depend on whether they have a choice. You have to put bread and butter on the table."
Chris Stewart: "Could the pits ever come back? I don't think so, I'm 49 now and I'm not going back down them. Where are you going to train the new men, as on the job training is required? "
Phil Bailey, 22 at the time of the strike: "I don't see how, when oil and gas run out, they can tap into coal. The skills are gone, I'm 48 now, and could only work in pits until I'm 50."
What are the lessons of the strike?
Chris Stewart: "One remark I've heard thousands of times: 'That Maggie Thatcher, she caused more damage to this country than ever the Luftwaffe did'.
"Trust the activists, the ones who don't just talk about it but are prepared to do it. Don't trust the machine and never trust a politician. I cannot find it in myself to criticise any worker who strikes to defend their job. I also admire the French for being prepared to take to the streets when threatened."
And not just Tory politicians. Nick says: "I learnt to see more after the strike. It got me into other issues, like who really runs the economy and society. You read of the Bilderberg group attended by top bankers, ambassadors, energy barons and future politicians from all parties. You can see why they all think the same. The most powerful attend, but we never hear of them in the media. They aren't elected yet make policy and decisions that affect countries around the world."
Phil Bailey recalls the march back to work by the minority of Littleton miners still on strike at the end: "The police said they wanted to 'escort us for our safety'. Imagine! They'd clobbered us, arrested us, forced people through our picket lines and now! There was a bit of a stand off as we told them to 'go and **** themselves'.
Lack of support
"Thatcher wanted to take out the strongest union, the NUM, and then pick off the rest. Labour's Neil Kinnock could have supported us, but he didn't. And why didn't the other unions understand the threat and support us? (Some, like the railworkers did.) It's ended in industry after industry going.
"Now I see no choice between the political parties. There's not a fag-paper's width between them. What is there now for the working man? Who's fighting our corner? We need a workers' party."
Dave Griffiths adds: "Has this free market wage cutting worked? After the biggest economic crisis in 70 years, clearly not. Because wages were cut, the bosses drowned us in debt to keep us spending, which eventually was unsustainable."
Chris Stewart speaks for everyone when he says: "It's 26 years ago this year and I'll raise a glass and donate a day's wage to Justice for Mineworkers when Maggie dies."
Chris Brown adds: "I've now moved on. I have my own company which is successful. But I will never forget the strike. It made me what I am today - a proud person who fought for 12 months on strike for my class."
In The Socialist 17 March 2010:
Socialist Party workplace news and analysis
Youth fight for jobs
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party inteview
Marxist analysis: history
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition
Workplace news and analysis
Socialist Party feature