“Class Against Class – The Miners’ Strike, 1984-1985,” Edited by Sean Matgamna, 2015, reprinted from 1985
The year-long British miner’s strike of 1984-85 was the largest labor upheaval in Britain since the 1920s. It marked the beginning of full-blooded neo-liberalism in Britain and a decisive defeat for the labor movement of that country. This brutal struggle at one point pitted 160,000 workers, 80% of the miner’s union, the NUM, against the capitalist state’s plan to close the majority of mines. They faced militarized police, hostile courts, a government intent on destroying the union and a hysterical media. Interestingly, the National Coal Board leader planning to close the majority of British coal pits, Ian McGregor, was also involved in the 1970s Harlan County coal wars in the U.S. Thatcher eventually called the NUM ‘the enemy within.” It was truly class against class.
Their internal enemies were
hostile or passive labor leaders and a minority of non-striking miners who
worked as scabs. These ‘labor leaders’
were really the first stirrings of “New” Labour in the party. The miners’ allies were sections of the
organized working class in steel, transport and on the docks, the ranks of the
Labour Party, along with the broad sympathy of other union workers, unorganized
workers, some community organizations and the women of the mining villages.
|The Battle of Orgreave|
Matgamna is a long-time Trotskyist activist in Britain, a former docker and now leader of a Schactmanite grouping that advocates for Trotskyist unity, though fails at it. This book saw the strike as possibly successful, unlike some more cynical tendencies in the British left. As he quotes Rosa Luxembourg: “The socialist revolution is the only form of war … in which the ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of defeats.” Which is putting a nice spin on it, indeed.
Matgamna includes a time-line of the key events in the strike. He praises the involvement of miner’s wives, who first started food kitchens and raised funds, then joined the roving pickets, made speeches, formed an organization WAPC and grew as a social force. WAPC hinted at a different kind of feminism – proletarian feminism. He mentions the efforts of the left-led organization ‘Gays & Lesbians Support the Miners’ (‘GLSM’), which was also at the center of a film about the strike. There are no in-depth depictions of the constant violence between police and strikers but 2 miners were killed and many were injured by a militarized police that occupied mining towns like they were Northern Ireland or any occupied country. NUM leader Arthur Scargill himself was injured and hospitalized during the battle of Orgreave, which saw days of fighting between roving mass pickets and violent police. 7 years later the courts decided that the police had acted illegally. However, that decision came a bit too late.
Reading about this strike is to understand the potential weaknesses of the class when it goes into full-scale battle, or even a small one. This is all familiar, but this post-mortem heightens them. One is the attitude of the Labor Party leadership and the Trades Union Congress (“TUC”). Both were divided on the strike, amazingly enough. Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labor Party, inveighed against ‘violence’ by the strikers and wanted a ‘democratic’ vote of the NUM to make the strike legitimate – as if the overwhelming majority of miners fighting the threat of shutting down most of the coal pits was not legitimate. These positions mirrored those of Thatcher’s Tory government and the capitalist law courts.
The courts ruled the strike illegal and later attempted to seize union funds based on NUM bylaws, not actual public laws. The timeline shows constant interventions by the courts, which once again shows courts are not neutral bodies, unlike their rosy image in story and song. Breaking unjust laws and engaging in physical defense are essential to any significant labor struggle, and the labor leadership forgot this too. Mass pickets were basically outlawed. Massive fines were levied on unions and receivers appointed to control them. Secondary boycotts, honoring picket lines and sympathy strikes were also made illegal. Yelling ‘scab’ or standing in a road or sidewalk became arrestable. Roadblocks and home invasions became legitimate. Police violence was allowed. 12,000 arrests were made of miners and their supporters and 20,000 injuries were inflicted. Scotland Yard coordinated the whole process. Every weapon in labor’s arsenal was made illegal through the new Tory laws. The labor movement was essentially criminalized.
A section of miners in Nottinghamshire kept on working, so the whole NUM was not on strike. So any attempt to spread this strike – which was the only way to succeed against the government – started with the ranks of the miners themselves. This in the face of Nottinghamshire being turned into a scab-herding mini-police state. The strike only spread intermittently to steel workers, to dockers, to auto workers, to transport & rail workers, to engineers. So there was no real ‘second front,’ as advocated by Scargill. The TUC or LP never seriously followed up on ‘hot cargoing’ coal, coke or oil, or shutting down the power plants, nor did it make a move to a 24-hour general strike or a longer one. Mind you, this in the context of the most severe class war in 60 years! If England had gone dark, it would have forced the government to call in troops – and then the class struggle would have become perhaps more than even Thatcher could handle – a struggle between two poles of power.
Most glaringly of all, the “Communist” Polish government, at the time under General Jarulzelski, began shipping tons of coal to England which undermined the strike. That was the role of the military bureaucrats in Warsaw – scabbing for Thatcher. The U.S. and Australia sent the most, which shows the miner’s unions in the U.S. were not paying attention either.
Matgamna looks at the weakness of the strike in Nottinghamshire. Nottinghamshire NUM had not agreed to the national NUM’s call for a strike. The production there kept enough English coal coming to keep the lights on. It functioned as a scab organizing center, a demoralizing and disorganizing force and a hypocritical argument for Thatcher on the need for a ‘democratic’ vote on the strike. Thatcher never put the mine closures or police violence to a vote, certainly! Matgamna contends that district would have never voted to go out, given their conservative and vacillating history, but the national ballot would have helped make the strike look better. As it is, Notts only observed an overtime ban, in spite of efforts by a rank-and-file Strike Committee in Nottinghamshire to close pits there. Solidarity failed even within the NUM.
What else could have won? Certainly, if the whole UK labor movement had gone out as one. Scargill, Tony Benn, Ken Livingston and others called for a general strike, even a 24-hour one.
Matgamna reckons with the climate change aspect of coal in a minor way, but in 1984 this was not so prominent. What is known is that capital never has an organized plan for transferring workers to other sectors of the economy. They use this disorganized strategy to retain useless or dangerous work, like advertising, coal-mining or military manufacture – claiming jobs will be lost! This is really due to capital’s chaotic approach to economic life. Even analyses of the coal board’s ‘profitability’ regarding coal mining were skewed, as the studies did not take into account dole costs, lost tax revenues, shut-down costs, lost jobs and incomes for surrounding businesses. Not to mention the military costs – 4.667 billion pounds! Or the human and health costs. Like the environment, humans and collateral damage are invisible and not priced by capitalist economists.
So what happened to the coal fields after the strike? 41,000 jobs had been lost prior to the strike. During the strike, the NUM discovered that 70,000 more layoffs and 141 pits were to be closed. After the strike, the closures were instituted. Tens of thousands of miners lost their jobs. Many villages and towns were decimated. The NUM is a specter of its former self. This happened later even in the conservative scab area of Nottinghamshire where 10 of 13 pits were shut by 1992, while some highly-automated collieries remain that employ few miners.
This harsh strike showed that capital has no interest in the welfare of the working class, but are only ‘users.’ If you didn’t know that already, there it is.
Related material: “Pride,” film centered on GLSM support for the miners. “Jimmy’s Hall,” about the Irish freedom struggle against the U.K.. Also “Chavs” and “Football Factory,” both about non-political working-class culture in Britain.
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
March 15, 2016