BBC News - 4 Mar 04

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 21 May 09)

The Miners' Darkest Year

By Christine Jeavans
BBC News, Thursday, 4 March, 2004

The coal industry was never the same again after the miners' strike.

Twenty years ago, Britain's miners embarked on a strike over pit closures. Whereas previous coal strikes had been over in a matter of weeks, this time both union and government dug in for a lengthy battle. In the end, the biggest losers were ordinary miners.

The trigger for Britain's most bitter industrial dispute of recent times was the announcement that one Yorkshire pit, Cortonwood near Barnsley, was to close.

On 5 March 1984 the men at that pit and those all over Yorkshire walked out, not realising that it would be a year before they returned.

The next day the unions were told that Cortonwood was only the first of a wide-ranging programme of closures that would see 20 pits shut and 20,000 miners lose their jobs.

Scottish miners joined the action and by 12 March, half Britain's 187,000 miners had downed tools.

But the kindling for the strike was laid long before the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers jointly lit the match that spring.

A coal strike in 1974 had brought down Ted Heath's Conservative government. Five years into her stride as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher was not about to let the same thing happen to her.

Miner and son in a soup kitchen.

Furthermore, a nationalised coal industry requiring massive subsidies was anathema to the Thatcher government's long term economic goals.

Mrs Thatcher knew that confrontation with the powerful and militant NUM would come about sooner or later and she had appointed Ian MacGregor, who had a reputation as an industrial hatchet man, as head of the Coal Board.

She also made sure to stockpile coal at power stations so that the miners would have to wait many months before they came close to holding the country's energy supply to ransom.

Ballot Issue

But if the government had been preparing for action, so had the NUM, under the leadership of fiery Marxist Yorkshireman, Arthur Scargill.

Three years earlier in 1981, the Yorkshire NUM held a ballot in which its 66,000 members voted for strike action if any pit was threatened with closure "unless on grounds of exhaustion".

It was on this building block that the country-wide coal strike took hold without a national ballot ever being held: an issue which would cause deep rifts in the UK's mining communities.

The NUM argued that the Yorkshire miners could legitimately ask other pits to walk out in support of their cause.

The union's national executive did attempt to debate a country-wide ballot in April 1984, but Scargill over-ruled the motion.

Flying Pickets

Pickets were despatched to collieries around the country to persuade the men there to stay away from work.

Nottinghamshire was a particular target for pickets from neighbouring south Yorkshire.

Police from all over Britain were drafted into the coalfields.

It was also an area with a long history of dissent against NUM policy and when men there were balloted on strike action they voted against by a three-quarters majority, sowing the seeds of what would become the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers.

Flying pickets became a regular feature at pits where a proportion of the men were still working. Violence was not yet commonplace, but as the situation began to turn nastier, police from around the country were drafted in to control the situation.

Battle of Orgreave

But by far the most bloody confrontation between police and pickets came not at a pit but at Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire in June 1984.

The plant had been the site of picketing from late May in an attempt to prevent coke reaching Scunthorpe steel works.

It was a tactic Arthur Scargill had employed successfully 12 years earlier when his pickets blockaded Saltley Gate coke plant in Birmingham.

But Orgreave was a very different story. When police heard that at least 5,000 miners were planning to gather on 18 June, they deployed an equal number of officers, many equipped with riot shields.

In sweltering weather, police and pickets clashed. Lines of mounted police wielding batons went in to break up crowds of miners.

The police in turn were bombarded by bricks and stones from the pickets and there were injuries on both sides.

However the police ensured that Orgreave was no Saltley Gate: the pickets never succeeded in preventing the coke lorries leaving the plant.

Drift Back Begins

As summer turned to autumn, the financial hardship for striking miners and their families began to bite.

By early September, the men, who had been used to being among the best paid manual workers in the country, had been without income for six months.

Many families had to rely on food parcels and soup kitchens, often organised by women's support groups and paid for by donations.

Negotiations were under way between the NUM and the Coal Board but when a compromise deal was put on the table in September, Scargill refused to take it.

However, a growing number of strikers were taking the decision to return to work, which raised the picket line confrontations to a new pitch.

A South Wales taxi driver lost his life when a concrete block was dropped onto his car as he carried a working miner to start his shift.

Narrow Vote

After a tough Christmas, the trickle of men heading back to work became a flood and it was apparent to the NUM that the strike would have to be called off before it completely collapsed.

On 3 March, at a specially convened conference, NUM delegates voted by 98 to 91 to call off the strike.

Two days later, many pits marched back to work behind union banners, to the accompaniment of colliery brass bands.

But this was not the proud return the men had hoped for, the strike had ended in failure and they knew it.

From 1985 onwards the pit closure programme picked up speed. Margaret Thatcher had taken on the strongest union in the land and won.