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Miners' strike When Maggie Did A Blair?
ON 22 November The Sun's exultant headline was "Blair's done a Maggie." Tony Blair had earlier described the Fire Brigades Union's leaders as "Scargillite".
All this was meant to draw parallels between the firefighters' strike and the battles of the 1980s, particularly the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) heroic year-long struggle against pit closures in 1984-85. Scargillite was a derogatory reference to Arthur Scargill, left-wing NUM leader during the strike.
Blair's comments were calculated to turn public opinion against the FBU's cause and also to scare firefighters with the prospect of a long battle, ending in defeat.
In reality the miners could have won in 1984-85, if the trade union and Labour leaders had shown even half the determination that most striking miners did. An organised, united working class could have stopped Thatcher's plans for the whole workers' movement.
For decades the British ruling class had wanted to destroy the collective strength of the working class and in particular the power of the trade unions, which they pathetically blamed for the decades-long collapse of British capitalism, especially its industrial base.
After 1979, prime minister Thatcher introduced new anti-union laws, part of Tory MP Nicholas Ridley's blueprint for taking on the unions. The Tories built up to the inevitable confrontation with Britain's strongest and most militant union, the NUM, by building up coal stocks at power stations, developing nuclear power, importing coal from abroad, beefing up the police and changing the laws.
The Tories knew that the NUM would be hard to defeat. The NUM had beaten Tory governments before - in 1972 and 1974 they had not only helped beat Heath's anti-union legislation but forced Heath to call a general election, asking the rhetorical question - who rules - us or the miners? Heath lost!
In 1981 the miners beat off a Tory attempt to close down pits and even got extra money for the industry.
Thatcher's Tory government planned revenge. In November 1983, the National Coal Board (NCB) confirmed that 49 named pits would close during the next eight years due, they claimed, to 'exhaustion' of coal reserves. The miners' strike started in March 1984.
The ruling class spent £7 billion to beat this strike, largely to build a 'national' police force where riot cops were ferried across Britain and given a free hand to attack strikers and their communities.
THE STATE used tactics previously only seen in Northern Ireland - riot shields, batons, mounted cavalry and dogs. Medieval laws were miraculously exhumed. The police stopped vehicles heading towards mining areas and even threatened to arrest Kent miners if they strayed outside their own county.
The miners were called the 'enemy within' to try to justify the state's vicious methods. At the Orgreave picket line in June 1984 these included batoning down a woman who was summoning an ambulance for a wounded miner.
The ruling class saw this as a decisive class struggle. So did the miners, who moved heaven and earth to win. But the 'leaders' of the working class in Britain held the movement back.
Throughout the strike, Militant, The Socialist's predecessor, consistently called for united solidarity action by all workers to beat off the bosses' attacks. Such action did take place.
Railworkers knew that their interests and the miners' were the same - 60% of rail freight was coal. Members of the rail unions NUR and ASLEF stood firm despite many being victimised. Seafarers in the National Union of Seamen blacked coal throughout this strike.
Joint committees of miners, railworkers and dockers could have paralysed Britain but the union leaders never organised the solidarity action.
Militant called for a 24-hour general strike. If the TUC didn't make this call, we said that the 'left' union leaders should do so. Neither left nor right leaders took this step.
The labour movement's right-wing leaders were typified by Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock's speech at TUC conference. blaming the miners for "picket-line violence" created by the state forces.
The Tories showed their gratitude to right-wing EETPU leader Frank Chapple, by making him a Lord in the 1985 New Year's honours list. Chapple, who made 'no strike' deals for his members, had called for stiff penalties for Scargill.
But even the left leaders who wanted a miners' victory lacked confidence in their own members. The leaders of the National Union of Seamen, whose members had meticulously refused to carry strike-breaking coal, had not called for strike action when Sealink was privatised. This would have opened up a 'second front' against the Tories.
THE DOCKWORKERS struck twice during the strike after being harassed over the blacking of coal. But their union, Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) didn't call for the action to be extended both in solidarity but also for the extension of the national dock labour scheme. The TGWU said their strike was 'non-political' and nothing to do with the NUM.
NUM leader Arthur Scargill played an inspiring role in the struggle. However Militant did criticise Scargill and the NUM leadership for some tactical failings. If the union had called a ballot before the strike, they would have won and convinced the majority of Nottinghamshire miners to come out.
As it was, the strikebreaking Notts-based scab "Union of Democratic Miners" - financed by Tories and big business - proved decisive in the long term.
Militant also said that the NUM should name the day for a 24-hour general strike, and make an appeal to the rank and file of the unions. This would have mobilised tremendous support.
But the NUM merely called for support without suggesting a specific date. In January 1985 South Wales NUM did call for a one-day strike and Militant produced 50,000 leaflet for the miners, backing their call.
By then, tragically, the tide was turning, particularly after the leaders of the pit deputies' union NACODS (whose members had voted 82% for strike action) refused to take action and made a separate settlement. NACODS members suffered along with NUM members later when many were sacked after the strike.
Miners started to return to work in March 1985, after just short of a year on strike. The NUM's defeat devastated the mining areas and for a time weakened the trade unions as a whole. But the basic power of the trade unions remains.
Now the movement is beginning to take serious action again, trade unions will again be battling for their members against a vicious ruling class and a right-wing anti-union government.
The 1984-85 miners' strike showed the fighting spirit of the working class, their determination and inventiveness and their understanding of the need for unity and solidarity. But these qualities need to be matched at all levels of the trade union movement and organised effectively. One union must never again be left to fight alone in such a vital battle.
In The Socialist 29 November 2002: