Miners’ Strike Anniversary: 40 Years Since the Struggle that Shaped a Generation

Pic Dave Sinclair

 Militant Left member Jim Rutherdale, who was active in the Militant and in his trade union NIPSA throughout the Miners’ Strike, looks back at how it affected Northern Ireland.

Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), on a ‘Thank You’ tour visiting Belfast in the summer of 1985 declared that Northern Ireland had raised more money for the miners per head of population than any other region of the UK. This was despite the fact that Northern Ireland did not have a single member of the NUM living there. Workers in Northern Ireland understood on a very basic level that the fight between the Miners and the Thatcher government was a class fight and that if the miners lost, all workers would suffer.

Ordinary workers in Northern Ireland who maybe voted Sinn Fein, SDLP or Unionist understood the class nature of the Strike and supported it both with financial donations and by going on the numerous demonstrations in support of the miners.

Although it is 40 years ago, I remember vividly some of the support we received when we collected door to door for the miners. I remember rapping on a door in Cregagh Estate in East Belfast. I’m not the biggest guy and when a 6-foot burly guy covered in Loyalist tattoos answered the door I was nervous of what reaction I would receive. But I launched into my spiel about why he should support the Miners. The guy hardly let me finish before giving me £5 (probably the equivalent of £20 today) and telling me we couldn’t let the miners be starved back to work.

Another time, collecting on the Falls Road, a pensioner woman answered the door. I could see from the furnishings of the house that she had little money, and I was almost embarrassed to ask her for a donation. But I did. And she turned her purse upside down into the bucket. Every penny she had went to keep the miners fighting. And donations like that weren’t one offs. We collected week after week, month after month.

This was a politically motivated strike designed by the Tories to emasculate the trade union movement.  The NUM was the strongest, most combative trade union in Britain at the time. The miners were well organised. Many pits were in villages where a majority of the workforce worked down the mine. They didn’t just work together, they lived together, socialised together, families inter married. They also understood deeply that if a pit closed that would mean devastation and mass unemployment for the village. Thus, loyalty to the NUM was strong.

The Tories prepared for the strike for years in advance. The 1977 Ridley Report was a plan cooked up by the Tories when in opposition. Once they came into government in 1979, they implemented it with. It was a dastardly plan to break the NUM by:

– Training large mobile battalions of police in riot tactics

– Blocking Strikers access to unemployment benefits

– Preparing haulage companies to recruit large numbers of non-union drivers

– Building up huge coal reserves to keep power stations running for months if necessary

– Making plans and deals to import coal from abroad despite the UK easily producing enough coal for itself

– Dual coal/oil generators to be fitted – at great extra cost

These plans had nothing to do with making the UK more efficient. They were deliberate plans by the Tories for class warfare, to break the power and authority of Britain’s strongest trade union.

The struggles of the striking miners were quite simply extraordinary. They stayed on strike for just 3 days short of a year. They organised flying pickets in their thousands. They, and their communities, organised food banks, clothing banks and financial collections throughout the trade union movement both in the UK and internationally. They campaigned and achieved success in blocking many coal shipments from abroad. The strike was famous for its involvement of miners’ wives in their thousands. The entire working class was receiving an education in the extent to which the ruling class would go to break working class power.

There were mistakes made by the NUM and Scargill. The decision to not have a National Ballot on strike action, when undoubtedly such a ballot would have been in favour, was probably, looking back at it now, an error.

But ultimately the strike was lost because of the failure of reformist labour Leaders, especially Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock but also TUC leaders Len Murray and Norman Willis who failed to give support to the NUM or call out other unions in support. A General Strike could have defeated the Government in days. Instead, their failure to act led to a defeat of the trade union movement that in many ways we still have not recovered from.

In Northern Ireland the role of reformist labour leaders was detrimental, repeatedly calling for the miners to go back to work. But rank and file trade unionists carried out a magnificent campaign of support for the full 12 months. The forerunners of Militant Left, at that time grouped around the Militant Tendency and the Labour and Trade Union Group (LTUG) were important in pushing the ‘Support the Miners’ campaign.  On Belfast and District Trades Council, our comrades repeatedly proposed motions calling for financial collections and for marches and rallies in support of the Miners.

Unperturbed by some opposition to this stance, the LTUG took the decision to organise a mass demonstration in support of the strike. We were confident that the mood among workers was still strongly in support of the miners. On the eve of that demo, the Trades Council announced they were not supporting it – and tried to dissuade workers from joining it. But then just hours before it was due to start the Trades Council announced that they would support and lead it! Some leadership! The demo was of course a great success.

There are many lessons to be learned from the strike on tactics, strategy and, also, on the treachery of reformist ‘leaders’. In the years after the strike the trade unions in the UK were seriously weakened and the Tories were able to push through numerous laws weakening trade unionism further. If only the reformist leaders had stood firm in 1984 the history of the last 40 years might have been very different. Strong militant action reaps results. Weak leadership just invites aggression from the ruling class.

We have not had a strike like it since 1984-5. But the huge political and economic problems that led to the Miners’ Strike have not gone away. Indeed, the pressures on the cost of living for working families mean enormous pressure is building again. 40 years of Thatcherite neo-liberalism have wrecking living and conditions for many working-class communities. Undoubtedly another similar mass strike will erupt in the coming period as the economic situation for working people declines and we should all be preparing for it. Join your Trade Union; and become an activist within it. And join Militant Left too!