Lessons of strike: united in decisive action the working class can win
Thirty years ago, on 1 March 1984 the closure of Cortonwood pit was announced, with five years’ production still to go.
In response 55,000 Yorkshire miners were called out on strike under Rule 41 from a ballot result in 1981.
On 5 March Yorkshire NUM called a total stoppage from 12 March. This was the start of the great 1984-85 miners’ strike.
The strike was one of the most momentous events ever in the British labour movement history and had a huge impact on virtually every subsequent industrial and political development.
Over 27 million working days were lost in strike action in 1984 (mainly among miners).
On the 20th anniversary we wrote: The fight against pit closures in 1984-85 was a heroic attempt to use the organised power of workers to stop Thatcher’s attempts to destroy manufacturing industry.
Thatcher tried to break the unions because their defence of workers got in the way of profit.
The miners had huge support among working class people in the coalfields, throughout Britain and across the globe.
Despite attempts to starve and intimidate them back to work it was this working class solidarity that allowed the miners to fight on for 356 days.
But the leadership of the Labour Party and the TUC – fearing the power of the organised working class almost as much as the Tories – refused to show such solidarity and abandoned and betrayed the miners.
If the TUC had supported the miners with backing for strike action from other unions, and repaid the solidarity the miners had shown other workers, then the strike could have been won.
Yet, despite the TUC betrayal the strike came so close to defeating the Tories. It could have been won if workers had been organised from below to defy their right-wing leaderships and take action alongside the miners.
A miners’ victory would have given a huge boost in confidence to the trade union movement and all workers.
The main lessons of the miners’ strike still remain: that, united in decisive action the working class can win, and that we need a genuine socialist leadership throughout the trade union movement prepared to see workers’ struggles through to victory.
Today’s tasks for the trade union movement are clear – to build genuinely democratic fighting trade unions and for the unions to begin the process of building a new mass workers’ party.
In 1984-85, working class people in this country saw a window onto the future, a future that lies in our own hands, not the bosses or the capitalist class.
We must remember and learn from the miners’ strike to ensure that future workers’ struggles on the scale of the miners’ strike achieve a victory that brings forward the establishment of a socialist society.
A Salford ex-miner remembers
As part of the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the miners’ year-long strike, Paul Kelly, formerly of Agecroft NUM, Salford spoke to the Socialist.
As a boy I went on the picket line with my Dad in the 1972 and 1974 strikes. When I started work at the pit we had a tradition of supporting anybody in struggle.
Prestwich Hospital and North Manchester Hospital nurses came down, we walked out one day in support of Prestwich nurses and held a collection for them. It was just normal to show working class solidarity.
The 1984 strike started in Yorkshire at Cortonwood. At Agecroft our canteen meeting explained how Cortonwood walked out.
We had a debate, with a show of hands to walk out ourselves. The night shift was coming off and the day shift going on so most workers were there. We voted, pretty unanimously, to strike.
A week later I got a call from the branch secretary for a meeting about a ballot. I’d seen pictures of Yorkshire miners picketing in Nottinghamshire.
I voted against going for a ballot, we already had a mandate. The NUM in Sheffield told me most workers were on strike, and that was good enough for me.
After the Agecroft men eventually started going back to work. I phoned the NUM for direction and they said "we’re going to have a picket, come along and talk to them". The next morning there was a mass of men across the road.
An NUM official said: "The coppers won’t let us near the gates because none of us work here, but they’ll let you go because you work here’.
So I told the copper, ’I just want to explain to them why the Yorkshire lads are here, no provocation, no intimidation’. So he said, ’Alright, six of you’.
But at the gates, the cops just laid into us. I got punched in the face, lost a tooth, cut my neck, was manhandled across the road and thrown into the fence at the old brickworks and told to "f***ing stay there!"
The pit closed in 1990, it was butchered really, there’s still 100 years of coal down there. I used to plant flowers every Workers’ Memorial Day where the pit had been because it’s been totally obliterated from the landscape.
So I set up the Irwell Valley Mining Project to get a memorial stone with an inscription and garden which was completed in July 2013.
It commemorates everyone who died there, women, children, including those who died there in the disaster of 1859.
We aim to get every major pit a memorial to remember the miners, all the wealth they created, and why we’re here today, because of them.
We need to show the spirit of 1984 today to fight for our communities. There are politicians today in certain parties, who patted me on the back on the picket line, who are now pushing through disgusting cuts, when they should fight.
As a member of Salford Against the Cuts, I’ve done a lot of work against so-called austerity cuts. For me the miners’ strike has never finished, it never will. We need to keep fighting for our class.
Facebook page shows ongoing support for miners’ strike
Mel Hepworth, an ex-miner from Askern pit in Doncaster, started a Facebook page called the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike. In eight weeks it has already passed 18,000 supporters. Mel told the Socialist:
"I left school in 1979 when Thatcher came to office. I had my 21st birthday on the picket line. I remember eating food at soup kitchens provided by other working class people’s generosity.
"We have thousands of ex-miners on the page and thousands of miners’ kids and grandkids. We’ve people on the page who were literally at the coalface and people who’ve never seen a piece of coal.
"We’re organising events to mark the anniversary. 37% of the support for the page is from women and we’ve got international support, echoes of key aspects of the miners’ support at the time.
"There’s dozens of meetings organised and we’re linking up with others as well. I interviewed a picket from the London Underground strike on the page.
"We’ve been at the Atos demos. A lot of younger people are bitter about austerity and the lack of fightback from the trade union and Labour party leadership.
"We’re just a Facebook page. The success is because what we’re doing is rooted in the working class and in the mining community. People still want justice and still remember the solidarity of the miners."
See the facebook page here: http://on.fb.me/MqOdI0
Out soon: ’A civil war without guns’ by Ken Smith
The Socialist Party’s history of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, A Civil War Without Guns, by Ken Smith, is being reprinted with a new introduction in time for the 30th anniversary of this colossal struggle. Watch this space for more details.
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