The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, July 18, 2005

Miners' Strikes

Edward "Ted" Heath, the ill-fated Conservative Prime Minister brought down by the opposition of British unions, died Sunday. He called elections in 1974 on an anti-Union platform, using the slogan "Who Governs Britain?" which may have been coined by Margaret Thatcher. The results were not what Mr. Heath hoped:
In 1974 industrial unrest led to two general elections. Labour won them both and Ted Heath returned to the backbenches and eventually had to give way to Margaret Thatcher as leader of the Conservative Party. Wilson returned to government and gave the miners a 35% pay rise. Denis Healey became Chancellor of the Exchequer - he faced a debt of over £4 billion. Inflation was in double figures and wages were linked to prices. Wage increases brought the country to its knees and the government to the polls for the second time in a year. Labour won by 3 votes.
It was Mr. Heath's second loss -- even after the Labour government under Mr. Wilson had caved in to strikes and been rewarded with more strikes -- that led to Ms. Thatcher's replacing him as head of the Conservatives. The re-elected Labour government again failed to staunch the strikes, leading eventually to Ms. Thatcher's long ascendancy on a vigorously anti-union platform.

In reading about the "Who Governs Britain?" rhetoric, I found official histories of the 1983-85 miner's strikes from both the Police Federation and the Trade Unions Council. [Strip URLs for organization homes.] To understand the situation, it is necessary to understand the practice, never widespread in America, of "sympathetic strikes" where workers in one industry or union would strike until the demands of another union were met. Sympathetic strikes are remembered today only by those nostalgic for those sweet bygone days of rampant Union glory; in Britain, they were made illegal by the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act of 1927, following a general strike sympathetic to the coal miner's union.

But in the flush of relief which brought Labour to power after World War II, this ban was removed. As unions grew steadily more assertive in the postwar era, strikes in support of workers in unrelated industries again became common. The goal of these strikes was to bring national pressure to bear on unyielding employers, so they were naturally deployed where they would cause the most damage to the national economy -- power stations and fuel depots being the favored targets. Unions evolved the tactic of "flying pickets", union members brought in from other parts of the country to support, with violence if necessary, picketing and disruption. ['Picketing', in American usage, has generally peaceful connotations -- the British practice might more accurately be called 'blockading'.] The manufacturers and police could not match this mobility, so that unions were assured of local numerical superiority at each confrontation.

For example, power stations at Dunston, Stella and Saltley Marsh were picketed in 1972. This looks like "alternative" press of the day; here is a sympathetic history [which calls the head of the National Union of Miners [NUM] "a complete and utter right winger"]. A coal-centric history gives us this:
At first the miners picketed at coal power stations, but then it was decided to target all power stations, and also steelworks, ports, coal depots and other major coal users. In South Wales, dockers at Newport and Cardiff supported the miners by refusing to unload coal from ships. On the 21st January, the NUM decided to try to stop the movement of all fuel supplies. Miners from South Wales were involved in the pickets at the Saltley Marsh Coal Depot of the West Midlands Gas Board.

On the 9th February, a state of emergency was declared and 2 days later, the three day working week was introduced to save electricity. On the 19th February, after much negotiation, an agreement was reached between the National Executive Committee of the NUM and the Government. Picketing was called off, and on the 25th February, the miners accepted the offer
[a 35% pay increase] in a ballot, returning to work on the 28th February.

The result of the strike was that the miners' wages became almost the highest amongst the working class. The strike also showed the country how important coal was to the country's economy.

By 1973 however, the miners had moved from first in the industrial wages league to eighteenth.
The miners had won a sudden and drastic pay rise, but the inflation triggered by this rise (and the example set for other union negotiations) and by the onset of the Arab Oil Embargo quickly eroded their gains. So they struck again, bringing down Mr. Heath's government and quickly gaining another large pay rise from the incoming Labour government.

These triumphs were very much in the miners' minds in 1984, when proposed closures of money-losing pits triggered another NUM strike [the strikers demanded that the pits remain open to prevent job losses]. Arguably, the again-empowered Tories and the Coal Board also remembered them, and the desire for revenge led them to take a harder stance. The forces of capital, however, this time had the advantage in mobility:
The police service had undergone huge changes in the years between the Heath and Thatcher governments. Mass mergers had reduced the number of forces to 43, including six new Metropolitan units.
The government also acted to reduce the miners' mobility:
Miners found themselves placed under unofficial marshal [sic] law. Flying pickets were turned back hundreds of miles from their destination, pit villages were occupied, phones tapped, mail opened, miners and their supporters suffered savage beatings, two miners were killed and well over 10,000 arrested. And while the tactics advocated by the NUM leadership did not go much beyond push and shove, the rank and file exhibited as much creativity as they did courage. Spontaneous instinct led all the way to embryonic forms of working class state power. In the hit squads -- embryonic workers’ militias. In the Women Against Pit Closures movement -- an embryonic mass working class women’s movement. In the miners’ support groups -- embryonic soviets.
[I have enclosed a larger quote than is strictly necessary, to give the flavor of this source and to savor the contrast between "savage" police beatings and "creative" miners' hit squads.]

Back to the Police Federation:

Throughout the winter of 1984/5 it was becoming obvious to most miners that they could not win. By March, the drift back to work had become a flood. Older miners decided to take the generous redundancy packages. Left wing leaders around Scargill, except for Tony Benn, were distancing themselves from his increasingly frantic assertions that victory was just around the next corner. In South Wales, the NUM leadership publicly dissociated themselves from Scargill's tactics.

On Sunday 3rd March 1985, just a year after the strike began, a special conference of the NUM voted narrowly to end it. The Coal Board had made no concessions and the pits would soon close for ever.

I will address the moral of this story in a later post.