Sunday, February 16, 2014

Alex Callinicos & Mike Simons - The Great Strike: The Miners' Strike of 1984-5 and its Lessons

2014 marks the 30th anniversary of one of the defining British struggles of the 20th century. The Miner's Strike was to determine the course of the Thatcher government. The defeat of the miner's, one of the most powerful workers movements in the country, meant the defeat of other workers. The trade union movement, the biggest barrier to the unbridled introduction of neo-liberal policies was badly wounded. Yet, as Alex Callinicos and Mike Simons argue, this was not an automatic outcome. Despite what the media said at the time, on occasion, the National Union of Mineworkers was close to victory. Thatcher's Tories were not all powerful. The lessons of the defeat remain essential ones for trade unions and socialists today.

On the surface, the strike stemmed from the decision of the Coal Board to close "uneconomical" pits. But a larger reason was the determination of the Tories to defeat a trade union that had sunk their previous administration with strike action. The question of uneconomical mines was a key political one. In reality it didn't mean that those mines no longer had coal, but that they, in a future privatised existence, would not be able to make sufficient profits.

The strike began in a confused fashion, with individual pits coming out in relation to closure threats. Flying pickets brought out further coal mines, and with the exception of a few areas, the strike was solid. Over the course of a year, initial differences, particularly the decision by sections of mine workers in Nottinghamshire not to join the action, would help determine the final outcome.

The strike received enormous support and sympathy. Over the course of the strike, money, food and solidarity poured into the miner's communities. Soup kitchens and food parcels helped keep the strikers going, and the authors celebrate the role of the miner's wives in being at the fore-front of organising this solidarity. They didn't just sort out the soup kitchens, but they toured the country, raising money, speaking at rallies and joining the pickets. Despite commitments to action from other unions and the TUC, solidarity action however was limited. Few workers took solidarity strikes, despite being tremendously successful when they did. Some of the solidarity however, is astounding.

"Pride of place must go to the railway workers of Coalville in Leicestershire. From 3 April 1984 until the end of the strike, they sealed off the working Leicestershire coalfield. The only time the British Rail management got trains out of the Leicestershire pits was when they imported scabs from out of the area to drive the trains and operate signal boxes. Throughout the strike, there were more railway workers backing the NUM in the Leicestershire coalfield than there were miners. They suffered enormous harassment for sticking to trade union principles."

Yet despite vocal support from the TUC and other unions, they were wary of challenging anti-union laws by committing themselves to strike action. The Tories understood the threat of other simultaneous strikes, and bought off the unions who might join the miners. In May it looked like the rail workers might take national action.

"Suddenly the scene changed. A week before the scheduled industrial disruption, the rail union leaders were called in and offered an improved pay deal - 5.2 per cent on basic rates... worth about 7 per cent."

Union leaders were amazed, but Tory Party chairman John Gummer wrote "It seems to me to be critical at this juncture to avoid the risk of militants being strengthened in their attempts to block the movement of coal by rail, and to make wider common cause with the miners."

The Tories were fighting an open class war, as extensive quotes by the authors from The Financial Times, The Economist and internal government papers make clear. Sadly the union leaders weren't doing the same. The authors conclude:

"Leaders such as Len Murray, David Basnett and Moss Evans did not want confrontation with the government. Their role was essentially that of negotiators, seekers of compromise. They looked back wistfully to the TU bureucracy's heyday in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when they had enjoyed ready access to 10 Downing Street. But the willingness of ruling class  to admit the TUC to corridors of power then was a reflection of the strength of organised labour... Thatcher felt she no longer needed the TUC's active co-operation."

The position of the union leaders as arbitrators between capital and the workers meant they were both unwilling to challenge the power of the Tories and risk losing control of strike action, and wary of encouraging further rank and file action. They wanted a mediated solution that ensured their position, rather than a militant victory that might transform the balance of class forces. This cowardice contrasts with the bravery of the miners' and their communities who withstood police brutality, demonisation in the media, hunger and poverty for a year, sustained only by solidarity from other workers and their own reserves of strength.

Despite the left leadership of the union and Arthur Scargill in particular, the NUM was not without fault. The authors, who both covered the strike for Socialist Worker, lament the way that rank and file action was often not encouraged. All to often they point out, strikers were encouraged to stay at home, rather than joining mass pickets. At crucial junctures this meant that the mass of miners were out of touch with the ins and outs of the dispute, as well as preventing the sort of mass action that might have closed down pits, power stations and coking plants. The authors see the battle of Orgreave, one such confrontation, as a turning point for the strike, lost because there simply wasn't a sustained attempt to deliver mass action.

Writing in the immediate aftermath of the return to work by the defeated miners, the authors have an optimistic outlook on the future. They argue that similar historical defeats had not seen the end of the miner's union, but after the rebuilding of rank and file organisation, the union had returned to its former strength. Sadly this optimism was misplaced. Thatcher continued to ride roughshod over workers and even today the legacy of the defeat means that trade unions have not yet recovered their confidence to fight the Tories.

Neil Kinnock's failure to support the miners and his sitting on the fence throughout the dispute meant Labour failed to give any leadership to the struggle. His failure to beat the hated Tories in the 1992 General Election led, in turn, to John Smith and then Tony Blair. Kinnock's betrayal of the miner's was a disgrace and history should never let him off the hook.

I picked this book up because the 30th anniversary of the strike will be the cause for looking back on behalf of the union movement. Too many will wring their hands and bemoan the defeat of the miners. Few of us will see the opportunity to discuss the sort of union movement that we need today. This book is an excellent introduction to the debates, and activists today who are committed to building up the union movement and defeating the Tories will gain much from reading it.

This book is sadly out of print. But it is available online here.

Related Reviews

Darlington & Lyddon - Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain 1972
Darlington - Radical Unionism
Cliff & Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle

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