THE MINERS STRIKE 1984-85
SOCIALIST WORKER SPECIAL ANNIVERSARY ISSUE.
(Review. David Douglass, Doncaster NUM Panel picket co-ordinator and Area Executive member during the 84-85 conflict.)
Good Pictures, good interviews, wrong assumptions, wrong conclusions.
In among the excellent photos from the epoch struggle and well chosen interviews with the activists of that great movement, SW attempts to take stock. What were the failings of the press , the Tory government, the law, the courts, the Unions in general, the Labour Party, the Labour and TUC leadership, and the NUM itself ? Time for reflection upon everyone, except it seems the SWP. Wasn't it time to reassess its assumptions of the time and see if they had ever been correct ? Well not in this paper it seems. The wrong conclusions drawn during the strike come back again, this time as well established facts, at least in the collective mind of the SWP. The major problem for the organisation was that the NUM had wrong footed them, because it didnt behave in the predictable way unions in general were supposed to. Despite SWP posters in the first week of the strike declaring "No Sell Out" there had never been a prospect of a sell out.
Despite this they continued to predict that the NUM, actually the Area leaders of the NUM were hell bent on selling the strike short. This assumption never had fitted the facts, The Yorkshire Area leadership for example which the SWP had pilloried from day one , stood fast by the strike, and never once advocated a return to work, even while its offices were sequestrated and stood in readiness of the bailiffs, even in the last two weeks of the strike. True there were strong tensions within the bureaucracy, between those who wanted to let the strike and the pickets rip, and those charged with guarding its funds and apparatus, and this caused at times furious rows over the numbers of pickets in the field and how long the funds would last before total collapse.
Attempts by the Financial Secretary to impose some limits on numbers being deployed was a short sighted bureaucratic response to what seemed like a severed financial artery, but it was never a deliberate calculation to derail the strike, indeed it was argued at the time, it was to preserve funds to maintain our operation for a longer period. This didnt stop me threatening to surround his office with Doncaster pickets as Cromwell had done with Parliament, or he threatening to take a big ash tray to my skull.
When the strike broke in Yorkshire elaborate planning centres were already being established for nationwide picketing. There was however a spontaneous rush over the border into Nottingham which hadn't at that time decided on whether to strike or not. It was an excited and well meaning premature act of indiscipline. The pro-strikers in Nottingham had asked that we did not picket that county until they had had time to win the area over to a pro-strike position. The Notts. leadership was in-favour of the strike, as were some members of its Executive Committee and some branch officials. This had been their request of how to win their members to our side. It was not some anti-picketing instruction handed down from Barnsley, picketing was always a question of when and where, not if. The Nott's pro-strikers argued that Yorkshire had had a ballot on whether to strike or not, we could hardly argue in that case that they should not be allowed one too. It had also been an age long custom that you ensured your own county was solid before you came over borders and picketed anyone elses. Yorkshire so far as COSA (the white collar section) The Rescue Men, and some North Yorkshire Branches were far from secure in the first days of the strike and rendering them solid was the first objective the branches and the panels had set as a first goal.
As it turned out Nottingham voted to work , and the Yorkshire pickets were deployed to call on them not to. SW claims that the first sortie over the border had turned would be working miners around, but that this gap, had now caused them to go to work. Without the temporary suspension of picketing the men in Nottingham would have joined the strike. Ironically, the scabs tell it the other way round, they say if it hadn't been for having a gun placed to their heads and having been intimidated in the first flush of the Yorkshire strike, they would have voted to strike, but now, fuck 'em, were working. Both are excuses and anyway inaccurate. To start with, when the pickets were officially deployed they too met little stomach for men forcing their way to work, they too, by enlarge found the bulk of Notts men refusing to cross the picket lines, only now we were picketing every pit in Nottingham and not just the two which had been hit unofficially. Being met by unofficial pickets from Doncaster might indeed have influenced a number of the Notts. men to vote to fuck em, and work, but that temper wouldn't last beyond a few days, and certainly wouldn't carry you everyday over picket lines, especially as pickets were being killed and jailed and brutalised. Neither will wash. Without the massive police operation into Nottingham and the throwing down of the gauntlet that it was their duty to work and break picket lines, we would probably have more or less closed down that coalfield. Sinister forces were at work, organising the scab operation, disrupting the picket operation, bribing scabs, turning them into heroes, remarkably struggling for the right to work ! None of this was the fault of a few days down time between the start of the Yorkshire strike and the announcement of the ballot, it was far bigger than that. Blaming the Yorkshire Executive decision is also a way of excusing the scabs, as if they weren't responsible for their own sordid and cowardly actions. As if you cant see what side your on from behind 20,000 police shields.
To continue this theme SW says, the Welsh miners had a ballot to vote to work, but respected picket lines and joined the strike. I don't know what reception the paper will get in the valleys at the suggestion that the Welsh miners were picketed out ! But it aint true. The Welsh area , like the Lancashire Area Executives, "in the interests of unity" voted to join the strike despite their area ballots having decided not to. These decisions were popularly adhered to by the Welsh and to a lesser extent the Lancashire miners, because of their culture and class consciousness, not because unofficial pickets had brought them out. Certainly not in spite of their Area leaders, but with their area leaders. The difference in Nottingham was entirely the result of their specific culture and lack of class consciousness, not because the Yorkshire executive had pulled out the unofficial pickets for a day or two.
Steel Works ; the agreements which allowed steel works limited shipments of union approved coal into the steel ovens was in retrospect a mistake. But it wasn't some area bureaucrats strategy to derail the strike. The agreements had been fashioned with Mick McGahey for Scotland, Sammy Thompson for Yorkshire and Emlyn Williams for Wales. Is SW seriously telling us that such men were opposed to the strike or wanted to see it fail ? We were fighting for jobs, we had allowed safety men in to work on essential safety work at pits, otherwise they might flood, exploded or cave in, then we would have shut them. We were fighting against pit closures. Likewise we were told , unless a certain throughput of fuel and iron ore went through the ovens, the casings on them would cool and crack and that would be the end of the steel works, so a major part of our coal markets would be lost, and we would have, again shut our own pits. We were promised no steel would be commercially produced and any by-product of the tick-over process would be stored. We were kidded. Indeed steel and the steel union leadership under Bill Sirs seems to have been up his arm pits in counter-strategies against the miners action. But clearly the agreement had held the line at the steel works whether it was technically necessary or not, no scab fuel was coming in and no steel was coming out. ISTC and the Steel Companies simply ended the agreements and started to ship in scab fuel and break the strike. It was this action which was central to the Orgreave operation and more importantly the confrontation on the rail lines and docks. The agreements were, in retrospect foolish but it was actually the breaching of those agreements which opened of the major fronts in the states strategies against the miners. It was essential for them to break the solidarity action of the railway men, and or the dockers. Had the latter held as strong as the former, we would have blocked their key plans and won. It seems the agreements Sirs had reached with Thatcher was better than the one he reached with the NUM.
When it comes to picketing tactics the SWP supremely misses the point, they never understood what it was all about in 84 and they obviously still don't. Orgreave was a disaster as a tactic. I covered this in great depth in the English Civil War Pt 2 TV reconstruction, but to be brief. We only had one mass body of pickets. We had several targets. We could split them up and target all the pins on our strategy board, or we could mass picket one or other of the targets according to their strategic position, or we could use a combination of both switching fluidly from one plan to the other without prior notice. This was still a strategy for mass pickets, it was not a soft option. But it stopped the police massing their numbers. We could always outwit them because they couldn't change tactics as quickly as us. At least until Arthur's plan for Orgreave came along. Then we were called upon to go there every day and picket till you dropped. The cops would always know we were coming, always could assemble more bodies and equipment than us, always could layout the field in preparation of where we would go, and they always knew that because they told us where to go and escorted us there. Yes comrade we did at times breach their ranks, at great physical cost. That is not the point, while we were at Orgreave we were not in Nottingham. Strange, suddenly picketing out the Nottingham working miners, and meeting miners face to face as advocated a few paragraphs earlier drops out of sight. From a restricted coal cutting day shift only, the Notts. coalfield went on to two shift production after the declaration of Orgreave as a fixed target. Of course we tried to deploy pickets to other targets, yes we tried to move from Orgreave where the cops were waiting for us and hit other more important centres were they were not. This was not an act of betrayal by the Area Leaders as described by SW but an attempt to deploy some strategy. Orgreave wasn't Lourdes, though some of our comrade thought it might be. Ironically although the paper sites the picketing and solidarity blacking action by dockers as crucial to the central core of winning of the strike, they do not seem to realise the docks were just such "other targets" which Orgreave called us away from. Mass pickets at the wharfs which we planned in secret for weeks, were sunk by diversions to Orgreave . The solidarity action on the docks, initiated by Doncaster pickets, should have been THE major target along with Notts. itself, Orgreave should have been an occasional target, a hit a run target. MacGreggor calls Orgreave his second front.
The strike of 84 more than any other strike was a strike of the rank and file, where they couldn't control official strategies they went out and did their own, hit squads, scab watches, petrol bombs and catapults. Mass demonstrations, mass kitchens, mass food and cloth distribution. Collections in the four corners of the world. Logging, fuel gathering the length and breadth of the country and free fuel distribution throughout the communities. A challenge to the states elaborate forces, cobbled together through networks, official, unofficial, ad-hoc, and all points in between. 1974 although victorious had nothing like this. Remarkably the conclusion of SW is the reverse " the miners lost in 1984 despite incomparably better national leadership, because those rank and file networks (of the 70s) had withered away". Well, it just goes to show, it depends how you choose to tell the tale.
SWP should be congratulated for bringing out this special, it went down
a bomb at the Hatfield pickets reunion, not least because some of them
are in the photos. It is destined to be a best seller at miners rallies
and socials all over the country right through this 20th anniversary year.
The commentary however, is just plain wrong. Mainly this is because SWP
like many other parties and groups on the left set off with a preconceived
plan of how things work, and then try to fit reality into it, even if
it will not just fit. Its far easier comrades if you draw your conclusion
after the actual events, and how things and people actually act, rather
than the way you have predetermined they will do, but didnt. But that
of course would mean you weren't the leadership so that wont wash..