Thursday, April 11, 2013


May 1984.Demonstration of supporters of the strike in Mansfield with leading a waving NUM President Arthur Scargill

The death of Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher brings back into the spotlight her fight against the unions. So my thoughts go out to my visit in the early nineties with an international delegation of miners to the Union of Democratic Miners (UDM) in Nottinghamshire. The UDM was created after a conflict with the once powerful National Union of Miners (NUM) at the time of the great miners' strike in 1984-1985 under the leadership of his infamous president Arthur Scargill (1981-2000). During that visit I learned how dramatic this miners' strike has been for many British miners and ultimately for the entire British trade union movement.

Of course, the Thatcher government made every effort to destroy the economic and political power of the English trade unions, united in the trade union confederation TUC. The TUC at that time was both, a social economic as well as a political power. Because of its huge financial contributions to the Labour Party, the TUC in fact controlled the party. Because Thatcher from the outset was planning to change radically the British economy  based on the principles of  the free market, a small government, privatization of state enterprises, deregulation, etc. a clash between her government and the trade unions eventually was inevitable.

Extreme Left parties joined with their pamphlets the internal conflict in the miners' union. In the pamphlets the willing to work the miners were denounced as traitors. 

With which unions, when and how such a confrontation would occur was obviously not foreseeable. The question is whether it was necessary to have such a tough confrontation as the one between the miners' union NUM and the Thatcher government? Was there no room for negotiation and compromise? What about the employers? Did they hide behind the back of Thatcher to let her do the dirty work so they afterwards could impose their conditions on the battered trade unions or were they willing to negotiate and compromise? In the latter case, employers and unions together could have put pressure on the Thatcher government.

During my visit to the UDM, I learned that these questions already had been posed, but that the board of the NUM, presided by Arthur Scargill stuck to its strategy of confrontation with Thatcher. Artrhur Scargill himself must have believed in a kind of class struggle. The tragedy started with the board of the NUM rejecting a national ballot on the strike. This non-democratic attitude put a bomb under the legitimacy of the strike. Apparently the NUM board did not want to take the risk that a majority of the miners would reject the strike. So the NUM held to its confrontation strategy with the idea that the union would at least be strong enough to bring down the Thatcher government.

On the picture you can see how far the polarization went between supporters and opponents of the strike. Without a vote no strike says one of the banners. On the other banner we read that "Scargillism is communism".

The above three pictures are taken from a book by Alan R.Griffin, County under Siege: Nottinghamshire in the Miners' Strike 1984-5, Moorland Publishing Company 1985.

The tensions about the legitimacy of the strike increased within the NUM by the rejection of the results of a ballot in Nottinghamshire on 15 and 16 March 1984. The outcome of that ballot was staggering: more than 20,000 votes against the strike and only some more than 7000 in favor. Based on these results, the regional board summoned the strikers to go at work, what most did. Striking miners from other regions were asked to stop their picket lines in front of the gates of the mines.

Instead the NUM board searched a way out of the resulting internal conflict, the board decided to confront Nottinghamshire. The Nottingham representatives in the NUM board were physically attacked and miners from outside the region were making picketlines in front of the Nottingham mines. The result was more violence between miners with people injured and even a few dead. What followed was a Greek tragedy of conspiracies,non- statutory conferences and meetings, growing distrust, physical violence against miners willing to work, etc. This led gradually to the self-destruction of the once mighty NUM. Instead of solidarity and cooperation, there was distrust and opposition and even hatred within the trade union. The Thatcher government had an easy task to finish the job. Within a few years, dozens of mines were closed.

No comments:

Post a Comment