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Sunday 13 October
My.Anglia > Faculties > Alss > Miners strike > The Miners’ Strike and its Supporters

The Miners’ Strike and its Supporters

1. ‘We already had debts before the strike and we sold our wedding rings to pay a court fine. We sold the freezer, it was empty anyway, the car went back, the fridge and the electric cleaner broke down. But the worse was the cold…  We burnt furniture – dining chairs and the display unit; it was old but it would have lasted a bit longer; we burnt shoes; we chopped our wooden ladder and burnt that.’

Annette Needham, Rainworth, Quoted in Joan Witham (ed.), Hearts and Minds: The Story of the Women of Nottinghamshire in the Miners’ Strike 1984-5.

2. ‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the "utopian" artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.’

E. P. Thompson, preface to The Making of the English Working Class, 1963.

Miners Strike collection roster

In March 1984 an announcement by the National Coal Board that the Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire was shortly to close was followed by an admission Ian MacGregor, the Chairman, that the closure of another 20 pits was envisaged over the next year at a cost of 20,000 jobs. Confidential Cabinet documents released in 2014 confirmed the existence of secret plans to close up to 75 pits with the loss of 64,000 jobs. The national strike called on March 12 by Arthur Scargill, President of the NUM, ran throughout 1984 and the long cold winter of 1984-5 until the following March. It was the most prolonged and significant in post-war history and destined to change the face of industrial relations in Britain beyond recognition.

Much of the intensity of feeling that the strike generated lay in the fact that this stoppage, unlike the miners’ disputes of 1972 and 1974, was not about pay. On the contrary, it was widely understood at the time that the cause of the striking miners was intertwined with the importance of close-knit communities and that they were fighting for basic rights; the right to work (resonant in the slogan ‘coal not dole’), the right to be consulted about job losses, for an energy policy not reliant on nuclear power, and for the welfare of people rather than profitability to be at the forefront of economic planning, restructuring and change.

In 1984 these issues appeared to be of concern to large sections of the population who had a stake in a sustainable future. What emerged was not only an extraordinary mobilization of the men and women in the mining areas in their own defence but also a historic humanitarian relief effort to the beleaguered coalfields on a scale that had arguably not been seen in Britain since the Aid for Spain movement in the 1930s.

The strike witnessed new forms of solidarity, new forms of self-help and new forms of sustenance including a network of miners’ support groups that worked with the mining communities and raised millions of pounds to stop the miners being starved into submission. At the centre of the resistance to pit closures were working-class women whose lives were transformed as they fought to save their own communities. As the literary critic Raymond Williams put it: "...the ‘miners’ strike is being represented as the last kick of an old order. Properly understood, it is one of the first steps towards a new order."

Why was this support necessary? Striking miners and their families were not eligible for security benefits and their dependants were prohibited from receiving ‘urgent needs payments’ under the  Social Security Act of 1980 although £15 was nonetheless deducted from benefits to cover ‘notional strike pay’:  the NUM did not make strike payments although they did issue  a small allowance to active pickets. Family incomes had been depleted by the previous year’s overtime ban. Poverty therefore became endemic once household savings had ran out with some strikers and their families finding themselves perilously near to destitution.

To understand why the struggle to save jobs, communities and the industry was so hard fought it should be remembered that collieries were often in remote places with few alternative jobs. Moreover, because mining was an inherently hazardous occupation - the monument to the Six Bells Disaster at the Six Bells Colliery in Abertillery speaks movingly of the lives that it had claimed in recent memory - survival underground depended on co-operation and trust between men. The values of solidarity and loyalty that mattered down the pit were also those that were replicated outside it in the mining areas.  The NUM commanded the kind of support and loyalty among its members which had long made the miners the corps d’ élite of the organised labour movement. 

It is difficult for us today to envisage the kind of loyalty to a trade union that would make working people suffer a year without money to buy their children shoes or to put food on the table; to be prepared to lose their home, risk marital breakdown, and burn furniture to keep warm rather than return to work, but that is precisely what happened in the mining communities in 1984-5.

The first distinctive feature of the strike was its longevity. Neither the NUM strike of 1972, which started in January and ended in February, nor the strike of 1974, which started in February and ended in March, had produced hardship of this magnitude or demanded so much of its participants for so long. The very longevity of the strike accounted for its second characteristic: the aggregation of the strikers and their families who refused to separate their own well-being and happiness from the well-being and happiness of their dependents. 

But the strike inevitably impacted on children’s lives in ways that nobody could had anticipated, although everything possible was done to mitigate the suffering of the children in whose name it was being fought. The rhetoric of the strike emphasized that coal was a communal resource to be held in trust for a future generation. The organisers of countless benefit concerts, ‘bucket collections’ in high streets and shopping centres, and trade union appeals to the public and their membersship, all stressed repeatedly that money went to the miners and their families; a strategy that optimised support from the general public and successfully raised many millions of pounds.

The strike witnessed an unprecedented level of women’s activism. Women Against Pit Closures enjoyed remarkable success in drawing hundreds of working class women into political action for the first time. Accentuating their credentials as miners’ wives and daughters and demanding the right to speak for their communities, women fought alongside the miners while simultaneously presenting a substantive challenge to the chauvinistic old labourist attitudes of the coalfields.

Women’s activism drew on traditions of protest in the coal fields going back to 1926. Strengthening one another’s morale, supporting isolated women, fund-raising and campaigning, women fed and clothed entire communities. Women’s action groups acquired expertise on all strike related matters from DHSS claims to mortgage repayments and international solidarity. They also provided the strike with many of its most respected and sought after public speakers.

Finally, the strike saw a radically new development: a network of some 300 miners’ support groups. These extended the length and breadth of the country from Aberdeen, to Belfast and from Ipswich to the Isle of Wight in response to the NUM’s call for fundraising on behalf of the beleaguered mining communities. The miners’ supporters included the young, the poor, student and inner city radicals, peace activists, and the unemployed, for whom trade unionism had hitherto had little meaning as well as lesbians and gays and ethnic minorities in inner city areas such as London, Birmingham and Bradford. Liverpool raised a million pounds with Catholic and Protestant churches fundraising side by side.

Many of these groups were run by members of the Labour Party, the Communist Party, and non-aligned trade unionists. The strongest were large, efficient, and formidably well-organised: others were small, informal, and extemporary in nature; many were set up by constituency Labour Parties or local trades councils. Members of CND were also very active. Virtually every TUC affiliated trade union had members fundraising with women trade unionists often working directly with women in the coal fields. NUPE’s successful ‘Fill a Bag and Feed a Family' campaign was supported by Belfast’s lowest paid workers; school cooks, council employees and cleaners. It was these prodigious fundraising efforts that extended the duration of the strike and stood between the miners, penury and capitulation for so long.

As the harsh freezing winter of 1984-5 set in it became evident that the strike had been lost and that some kind of return to work was inevitable. Like the “utopian” artisan of whom E. P. Thompson writes, the ‘poor stocking maker’, and the  “obsolete” handloom weaver, whose lives and livelihoods had been destroyed by modernization,  mechanization and the pursuit of  profit in earlier centuries, the miners should not be regarded as the helpless victims of social change.

On the contrary, their year-long resistance in the face of the terrible hardship and adversity that Annette Needham, a miner's wife from Rainworth in Nottinghamshire, so vividly describes, demonstrated the meaning of the values of solidarity, collectivism, loyalty and mutuality to the rest of the world. The miners lost the strike but they had made history. Their struggle to defend their industry and their communities had earned them their place alongside the Chartists, the Levellers, the demonstrators at Peterloo, and the Jarrow marchers of 1936 in the annals of English radicalism.

In 1984 there were 181 working coal mines employing 180,000 miners. The closure of Thoresby, the last working pit in Nottinghamshire, in July 2015 leaving Kellingley in Yorkshire, which closed in December 2015,  as the only deep mine in the country effectively brought the British coal mining industry to an end. While there has been some social renewal in the smaller mining districts (Leicestershire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire, in particular), exceptionally high unemployment across the coalfields as a whole - there are now 50 jobs for every 100 residents of working age and 41 in South Wales - and the prevalence of welfare benefits, mental health problems, and alcohol and drug dependency where there was once social cohesion, reveals the significance of the miners’ struggle anew.

Britain in the twenty-first century and before the strike are two very different places; not least because of the haemorrhaging of trade union membership after the miners’ defeat.

Mary Joannou of the Anglia Ruskin University Labour History Research Unit.