The miners' strike of 1984-1985 was one of the most bitter industrial disputes Britain has ever seen. The year-long strike involved hardship and violence as pit communities from South Wales to Scotland fought to retain their local collieries - for many the only source of employment. The catalyst for the strike was the announcement by the National Coal Board (NCB) on 6th March 1984 that it intended to cut national capacity by 4 million tonnes and close 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs. Cortonwood Colliery in South Yorkshire was to close imminently.
On 12th March 1984, Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), called a national strike against the pit closures. The decision to strike was technically illegal, as there had been no national ballot of NUM members, even though the Nottinghamshire and Midlands Coalfields for example, had called for a national ballot. Miners in Yorkshire and Kent were the first to go on strike, followed by miners in Scotland, South Wales and Durham. Britain was to witness a fierce, hard fought battle involving the government, police, press, and the NUM.
Bitter disputes still remain over the tactics all parties used; the use of the Metropolitan Police in local mining villages, accusations of biased press coverage, flying pickets used to discourage strike breakers (or 'scabs' as they were known in mining communities) from working. As the demonstrating increased, spreading to other economic targets, there were violent confrontations between pickets and police. A key confrontation occurred in the 'Battle of Orgreave' when one mass picket on 18th June 1984 was 10,000 strong and the pickets were met with police in riot gear, police horses and dogs. The strike also saw the holding of mass meetings and great marches as for example in Mansfield in May 1984, when dockers and railway workers joined miners and their families. However, opinion was divided in the face of picket line violence and tragedies which occurred, for example the death of one flying picket outside Ollerton Colliery and in South Wales where David Wilkie, a taxi driver, died taking two 'scab' miners to work at Merthyr Vale Colliery, when a concrete post was dropped from a bridge onto his car.
An important source of support for the miners came from within their own communities, particularly from the women. Locally they set up Women's Action Groups through which they organised soup kitchens, distributed food parcels and organised Christmas appeals for miners' families. The women also actively joined picket lines, were involved in confrontations with the police and travelled the country speaking at political meetings. Nationally, women organised the 'Women Against Pit Closures' conference and, following the 'National Women Against Pit Closures' rally in London on 11th August 1984, handed a petition to the Queen. International support was also evident as lorries brought Christmas toys for striking miners' children from Germany, Belgium and France and some children went abroad to spend Christmas holidays in Europe.
There was much support in the mining communities of South Wales for the strike, including miners from the 28 pits in the South Wales Coalfield, and the Area Strike Committees that covered several pits organised picketing. Other direct action was also taken as, for example, at Port Talbot Steelworks when 100 miners from South Wales occupied three cranes 120ft high.
By January 1985, the strike was beginning to disintegrate as miners facing increasing financial hardship, returned to work in increasing numbers. The NCB had offered incentives to return to work before Christmas. The NUM had failed to gain support from other key industrial trade unions and Nottinghamshire were threatening to form a separate breakaway union (which they later did, forming the Union of Democratic Mineworkers). Consequently on 3rd March 1985, a year from the start of the strike, the NUM's National Executive voted 98-91 in favour of an organised return to work. The miners returned to work defeated but not broken as they defiantly walked behind colliery bands and lodge banners, and alongside the women and children who had provided them with such immense support.
- Introduction prepared by staff at the South Wales Coalfield Collection, Swansea University.
- Special thanks also to the National Library of Scotland, the People's History Museum, the Labour History Archive & Study Centre, the Modern Records Centre, the TUC Library Collections, and PA Photos for their assistance with this month's feature.
Photograph top right: PA Photos. Reproduced by kind permission of the People's History Museum.
Digging the Seam: Cultural Reflections and the Consequences of the 1984/5 Miners' Strike, conference at the University of Leeds, March 25-27, 2010.
Papers, panels, screenings, performances and exhibition materials are invited for a conference to be held at the University of Leeds. The conference is organised by The Louis Le Prince Centre for Photography, Film & Television (LLP) and the Media Industries Research Centre (MIRC) at the Institute of Communications Studies (ICS).
Proposal deadline: abstracts (250 words max), enquiries and requests for registration should be sent, by 1st December 2009, to the organising committee at: email@example.com.
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