On March 6, 1984, the British coal strike against Margret Thatcher’s union-busting and privatization began. This strike would threaten to shut off the nation’s energy supplies. It was also started on a questionable legal basis, which opened the door for court action to shut it down. In the end, while a brave action, it was also an unmitigated disaster that ended an era of militancy and success for the British labor movement.
Coal was a central part of the British economy for a very long time. But employment in the industry had plummeted from around a million people in the early 1920s to about 230,000 by the early 1980s. As part of the post-war socialist government of Clement Attlee, the British state had nationalized the industry in 1947. It was in the British government’s industry to subsidize the price of coal and give these people good work. But it did cost the state money. By the 1960s, there was growing tensions between the coal miners and increasingly conservative governments. A lot of it had to do with growing demands to mechanize the industry and rationalize the costs. The National Union of Mineworkers, which ran a closed shop and was a powerful force in British politics, had agreed to cut the number of miners in half over a period time, beginning in 1958, in exchange for the government finding them other equivalent quality work. But tensions remained very strong. The 1974 strike brought down the Tory government of Edward Heath and reminded everyone of the power of the NUM. The 1976 Grunwick strike, where British unionists finally embraced immigrants, only added to Tory outrage over the power of workers in the country.
In the aftermath of Heath’s tumble, the Tories started planning to bust the NUM. Unfortunately for them, the so-called Ridley Plan to do this was leaked and printed in The Economist in 1978. This was the playbook for resisting a nationwide strike by one of the major unions and then blaming unions for all the nation’s economic problems. So it’s not as if the NMU didn’t know what was coming. The NUM was one of the real powerhouses of postwar Britain. There was a real demand for coal in the nation and also for export in Europe as rebuilding from World War II got under way. This led to a generation of better lives and greater power for English coal miners than they had ever had before.
Then Margaret Thatcher became the Prime Minister in 1979. It was a tough era for western economies generally. And this would be disastrous for the center-left parties of the western world. Foreshadowing Reagan’s overwhelming victory over Carter in the U.S. in 1980, Thatcher, a hard-line Tory, came to power based on fighting inflation and cracking down on unions and other forms of militancy.
By 1981, the NUM knew it was in trouble and was going to have to act. Government subsidies to keep coal prices up were costing a lot of money and the Tories wanted to reduce it and close more pits. The union nearly struck in 1981 but an agreement was made just before they were to go on strike. But this was a stopgap that solved no real problems. More pit closures and pay restrictions led to a lot of little wildcat strikes by miners that were not exactly approved by national leadership, but which were fine with them.
On March 6, 1984, workers at Cottonwood Colliery walked off the job after the government announced a plan to cut coal output by 4 million tons a year. This would have reduced the union membership by 20 percent due to layoffs. This was an intentional move by the Thatcher administration, who had prepared for this. She named a metallurgist named Ian McGregor to head the National Coal Board. He had already busted the British steel industry, engaging in structural reforms that led to 95,000 workers to get canned. His job: bust the coal unions.
So this started the national strike. The NUM decided to strike as a union. Or at least its leadership did. In fact, there was never a vote on it. NUM leaders sanctioned this strike through Yorkshire based on the 1981 vote, not holding a new one. This was of highly questionable legality. NUM president Arthur Scargill nationalized the strike on March 12. Scargill was a militant himself, a hero of the 1974 strike who believed in direct-action tactics and confronting the government. For the next year, the nation was basically involved in a near civil war over the future of workers. Approximately 26 million man-days would be lost, making it the largest strike in the nation since 1926. It’s hard to overstate how titanic this was. Said the journalist Seumas Milne, “it has no real parallel – in size, duration and impact – anywhere in the world” The idea of the NUM was that they could shut down the nation by denying it energy. This had worked back in 1972.
Feeling attacked and scared, many miners didn’t really want to go on strike. In fact, despite the long tradition of unionism, many in the Midlands mines scabbed during it. This of course was a disaster for the union, which really needed to hold together if it was going to win the action. This really was on Scargill, who didn’t allow the necessary democracy in the union to build the required solidarity. Even worse, many of the other big unions didn’t support the NUM, usually citing the lack of a national vote on it but more that they were scared of Thatcher.
Thatcher was worth being scared of. She was ruthless. She used the police to bust up labor actions, with as much violence as they wanted to use. She had built up a huge coal surplus to last out the strike. She also made deals with non-union truckers to move what coal they could get out during the strike, undermining the solidarity potential of sympathy strikes. Scargill compared her to Hitler. She considered using the military to crush the strike. She didn’t do that, but she did set the police off to do whatever they wanted to the strikers. On June 18, there was a pitched battle on the streets of Oregrave between 10,000 miners and 5,000 cops. No one died, but there were 51 miners and 72 cops injured. The government tried to fabricate evidence to throw a bunch of miners in prison, but then that leaked and the Thatcher administration’s largely illegal plan fell apart. But that wouldn’t stop her.
Miners started pealing off not only the strike but from the NUM. In Nottingham and South Leicester, miners started an alternative union called the Democratic Union of Mineworkers. The strike was collapsing. Moreover, as one miner remembered later, this was a civil war between the working class:
“The miners were good blokes, Scabs [those who crossed the picket lines] were too and so were we … this was a Working Class War. Miners and police often came from the same families. I have generations of coal miners in mine … In the end we all lost. Whilst the police did not do so quite as obviously as the miners, with whole communities devastated and a way of life gone for ever. Unions, in reality the only power balance against a right wing government, were legislatively castrated with more evisceration on the way, to the detriment of us all.”
The strike ended on March 3, 1985, as the government declared it illegal due to the lack of a vote and there wasn’t much left of it anyway. This was a complete disaster for the NUM and the national labor movement in Britain. Of course, this raised Thatcher’s profile into the Iron Lady, an unbeatable force of conservatism. The union tried to frame it as a victory, but it was not, not by any means. It permanently changed British politics. The unions would never be as strong again. The Labour Party began its turn toward neoliberal centrism shortly after and people such as Tony Blair would be puked up instead of leaders who actually cared about workers. It’s true of course that the British coal industry was unprofitable. But the Thatcher administration had zero interest in helping coal miners finding new work or ensuring that these communities didn’t become cesspools of poverty with all the social problems that go with it. This fundamentally was the problem with both right-wingers and neoliberals. They just didn’t bother with what would happen to deindustrialized communities. They either hand-waved it away or just blamed the workers.
Moreover, this was the British version of the PATCO strike in the U.S. in 1981. When Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, it not only busted that union, but it also sent a message through the nation that the government would no longer tolerate organized labor and business didn’t have to either. The unions got the message. Strikes plummeted in 1982 and never recovered. The same thing happened in Britain. The number of strikes immediately cratered in 1985 and also has never recovered. Within a few years, union membership in Britain dropped 40 percent. The British labor movement would never be the same.
The Tories then looked to privatize the rest of the coal industry. They accomplished this in 1994. By 2015, all of the coal mines in the nation were closed. The coal regions were among the poorest in the country. In fact, the town of Grimethorpe in South Yorkshire, one of the big coal areas, was the poorest settlement in all of Great Britain. In Grimethorpe, unemployment rose to 50 percent and crime rose by 30 percent. I’m sure Thatcher got a good laugh over this. To say the least, for the Tories, this poverty was a sign of their victory in reshaping the nation.
This is the 429th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.