From The Guardian:
We could surrender – or stand and fight’
It has been 25 years since the miners’ strike began – now, for the first time, the then president of the NUM writes his account of the most divisive and bitter industrial dispute in living memory
The Guardian, Saturday 7 March 2009
Twenty-five years ago, the Tory government led by Margaret Thatcher declared war on the National Union of Mineworkers. The Tories had been preparing for a showdown with the NUM since before the 1979 general election. They could not forget the victorious miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, the second of which had brought down the Tory government in a general election.
But the NUM’s historic battle did not begin in March 1984, as so many pundits claim. The seeds of the dispute had been sown long before. A pit closure plan in 1981 resulted in miners, including miners in Nottinghamshire, taking unofficial strike action (without a ballot) and forcing Thatcher into a U-turn, or in reality a body swerve.
At that time, Britain’s coal industry was the most efficient and technologically advanced in the world, a result of a tripartite agreement, the Plan For Coal, signed by a Labour government, the National Coal Board (NCB) and the mining trade unions in 1974, and endorsed by Thatcher in 1981. And yet, shortly after I became national president of the NUM in 1982 I was sent anonymously a copy of a secret plan prepared by NCB chiefs earmarking 95 pits for closure, with the loss of 100,000 miners’ jobs. This plan had been prepared on government instructions following the miners’ successful unofficial strike in 1981.
I took this document to the union’s National Executive Committee (NEC)–its contents were not only denied by government and NCB chiefs, but were disbelieved by militant NUM leaders who had been assured that their pits had long-term futures. However, the exposed revelations struck a chord among our members throughout Britain’s coalfields where colliery managers – clearly acting on instructions from above–had already begun unilaterally changing agreed working practices, affecting shift patterns and supplementary payments.
It became clear that the union would have to take action, but of a type that would win maximum support and have a unifying effect. The NEC accepted a report from me recommending that we call a special national delegate conference, and link our opposition to the pit closure plan with a demand that the coal board negotiate the union’s wage claim. The NEC agreed, and the special conference was held on 21 October 1983. Delegates from all NUM areas were given a detailed report so that they could vote on what action–if any–should be taken. Following a full debate, they agreed to call a national overtime ban from 1 November–until such time as the NCB withdrew its closure plan and agreed to negotiate an increase in miners’ wages with the NUM.
Over the next four months, the overtime ban had an extraordinary impact. It succeeded in reducing coal output by 30%, or 12m tonnes, thus cutting national coal stocks to about the same level as they had been during the miners’ unofficial strike in 1981.
Then, on 1 March 1984, acting I believe on national instruction, NCB directors in four areas announced the immediate closure of five pits: Cortonwood and Bullcliffe Wood in Yorkshire, Herrington in Durham, Snowdown in Kent and Polmaise in Scotland.
Coalfield reaction was electrifying. On Saturday 3 March, accompanied by the NUM Yorkshire president, Jack Taylor, I spoke at a packed meeting in South Yorkshire initially organised to discuss various issues that had already brought seven Yorkshire pits out on strike. I knew we had to do everything possible to persuade our members to direct their rage in a united way at the pit closure plan and its threat to butcher our industry.
On Sunday evening Taylor and I attended a Yorkshire Brass Band Festival in Sheffield city hall. By then I had consulted my fellow national officials, the vice-president, Michael McGahey, and the national secretary, Peter Heathfield.
It was essential to present a united response to the NCB and we agreed that, if the coal board planned to force pit closures on an area by area basis, then we must respond at least initially on that same basis. The NUM’s rules permitted areas to take official strike action if authorised by our national executive committee in accordance with Rule 41. If the NEC gave Scotland and Yorkshire authorisation under this rule, it could galvanise other areas to seek similar support for action against closures.
During an interval in the concert, I used the back of a programme to draft a strike resolution which I asked Taylor to present the following morning to the Yorkshire area council meeting. I told him that McGahey would be doing the same thing at the same time in Scotland.
On 6 March, at a consultative meeting at NCB London headquarters, the coal board chairman, Ian MacGregor, not only confirmed what we had been expecting, but announced that in addition to the five pits already earmarked for immediate closure, a further 20 would be closed during the coming year, with the loss of more than 20,000 jobs. This, he said, was being done to take four million tonnes of “unwanted” capacity out of the industry, and bring supply into line with demand.