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UK miners' strike (1984-1985)

From Academic Kids

The miners' strike of 1984-5 was a major piece of industrial action affecting the British coal industry. It was a defining event in the history of industrial relations in the UK.

In 1984, the National Coal Board (the UK Government department which controlled coal mining in that country) announced that an agreement reached after the 1974 miners' strike had become obsolete, and that they intended to close 20 coal mines because they were uneconomical. 20,000 jobs would be lost, and many communities in the north of England and in Wales would lose their primary source of employment.

Sensitive to the impact of the proposed closures in their own areas, miners in various coal fields began strike action. In the Yorkshire coal field strike action began on March 5 at Cortonwood Colliery in Barnsley, following a local ballot, and on the next day pickets from the Yorkshire area appeared at pits in the Nottinghamshire coal field (one of those least threatened by pit closures). On March 12, 1984 Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) declared that the strikes in the various coal fields were to be a national strike and called for strike action from NUM members in all coal fields.

Scargill did not call a ballot for national strike action, perhaps because of uncertainty over the level of support from the workforce, since polls showed that more than 60% of the miners intended to continue working. This mistake (or deliberate omission) allowed the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher to use new laws which required unions to ballot members on strike action. The strike was ruled illegal, and the NUM's funds were seized on October 24, 1984 by order of the High Court. Miners were denied state benefits and their wages.

The government mobilised the police in huge numbers to deal with picket lines on the grounds that they represented illegal intimidation and sometimes illegal violence against the miners who wanted to go to work. During the industrial action 11,291 people were arrested and 8,392 charged with offences such as breach of the peace and obstructing the highway. It has been alleged by former striking miners and others that soldiers of the British Army were dressed as policemen and used on the picket lines. While concrete evidence of this has not been produced it remains a major sore point to this day and in many former mining areas, antipathy towards the police remains strong.

At the beginning, the strike was almost universally observed in the coalfields of Yorkshire, South Wales and Kent. It was less strong in areas where there were fewer pits. In Nottinghamshire and the rest of the Midlands, most of the pits had modern equipment and had large coal reserves; most of the Nottinghamshire miners remained at work and the Nottinghamshire NUM disagreed with the decision to launch a national strike without a ballot. Feeling within the NUM condemned them as strikebreakers and the Nottinghamshire branch eventually broke away to form the core of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, which also attracted individual support elsewhere.

A widely reported clash during the Miners' Strike took place at Orgreave near Rotherham on June 18 1984. This confrontation between striking miners and police, dubbed by some as the Battle of Orgreave, was the subject of a TV re-enactment in 2001, conceived and organized by artist Jeremy Deller and recorded by Mike Figgis for the TV Channel 4.

The strike ended on March 3, 1985, nearly a year after it had begun. Some workers had returned to work of their own accord, a symbolic victory for the government, although ministers later admitted that the figures of returnees were inflated. In order to save the union, the NUM voted, by a tiny margin, to return to work without a new agreement with management.

During the strike many pits permanently lost their customers. Much of the immediate problem facing the industry was due to the economic recession in the early 1980s. However, there was also extensive competition within the world coal market plus a concerted move towards oil and gas for energy production. The government's own policy, known as the Ridley Plan (from its author Nicholas Ridley) was to reduce Britain's reliance on coal. In the end the unwanted result of the strike allowed the government to accelerate the closure of many pits on economic grounds.

Dame Stella Rimington (MI5 Director General, 19921996) published an autobiography in 2001 in which she revealed MI5 'counter-subversion' exercises against the NUM and the striking miners, which included the tapping of union leaders' phones.

Strike in artistic depictions

The UK miners' strike was the background for the critically acclaimed 2000 film Billy Elliot. Several scenes powerfully depict the chaos at the picket lines, clashes between armies of police and striking miners, and the shame of crossing the picket line.

It is also involved in the background to the plot in Brassed Off, which is set ten years after the strike when all the miners have the lost the will to resist and accept the closure of their pit with resignation. Brassed Off was set in the hard-hit ex-mining village of Grimethorpe.

A recent book called GB84 by David Peace revolves around pickets at the Cortonwood colliery, where the strike began. Graphic details are provided of many of the strike's major events. Peace originates from Ossett, which saw its local pit close in 1985, but the book is set further south.

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