The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The British Coal Strike:
A Challenge to the Bourgeoisie’s “Austerity” Program

Aug 31, 1984

The great majority of Britain’s coal miners have been on strike since early March in opposition to the National Coal Board’s announced plan to close 20 mines this year and thereby eliminate the jobs of 20,000 of Britain’s 180,000 miners. The strike, now in its fifth month, has extended to include most of the miners. The depth and militancy of the movement is a reflection of the miners’ determination. It is the first time, since the bourgeoisie responded to the deepening economic crisis with “austerity programs” in the various countries, that an important section of the proletariat in any of the industrial countries has waged this kind of first against the bourgeoisie’s plans.

The current strike, while undertaken by the miners, concerns issues which are those not only of the miners. As in the U.S., and most of the other industrialized countries, the working class in Britain has taken a beating in recent years. According to government figures (which, as in the U.S., are significantly understated), the rate of unemployment among British workers rose from 5.2 per cent (1.2 million workers) in May 1979 (when Thatcher came to power) to 13 per cent (3.2 million) in December 1983. Average family income in the last 4 years in Britain has fallen by 2 per cent, with the working class, absorbing the brunt of “austerity,” getting hit much harder than that. Workers in certain industries have been hit harder than others, of course: recently there have been attacks by the capitalists and the government against workers in auto, steel, the railroads, the shipyards, in printing, and in government.

The bourgeoisie’s attack on the working class has had another facet as well, with Parliament passing new legal restrictions on workers’ activity: limiting the number of pickets on a line to six; putting new controls on “secondary” pickets and boycotts; denying the right to strike in “essential services,” and so on.

The miners have already shown something of how the workers can respond, refusing to accept to pay for the crisis with their jobs, organizing mass pickets in defiance of the law. In doing so, the miners, virtually on their own, have demonstrated the power of the workers.

What the Miners Have Done

When the British Coal Board announced its plan of closures for the year, it announced in particular that the Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire would close within 4 weeks. Miners had previously been told that Cortonwood had 5 years’ work to go, and a number had moved there from other mines which had already been closed. The miners reacted, starting a strike at Cortonwood and a handful of other mines in Yorkshire.

The strikers quickly organized flying picket squadrons which spread the strike to all of Yorkshire, to Scotland and South Wales, and to the rest of the country. The miners organized mass picket lines at mines still working, in defiance of the legal limit of 6 pickets. The government sent thousands of police into the countryside to guard mine entrances and to try to prevent flying squadrons from passing along roads between the mining towns. Despite more than 4,000 arrests in 5 months, the strikers continued their pickets and demonstrations, bringing out the great majority of the miners. Almost daily, miners have fought pitched battles with the cops to defend the picket lines and halt the movement of coal.

The most spectacular of these actions came on June 18, when more than 8,000 miners confronted 3,500 police at the Orgreave coke plant. The miners had gathered to stop coke shipments from Orgreave to Scunthorpe, Britain’s second largest steel plant. Mounted police charged the miners a number of times. The miners fought back, hurling rocks, bottles, and chunks of steel at the cops. The miners won the battle, with the steel bosses saying they would no longer use Orgreave coke at Scunthorpe.

The miners’ actions, such as the mass picketing and battle at the Orgreave, have had a real effect. Steel production has slowed measurably. At least one major steelworks’ furnace has cracked from cooling down. More are expected to do so. The government has been forced temporarily to convert some coal burning power plants to oil at 3 times the cost. Overall costs resulting from the strike have already run into billions of pounds. The Coal Board reported at the end of July that the coal industry had lost 1.2 billion dollars in the past year.

More importantly, the miners have been able to hang on for nearly 5 months, against the cops, against the government, against even a part of the trade union bureaucracy. They have been able to organize their response to these attacks and throw them back.

The Union Leadership and the Miners

From the beginning, Len Murray and other leaders of the TUC (Trades Union Congress) denounced the strike and particularly warned transportation workers not to refuse to handle coal. Early in the strike, Labour Party Leaders also openly stood in opposition. When the miners’ action began to interfere with steel production, steel union head Bill Sirs argued vehemently that the miners were responsible for wiping out steelworkers’ jobs. And when 35,000 dock workers shut down all of Britain’s major ports in support of the miners, their union head John Connolly insisted that their action was independent of the miners’ strike, that it concerned only their own conditions of work, and managed to lead a return to work after a week and a half.

If these union officials openly opposed the strike, within the miners’ union the situation at least appeared to be different. The press and politicians (often enough Labour as well as Tory) blamed the strike on the leadership of Arthur Scargill, president of the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers). Scargill, considered by many a radical leftist particularly in contrast to other union leaders, was elected to the NUM presidency in 1981 with 70 per cent of the vote, replacing the more conservative administration of Joe Gormley.

Scargill’s reputation as a militant stems from the miners’ strike of 1972 when, as a rank-and-file Yorkshire miner, he led the miners in mass picketing and battling the cops at the Saltley fuel depot. The miners’ success there was the turning point of the strike.

Certainly Scargill has sounded a militant call in the 1984 strike. In response to a proposal from Coal Board head Ian MacGregor to negotiate a reduction in the rate of closings, Scargill said, “I want to make it perfectly clear that, while we are prepared to meet at any time, the NUM is not prepared to negotiate a reduction in manpower or pit closures.” Scargill has been on picket lines all over the country and has been beaten by the cops and arrested. In response to police violence, Scargill said, “What you now have in South Yorkshire is an actual police state, tantamount to something you are used to seeing in Chile or Bolivia...My advice to all our members and to the wider trade union movement is to ensure they come here in their thousands in order that we can make aware to everybody that we are not prepared to see this kind of brutality inflicted against working men and women.”

Certainly, Scargill presents himself in a way quite different from Murray, Connolly, and Sirs. And it’s true that at each step along the way, as the miners stretched the limits of their action, the official leadership followed along, with Scargill able to claim his place in front. When the miners are making a fight, he is able to place himself at its head, but it doesn’t mean that he wanted this fight or prepared it. Rather, as NUM president, Scargill has generally urged restraint to miners fighting closures. Just a few weeks before the current strike began in March, miners at the Polmaise mine in Scotland voted to strike against its planned closure. But Scargill and the NUM postponed strike action over the protests of the miners. Then, when the Yorkshire miners went out after the Coal Board announcement, the union leadership presented it as a regional issue. It was only in mid-May, after nearly 2½ months, that the NUM officially declared the strikes “national,” although it had spread already to about 3/4 of the mines in the country.

No more than Scargill initiated the extension of the strike among the miners, did he make any move to extend it to other sections of the working class. While he has presented the miners’ appeals for support of the strike to other workers, he has not called on them to join the fight of the miners, that is, the join them in this strike for the common goal of defeating the austerity program of the bourgeoisie.

Rather, the policy that Scargill has led at the head of the NUM is based on the idea that the consequences for the rest of the working class will be determined by the result the miners get from their strike.

In doing nothing to expand the movement, the Scargill leadership, in effect, organizes the isolation of the miners. This reflects the traditional corporatist policy of the trade union bureaucracies, that is, the idea that each separate group of workers has special interests, distinct from those of the rest of the working class. In this case, such a policy has the consequence that, while the miners still have the possibility to defeat the Coal Board, their chances of success are markedly less than they could be, if other sections of the working class were to take up their fight.

Certainly it’s possible that the miners on their own could stand sufficiently intransigent to win a reduction or even a reversal of the mine closure plan. But the best possibility for the miners to win this battle still lies in the generalization of this fight to broad sections of the working class. It is a movement of the whole working class which could break the austerity program of the bourgeoisie.

If the miners were to raise a call for the other sections of the working class to join the fight, what kind of response could they get? We cannot be sure, of course. But, up until now, despite the open hostility of much of the trade union officialdom and Labour Party leadership, the miners’ fight has elicited a widespread, even if limited and uneven, response among the workers. Thousands of workers have attended support demonstrations and rallies, not only in the mining towns, but in major cities, including London. Workers have organized themselves, independently or through their unions, to collect money for strike support. Within a few weeks, the Labour Party felt the pressure in its ranks, stopped its open criticism of the strike, and began assessing its members a nominal 50 pence a week for strike support. In Scotland, where the miners are strong and have a relatively deep support in the population, the TUC felt a pressure to call a series of one-day sympathy strikes in other sectors.

The NUM, in effect, even had several opportunities presented to it to try to generalize the fight. Transportation workers refused to handle coal, even in the face of their union leaders’ opposition. These workers on their own were already taking action in support of the miners. All the easier to call upon them to make a common fight with a common goal against the common enemy.

On top of that came the dock workers’ strike in July. This truly could have been the beginning of the generalization of a movement in the working class. But rather than urging the dockers to join a common fight, Scargill left the floor to Connolly, who led the dockers back to work.

In other words, although there was an opportunity to present a different orientation to workers in other sectors, when the bureaucrats in those sectors opposed it, Scargill let them carry out their traditional policy.

So, in the end, Scargill is a bureaucrat like the rest. Certainly he is a militant, and a radical in comparison with the others, but still a bureaucrat.

This is reflected in his lack of concern for the democratic organization of the strike. While Scargill may lead mass pickets, the bureaucracy around him retains its usual decision-making prerogatives. The question is whether the strikers themselves will be able to decide the issues of strategy and tactics, setting goals, what risks to take, how to approach other sections of the working class, all the questions of the strike. Ultimately, without the strikers’ full control of the strike, the strike is less likely to be able to realize its full possibilities, particularly in any situation where the bureaucrats want to go in a different direction than do the workers.

Nonetheless the miners’ strike still has the potential to ignite a movement in the working class which could make a real challenge to the austerity policy of the bourgeoisie. A generalized movement of the British working class could defeat that policy, and it could be an example to the working class in every country.

The British miners have already shown much of what the workers can do to make a fight. If they are to go beyond this, to call on the rest of the British working class to take up its own demands alongside the miners, the miners would have to break with the policy of the union leadership, including Scargill. Whether they can do that is not so clear. And certainly they must already be somewhat worn down by 5 months of the fight and by the missed opportunities. Nonetheless, the miners have shown their defiance of the authority of the bourgeoisie and its state, as well as their own determination to go to great lengths to defend themselves. Certainly they could push aside obstacles within their union, as well.