The British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and
The British miners’ strike (1984-5)
A bitter year long strike (5th March 1984 - 3rd March 1985) between:
a) the National Union of
(the British coal miners’ union)
b) the National Coal Board
The miners’ employer - owned by the government because the coal mining industry was nationalized in 1947.
British prime minister, pictured right.
Miners’ union (NUM) leader.
Boss of the National Coal Board.
Why did the strike happen?
1. Pit closures
The government (led by the prime minister, Margaret
Thatcher) wanted to close loss making coal mines (or pits).
But the NUM (led by Arthur Scargill, pictured right during the strike) wanted to keep them
open, because mining towns depended on coal for employment.
It was the first British miners’ strike in history about jobs not money.
2. Mining is mucky
Working underground in a mine is a horrible and dangerous job,
although working conditions had improved greatly since 1945.
The mining industry had a long history of fatal accidents, mainly caused by
3. Pride in the past
The National Union of Mineworkers, and other trade unions, were
proud of their history and their past battles with employers over:
- better pay and working conditions.
The miners had major victories in the 1972 and 1974 strikes during
prime minister Edward Heath’s Conservative government (in which Margaret Thatcher served).
She was determined not to be humiliated again.
Probably the most famous miners’ strike was in 1925 that led to a general strike a year later.
The 1925 strike was led by A.J. Cook, pictured right, whose slogan was:
“Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day”.
Key events in British trade union history
1834 The Tolpuddle Martyrs
A group of farm labourers (from Tolpuddle, Dorset in southern England) were convicted and transported to
Australia for joining a trade union.
They were found guilty under an old law that prohibited the swearing of oaths (even though unions had been made
legal in 1824).
After a huge public outcry, they were:
- returned to Britain as heroes.
1888 Bryant and May strike
A successful strike by the women at the Bryant and May match
factory in London (pictured right) who were fighting for better pay and working conditions.
1901 The Taff Vale Case
This court case decides that a union can be sued for profits lost during a strike.
The decision is reversed by the 1906 Trade Disputes Act.
(in which all trade unions strike in support of the miners, whose strike, pictured
right, had started in 1925, but it collapses in six days).
1945-79 Powerful unions
Trade unions co-operate closely with governments over pay and economic policy, particularly in the Labour
But they oppose pay restraint in:
a) the successful miners’ strikes (1972 and
The 1974 strike led to the defeat of Edward Heath’s government.
b) the Winter of Discontent (1979)
This led to the:
- defeat of Jim Callaghan’s (pictured right) Labour
1979-90 Margaret Thatcher’s
attack on unions
Margaret Thatcher’s three Conservative governments:
- significantly reduce the power of trade unions.
- make secret ballots for strikes compulsory.
Key events in the strike
5 March, 1984
Closure of the Cortonwood pit in Yorkshire is announced.
Yorkshire miners start the strike.
6 March, 1984
Closure of 20 pits announced with the loss of 20,000 miners’ jobs.
18 June, 1984
The Battle of Orgreave - thousands of police ensure that coke supplies get through to a
steel works at Orgreave in South Yorkshire
10,000 striking miners (pickets including the miners' leader, Arthur Scargill) unsuccessfully
try to stop them.
11 December 1984
- form the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM).
3 March 1985
The NUM ends the strike.
Why did the miners lose?
- a tough leader (nicknamed the Iron Lady by the Russians).
- absolutely determined that the government wouldn’t repeat the defeats by the miners
in the 1972 and 1974 strikes.
These strikes occurred under the previous Conservative prime minister, Edward
Heath (pictured right).
She carefully planned for the strike in various ways:
Coal stocks were stockpiled at power stations (then mostly coal fired), so that the country
would not quickly run out of electricity.
Thatcher also invested in other forms of
power generation like oil, gas and nuclear.
b) police protection
Thatcher made sure there were enough police to
ensure that pickets (striking miners) didn’t stop:
- working miners getting to work.
- coal (or coke) supplies getting to the power stations and the steel
The strike’s biggest battle was at the steel plant at Orgreave in South Yorkshire.
c) Ian MacGregor (pictured right)
In September 1983 Thatcher appointed this tough Scottish born American as boss of the
miners’ employer, the National Coal Board, to:
- didn’t handle the strike well.
- appeared insensitive and inflexible.
- nearly provoked a strike by supervisors responsible for pit safety (which would have
closed all the mines).
2. Arthur Scargill
Scargill became leader of the miners’ union (the NUM) in 1981 and was a brilliant
But he made several big mistakes:
- overestimated miners’ power (because of their victorious strikes in 1972 and
- wouldn’t compromise or negotiate over pit closures.
- crucially refused (in July 1984) the National Coal Board’s
offer to only close a pit with “no further mineable reserves”.
This offer would have been seen as a victory for the miners.
Scargill failed to:
- unite the miners because he refused to have a national
ballot to support the strike (so some miners continued working – see point 4).
- gain the support of other unions.
d) poor public image
Scargill's Marxist (strongly pro-worker and anti-capitalist) views:
- made him a villain in many newspapers.
e) poor planning
Scargill started to strike at the end of winter when the demand for coal and electricity
The strikers had violent clashes with thousands of police (pictured
right) which lost them public support (although the strong arm tactics of the police were also criticized).
Some strikers threatened or intimidated:
a) working miners
(who were also badly beaten and their families terrorized).
b) some union leaders
(who criticized the strike).
For example, the union boss, Norman Willis (pictured right), had a hangman’s noose lowered
above his head, when he spoke against violence.
Sadly there were deaths:
- David Wilkie (a taxi driver killed taking a miner to work in south Wales – a concrete
slab was dropped on his car from a bridge).
- David Jones (the first miner to die on the picket line in April 1984).
4. Working miners
Most miners in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire carried on working.
They provided vital coal supplies to power stations.
The Nottinghamshire miners even set up a breakaway union, the Union of Democratic
Results of the strike
1. Support for Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher’s victory:
- helped her to win her third general election in 1987.
But many people were concerned about the:
- police’s strong arm tactics
- miners’ financial misery (strikers aren’t paid, of course).
2. Scorn for Scargill
Scargill was unpopular (even among some miners and trade unionists) because of his:
- Marxist (anti-capitalist) views.
- unwillingness to compromise.
- failure to unite the miners’ union (the NUM).
- refusal to have a strike ballot.
After the strike he was never as powerful again and resigned as the NUM leader in 2002.
3. Collapse of the coal industry
One thing that Scargill did get right was the government’s destruction of the coal mining
In 1985 alone, 25 pits were shut down, including Cortonwood, the Yorkshire mine where the
During the strike there were nearly 250,000 miners, but in March 2011 there were
This wasn’t necessarily disastrous for the miners, because mining was such an unpleasant
4. New Labour
The strike taught the British Labour Party that:
- its close association with the unions was unpopular.
- it must become more appealing to richer people in southern England.
This resulted in:
- New Labour under the leadership of Tony
Blair (pictured right).
- Blair's huge election victory in1997.
5. Attack on unions
Her victory enabled Margaret Thatcher to
launch a big attack on trade union power.
Union influence in Britain fell dramatically because of:
a) Thatcher's attack.
b) the decline in strongly unionized industries (like coal and steel).
Between 1980 and 1987 British union membership dropped from
In 2010 this figure had fallen still further to 6.5 million.
6. Increased management power
As unions declined, managers could:
- be tougher with their employees.
- make employees more efficient and competitive (to cope with
increasing foreign competition).
7. The triumph of community
The miners supported each other selflessly during the financial hardship of the strike, when the strikers
The 1984 Christmas was particularly miserable.
There are no uneconomic pits.
- Arthur Scargill, 1984.
The lady’s not for turning,
- Margaret Thatcher.
I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end,
- Margaret Thatcher.
We raise the watch-word liberty. We will, we will, we will be free!
- George Loveless, one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs (pictured right) after being
convicted for joining a union.
Books about the miners
The most famous book, set in a south Welsh mining village, is How Green Is My Valley by
This was made into an Oscar winning film in 1942.
Films about the miners
How Green Is My
The story of a miner’s son (pictured right) who:
- learns ballet during the 1984-5 miners’ strike.
- eventually becomes a great ballet dancer.