The miners' strike 1984-5: The events

Submitted by Anon on 23 March, 2004 - 8:56

The second in our series looking back at the miners' strike details the events up to April 1984.
21 March 1984: power unions (including the GMB) advise their members to cross picket lines. Steelworkers will also cross picket lines.

Third week in March: women in Barnsley, having formed Women Against Pit Closures, hold first activity, a picket of the National Coal Board local offices. Other women's groups spring up. Initially they are involved in organising food collections and distribution and fund raising. Soon they are organising pickets, rallies, demonstrations and public speaking.

26 March: Lancashire NUM joins the strike. The strike support has reached a steady level which will increase only slightly (after the NUM conference on 19 April).

28 March: Yorkshire miners block a section of the Ml motorway.

29 March: Transport unions impose ban on the movement of coal and this is partially successfully. Nurses join the picket lines in South Wales.

By late March it was clear that this miners' strike would be a long and grim affair.

3-9 April: Food kitchens are opened in every coalfield.

12 April: NUM Executive faces down right-wing calls for a national ballot and right wing Notts area president Ray Chadburn emerges from the meeting to tell his members: "get off your knees and support the strike."

The ballot

This is how Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity) in the pamphlet Magnificent Miners summed up this issue after the strike was over.

The argument that the NUM leaders were 'undemocratic' because they did not have a national ballot is disqualified by sheer hypocrisy. Nobody balloted on the Coal Board's closure plan or the massive police operation. No-one elected Ian MacGregor.

The strike was called according to NUM rules and endorsed during the strike by seven national conferences of elected NUM delegates. Not many things in Britain are done as democratically as that.

In any case it would not alter the fundamental rights and wrongs even if the strike were called undemocratically. The course of history is not determined by meditations upon the concept of democracy, but by class struggle. The NUM, and through the NUM the trade union movement as a whole, faced an assault which had to be resisted, democracy or no democracy.

Obviously a national strike sanctioned by a ballot would have been better than an area by area strike. It would have strengthened the NUM and deprived its enemies of valuable weapons in the propaganda war.

Would there have been a majority for a strike if a ballot had been called? It is difficult to know. Opinion polls taken from 9 March onwards showed a steady 60% majority for a strike.…

When a worker votes for or against a strike it is not the same sort of thing as a comfortable middle class person choosing whether to put their cross opposite Tory or Labour. The worker is not expressing a preference about something relatively remote: he or she is deciding whether to undergo risks and hardships for the sake of a principle.

In South Wales and North Staffs miners preferred not to have a strike and voted accordingly but felt that if other miners picketed to demand solidarity, then on principle they must respond. Many Notts scabs felt the same: but they didn't do what on principle they saw as their duty. Therefore they pretended they had been in favour of a strike and hid behind the pseudo-principle of a ballot.

There is nothing sacrosanct about the individual ballot as a form of democracy. The mass meeting, where the fear of hardship can be tempered by the confidence of solidarity, is generally better for decisions on strikes. And 'voting with their feet' in response to picketing, as the miners did, is by no means inferior to a ballot.…

Yet, not calling a ballot may have been a tactical error. If a ballot would have produced a majority, then it should have been called. But the decision whether to call a ballot was a matter of judgement which the leaders of the NUM were best placed to make.

A ballot majority would not have guaranteed a 100% solid strike, but it would have reduced the initial numbers of scabs drastically. The tactic of picketing out collieries - which was the only possible one without a ballot at the start of the strike - did not work fully, and its partial failure seriously weakened the strike from the start… but it was a matter of judgement and assessment for the NUM leadership.

After 19 April - the NUM Special Conference which ratifies strike action in the areas and calls on all miners to rally to the defence of their industry - the ballot was a dead issue for miners committed to the strike. It was only an issue for the Tories, the media, the right wing and the scabs.

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