[Debating the Miners’ Strike 5] The Miners & Social Change

Strikers now find themselves in major confrontation with the police. It is an eye-opener for all those trade unionists who have been elected to public office, to councils and to Parliament, who sit as magistrates or school governors or on tribunals and fancy themselves as part of the Establishment, to find that a determined government can at one blow wipe it all away. Miners – even the lower echelon of the union machine – are having to battle in the streets, to bleed under truncheons, to face political grilling in police stations, to be stopped at roadblocks, to have their homes searched, to be fined and imprisoned. All this has happened before, but to ‘extremists’… suddenly the ‘extreme’ becomes nearer than they thought.
Only a matter of months ago one odd member of the anti-strike brigade was deprecating the printers of Fleet Street and their high wages (which were fought for over the years) saying how much more he would think of them (not that he would do anything) if they were to stop printing lies – regarding this as totally unthinkable. Now they have done just this. They have forced the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail to print the other side, they have stopped the Sun altogether because it wouldn’t. (‘An infringement of free speech!’ cry those who think only a few proprietors have the right to freedom of expression).
Amongst the lies being hurled at the strikers is the one that says that this is all a bid for power by or for Arthur Scargill. Mr Scargill is being built up as the Lenin of the strike by the anti-strike brigade: those who fight for it are tarred as wishing to build up a Scargill Government, as puppets of Scargill, as bootlickers of Scargill, as minions of a Scargill dictatorship.
The miners are organised in an authoritarian body, the National Union of Mineworkers, and Scargill at it’s head has the spotlight on him. But to imagine the fight is for ‘Scargill’ is to fall for the most obvious brainwashing we have had since we were told the war was ‘won’ by Churchill. Few men will undergo six months of voluntary semi (or actual) starvation out of hero-worship or blind following – against the brainwashing of the media – however eloquent or handsome Scargill is – and if they did they would not have the backing of the women who have emerged as the greatest of fighters.
Scargill happens to boss the NUM, but then the struggle is not for the NUM. It is the whole structure of the NUM – tied to the closed shop system beloved of British trade unionism because it saves them so much bother and normally excludes having to fight that has caused the division between workers. If an independent miners union wanted to fight and some people didn’t want to, they could go and be damned.
In a closed shop union miners who want to scab – because of greed or fear of the consequences or concern for their families – want at the same time to remain as unionists because it is the only way they know to guarantee having jobs at all. If expelled they appeal, to the courts. What have judges to do with a workers union? A union is to fight economic battles; not to be determined by every law. The fight would have been long won since if those who felt threatened by the closures had been able to part company with those who did not feel the threat affected them yet, and who think they can afford to wait until it does and work meantime, paying their mortgages and hire purchases and keeping their holidays and cars.
If those who had no stomach to fight had been allowed to leave the union, they would have seen there was no alternative but to fight. The notion that ‘they should have balloted’ (echoed by all the reactionaries who never hold ballots on anything affecting themselves) is a false cry. The only purpose of balloting would be to preserve the unity of the closed shop union. No miners would vote yes on whether they wanted pits to close. A number would have disagreed with striking – but obviously they would not be people being closed down, they would be the ones in hopefully secure pits (or so they think).
The struggle has transformed the mining communities politically. Most older miners always hoped that the task of mining as it is known would eventually cease. But nothing is offered in its place. The NCB is taking the means by which whole valleys and communities live and ordering them to be extinct. This is being done by the nationalised coal industry, which was a 75 year ambition of socialism and trade unionism – something which the NUM forgets when it mightily attacks coal chief MacGregor.
The younger miners are battling against police and pickets. But this is not a battle for the streets and it will not be won there. If the police are defeated they bring in the army and all the reserve forces being built up by the new dictatorship. That front must not be neglected and it is one on which major support is needed, but like war the strike will be won or lost on provisions. In this the women of the coalfields have shown superb communal organising ability and received enormous support which has won the admiration of organised workers everywhere. They must not be allowed to perish for want of ‘lease-lend’.
Albert Meltzer.

[This issue contains a number of political debates about the 1984-85 Miners’ strike. As always, we have reprinted them because we think they’re worth reading again. They touch on Anarchist solidarity actions with the miners, but that’s another story: not all of which has been written down.]

From: Black Flag no. 119 (vol.7, no.7A, 15/10/1984).