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The British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management


The British miners’ strike (1984-5)


Famous for...

A bitter year long strike (5th March 1984 - 3rd March 1985) between:


a) the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)

(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.


Key peopleThe British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management


Margaret Thatcher

British prime minister, pictured right.


Arthur Scargill

Miners’ union (NUM) leader.


Ian MacGregor 

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).The British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management

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

  • coal collapses, or
  • gas explosions.



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:

  • shorter hours.
  • 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.The British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management

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:

  • all released.
  • returned to Britain as heroes.

 The British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management

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.


The British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management

1926 General Strike

(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 government 1974-9.

But they oppose pay restraint in:


a) the successful miners’ strikes (1972 and 1974)

The 1974 strike led to the defeat of Edward Heath’s government.


b) the Winter of Discontent (1979)

This led to the:The British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management

  • defeat of Jim Callaghan’s (pictured right) Labour government.


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

Nottinghamshire miners:

  • break away from the NUM.
  • form the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM).


3 March 1985

The NUM ends the strike.



Why did the miners lose?


1. Margaret Thatcher

She was:

  • a tough leader (nicknamed the Iron Lady by the Russians). The British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management
  • 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:


a) electricity 

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 industry 

The strike’s biggest battle was at the steel plant at Orgreave in South Yorkshire.

 The British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management

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:

  • stand up to the miners.
  • start closing pits.

But MacGregor:

  • 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 speaker.

But he made several big mistakes:


a) delusion 


  • overestimated miners’ power (because of their victorious strikes in 1972 and 1974).


b) inflexibility 


  • 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.


c) divisiveness

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:

  • lost him public support.
  • 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 was falling.


 The British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management

3. Violence

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 leadersThe British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management

(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 Mineworkers.



Results of the strike


1. Support for Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher’s victory:

  • boosted her popularity.
  • 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 industry.

In 1985 alone, 25 pits were shut down, including Cortonwood, the Yorkshire mine where the strike began.

 During the strike there were nearly 250,000 miners, but in March 2011 there were only 6,000.

This wasn’t necessarily disastrous for the miners, because mining was such an unpleasant job.


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. The British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management

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

  • 13 million to... 
  • 9 million.

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 weren’t paid.

The 1984 Christmas was particularly miserable.


Key quotes


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.

The British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management


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 Richard Llewellyn.

This was made into an Oscar winning film in 1942.


Films about the miners


How Green Is My Valley 

(see above).


Billy ElliotThe British Miners’ Strike (1984-5) - Unions and Management

The story of a miner’s son (pictured right) who:

  • learns ballet during the 1984-5 miners’ strike.
  • eventually becomes a great ballet dancer.
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