Picketing: the Failed Strategy

During the 1972-74 strikes, miners were supported by other trade unionists and used mass picketing to facilitate a speedy resolve to their disputes. For example, national mass picketing involving other Trade Unions was co-ordinated and successfully deployed over the closing of the coking plant at Saltley Gates.

By 1984, qualitative differences had occurred in the political scene – with Thatcher’s election in 1979, and with the internal divisions within the Miners’ Union under the leadership of Joe Gormley. In 1984, picketing by miners was, in the main, concentrated in their own areas, and was against miners going back to work instead of, for example, towards power stations. During the initial few weeks of the strike, picketing had been successful, but this tactic became less effective as the NCB strategies, assisted by the police, ensured that miners could be bussed into work. It is doubtful whether in the long term picketing did have any effect on miners going back to the pit; it certainly did not stop it.

The decision in May 1984 to co-ordinate a national picket in order to close down the Orgreave Steel Plant, Yorkshire met with much debate and argument within the Left: the Yorkshire view at the Left meeting was that by closing the steel plant down, by stopping the coal lorries for even one day would provide a morale boost for the striking miners and possibly draw other unions into the dispute.

The Left in Scotland opposed this view, as they realised that a successful re-run of Saltley Gates was not possible, mainly because conditions had changed over the twelve years. Lessons had been learnt from the Grunwick dispute [1978], and the National Graphical Association’s dispute with Eddie Shah in 1983. Irrespective of the number of pickets, there would be an equal number of police patiently waiting for a lull in the picketing, and then buses would be speedily ushered through; clearly, police tactics were evolving to nullify the effects of mass picketing in Nottingham. Even if the attempt to close the plant for one day had been successful, where were the human resources to continue the picket going to come from?

Nevertheless, the consensus was to organise a mass picket at Orgreave on the 29th of May 1984 – the ‘Battle of Orgreave’. For picketers, the day began as if going on a club outing. They were met by the full force of the State, and returned traumatised, as if they had been in the middle of a war zone.

Role of the State

Although Arthur Scargill was correct in saying that the role of the State and all its tentacles was a factor used against the miners’ strike, it would be extremely naive of a trades union leader involved in industrial action not to assume or recognise that the power of the State would be used to break any strike.

The history of the labour and trades union movement is littered with examples of State intervention, and the modern period is no exception. The Ridley Report, leaked to The Economist in 1978 (May 27), made it clear what the State’s intentions were, and how its power was to be used, if a miners’ strike were to take place.
Ridley proposed the use of mobile squads of police to uphold the law against picketing, and changes to the DSS regulations to ensure that strikers’ money supply was cut off. Thatcher was quite clear in that she had identified the miners as ‘the enemy within’, while Lord Marshall of the CEGB saw it as a ‘just war’. McGregor, chairman of the NCB, saw it as an ‘insurrection for which the miners will pay a heavy price’.
They clearly understood that it was a class struggle between Capitalism and workers and as such utilised powers within the State machine to win.
From early on in the dispute it was clear that the Triple Alliance was doomed to failure due to the reluctance of the Steel Unions to fully commit themselves to supporting the miners (Triple Alliance Minutes, 1984, March 15).

There was also the reluctance of the NUM to involve the TUC, which allowed the leadership of other trades unions to sit on the sidelines.

Therefore, to win, the miners needed to build other alliances that could eventually lead to isolation of the State. The Left in Scotland argued the necessity of developing these alliances by bringing in Women’s Support Groups and the Churches, although this was viewed by other sections of the Left as hiding behind skirts and dog collars. This reaction demonstrated a lack of political understanding of the role of churches that, as part of the establishment, would be separated from the State by bringing them into the struggle.

The Aftermath: Victory? Defeat?

The strike ended as it had begun, with divisions and acrimony. The South Wales resolution to the special delegates’ Conference on March 3rd 1985 called for an organised return to work, without a negotiated settlement. This resolution was finally passed by 98 votes to 91.

Arthur Scargill declared the miners’ strike as a victory. The Government had failed to force the miners to accept the dictats of the agreement that McGregor had put forward. It is natural to claim victory: to do otherwise would be to indicate defeat and therefore an acceptance of the blame for that defeat.

But to use such terminology as victory or defeat in order to make a claim or assessment of the year long miners’ dispute is incorrect. Miners and their families, when they made their choice in March 1984 to fight and defend their communities, were taking on, whether they realised it or not, the mantle of defending not only themselves but millions of other workers and their families throughout Britain. In doing so they were challenging the whole ethos of Thatcherism, the ethos where the economics of the market place ruled and only the strongest survived, an ethos that created the wholesale destruction of our traditional industries and created in excess of 4 million unemployed workers.

Thatcher’s intention was to smash Socialism by destroying the Trades Union Movement through taking on the miners: she failed in this. This failure was inevitable. As long as there are employers, then workers will need to defend their working conditions, through organisations. These organisations may be difficult to recognise or compare with our present Trades Union Movement, but they will exist.