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Gareth Jenkins

Miners: Rank and file initiative

How solidarity was won last time

(April 1984)

From Socialist Review, No. 64, April 1984, pp. 11–14.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The miners have since the national strikes of 1972–74 held a special place in the recent history of workers’ struggle. Gareth Jenkins looks at that history and strips away the myths.

When, in the mid-1960s, the National Coal Board reached agreement with the National Union of Mineworkers to introduce the National Power Loading Agreement (NPLA) no one could have foreseen the eventual consequences in the 1972 strike.

The agreement phased out the old piece-work system, which the NUM had long condemned. But what replaced it had no advantages in practice for miners. For, in destroying the vicious piece-work system, the new agreement also did away with the ability of well-organised pits to bring up earnings from a low basic level.

From a pre-war position of 84th in the earnings league table miners had climbed to near the top by the 1960s (in 1960 a Barnsley miner could earn £25 a week, which was twice the national average). The NPLA rapidly reversed these gains. In 1966 a faceworker at Houghton Main, Barnsley, got up to 120s per shift; by 1970 that had fallen to 89s 10d, the national rate under the NPLA.

But the high earnings enjoyed by miners before the NPLA had nothing to do with the NUM nationally (the NUM had a long-standing reputation for being on the right of the TUC). Throughout the 1950s the NUM never claimed an increase of more than 25s a year and never threatened to fight. Yet the strike record in particular areas was very high. The reason was obvious.

Now, if you could no longer earn a decent living by negotiating substantial bonuses around the local rate, then there was little point in striking. You became dependent on national and area officials to resolve problems – a point that delighted the NUM bureaucracy. The tradition of local militancy that had been the strength of the union became, due to the NPLA, its weakness as miners failed to look beyond their own pit.

But eventually, the accumulated bitterness spilt over into unofficial action in the autumn of 1969 over the NUM’s “moderate” pursuit of a claim for 27s 6d. If the dustmen could fight for and get an increase of 21s, so could the miners. The whole of Yorkshire came out, together with some pits in Scotland and South Wales, for a period of two weeks.

This new confidence set the mood for the 1970 claim. Against the national executive’s advice, conference decided on a £5 claim. When the NCB replied in September with an offer of £2 10s (their highest ever, but totally inadequate in the face of rising prices), the NUM were forced to ballot the membership on strike action. Since a two thirds majority was then required the executive were reasonably confident that they would not be forced into doing anything.

Despite a barrage of media abuse, the miners voted 55 percent for action – a majority, but not sufficient under the rules. The NCB gave another 10s and the executive recommended acceptance in a second ballot.

An explosion of rank and file anger – again, principally from Yorkshire – met this decision. Within a week, 3,000 were on strike. However, the Yorkshire militants were not prepared to leave it there. They organised to spread the action by the tactic that was used with such success two years later – the flying picket.

They would meet centrally early every morning and select key pits. Once these were brought out, the rest in the locality would normally follow suit. Despite some resistance (at Glasshoughton, Castleford, the right wing secretary called in the police), the tactic worked like a dream. By the end of the first week between 50,000 and 70,000 were out. The whole of South Wales joined in by the start of the second week. There were stoppages in Scotland, Kent and Durham, and work to rules in Derbyshire, Durham and Lancashire.

At its height, this unofficial action involved 100,000 miners in 140 pits. What killed it was sabotage by the Yorkshire area secretary, Sydney Schofield. At an emergency Yorkshire council meeting at the start of the third week he persuaded the substantial minority of pit delegates opposed to the strike to go back and break the majority mandate in favour.

The militants were forced to go back over ground already covered. The strike began to contract and eventually the NEC were able to use a national ballot to enforce a return to work.

Unofficial action

But the fact that defeat could be laid at the door of a single treacherous individual says something about the limitations in the unofficial action. The most serious was the failure to hold regular meetings involving more than the most committed to discuss tactics and to pump out propaganda. In short, a start on building independent rank and file organisation was neglected.

The need for independent organisation was shown in two ways. First, there was the trust in official machinery. The crucial area council meeting, where Schofield pressurised delegates into breaking the mandate, was only lightly picketed. Militants assumed that formal decisions would be respected (it was already known that a majority were in favour of strike action). But away from the pits delegates could be leant on by the bureaucracy.

Secondly, there was the behaviour of the leading left winger in the NUM, newly elected general secretary, Laurence Daly. He, too, bent under pressure from the milieu in which he worked. So, despite an election programme advocating “guerrilla” action, Daly had urged, in response to the militancy in 1969, that the time was not ripe (but would be in 1970); and in response to the militancy in 1970, he urged a return to work in the interests of “unity” in the union.

Miners were relearning for themselves how to struggle effectively. Mistakes were inevitable. But the question of rank and file organisation (and the failure to resolve it) was eventually of crucial importance – as the subsequent history of the left in the NUM showed.

There was gathering momentum for a decisive trial of strength between the miners and the coal board. Ironically, the NPLA was responsible for it. In curtailing militancy in its pit-bound form, the NPLA had also ended localisation. But, in unifying rates, the NPLA had also generalised the militancy.

The pay claim for 1971 was the largest ever put in (increases of between £5 and £9) and was answered by a derisory offer from the NCB. Since not even Gormley could sell a £1.60 offer to the members, the 1971 special conference voted for an overtime ban and a ballot on strike action.

The percentage in favour of strike action had been steadily growing over the previous years. On this occasion it went over the magic 55 percent mark required under the new rules for implementation, though only just (58 percent).

The strike began on 9 January 1972. The executive had no intention of pushing hard. For them it was no more than a bargaining counter for extracting fresh concessions from the NCB. They were determined to keep the strike as orderly and quiet as possible.

The rank and file militants had quite different ideas, and within days conflict erupted between the members and the leadership. The first clash came over the question of letting safety work continue. The NEC (including Dai Francis of the CP) tried to insist on letting it go ahead, but in the face of firm picketing only 46 out of 289 pits were manned by safety men. Despite howls of protests from the NCB about the long-term effect on the pits, not one was made unusable as a result of strike action.

The second clash came over the picketing of NCB offices. Miners were determined that the clerical members of the union working in the offices (often better paid than miners) should join the strike. Despite lurid press stories about “girls being jostled” and spat at, most NCB offices were closed and many of the women joined the picket lines.

These may appear side issues. The point was that in insisting that the stoppage be total, rank and file miners were also insisting on their control of the dispute, and not the leadership’s. It is impossible to go through the 1972 strike in detail. But what needs to be grasped above everything else is that the miners could not have won on their own.

The flying picket that they had used to spread the 1970 unofficial strike within their own ranks was now used to secure solidarity from other groups of workers.

Right from the beginning, every power station in the coalfields was heavily picketed, stopping essential supplies (even bread!). In most cases the miners got the support they needed. When, on 4 February, a miner was killed by a scab lorry (encouraged by the police to smash through picket lines), the funeral was joined by thousands of other workers – power workers, building workers, engineers, railwaymen and teachers.

The most celebrated trial of strength with the police to stop the movement of coal was the battle of Saltley gates, a coke depot just outside Birmingham. On their own, the miners would not have won. Every increase in the number of pickets was matched by an increase in the numbers of police.

Saltley Gates

For ten days the pickets from Barnsley were routed by the police, some injured. Even a thousand pickets could not prevent the police from letting scab lorries in and out of the depot. All that changed on 9 February when the Birmingham East District of the AUEW called for an all-out strike and demonstration by engineers the following day.

The many thousands of engineering workers that marched on Saltley tipped the scales decisively in favour of the pickets. A young AUEW steward vividly described what happened: “The marchers seemed to be endless, and soon the space in front of the gates was crammed full of engineers and miners from Yorkshire, South Wales, Staffs and even Durham and Scotland. We were soon to learn that 40,000 engineers had responded to the strike call and 10,000 had joined the march and picket. For the first time in my life I had a practical demonstration of what workers’ solidarity meant. We all felt so powerful. We felt we could rule the world.”

The chief constable, being a sensible man, knew when he had been beaten. Saltley was closed. But Saltley was not the only example of solidarity action by other workers. Lorry drivers, dockers, seamen and railwaymen all played a vital part in the struggle. Money flooded in. Shop stewards collected thousands of pounds. The explanation for the solidarity was that large sections of the working class saw in the miners’ struggles a chance to fight for their own interests against the Tories.

With power stations failing, many factories closed, and the strike rock solid, the Tories were forced to give in. On 15 February the government set up the Wilberforce enquiry. It represented their last chance. Had the NUM insisted on the full claim and ignored the enquiry (which they certainly had the power to), the government’s authority would have been shattered.

Within three days (surely a record) the enquiry reported. The NUM executive was as eager to settle as the government now was. The miners certainly got most of what they wanted, but the settlement contained two very dangerous clauses that were eventually to give the employers back the initiative that they had lost.

The clauses were of differing importance. The first was that the agreement would run for an unprecedented sixteen months. That meant it ran out at the end of February 1983 – and a battle which began in spring, when the expectation of warmer weather would make lack of stocks less vital, would have a lower chance of success.

More important, though, was the commitment from the union to future discussion about productivity. It was the crucial chink in the agreement that allowed the NCB to prepare for a future attack on jobs and conditions when the circumstances were favourable.

The NUM put the whole package to secret ballot. There was no discussion and the leaders advised relaxing the picketing. The left on the executive were not disposed to rock the boat. They kept quiet about the dangers inherent in the agreement – no doubt in the interests of “unity”. The acceptance, not surprisingly, was overwhelming.

The Broad Left emerged with increased credibility from the strike. McGahey crushed a right-winger in the vicepresidential elections, Scargill became president of the Yorkshire area and the national executive now had nearly a dozen Communist Party and left Labour members.

Even so, Gormley was also able to use the Wilberforce agreement to stitch up the 1973 claim. Consequently 1973 was as bad a year for other workers’ claims as 1972 had been good.

New battle

When the miners returned to battle in 1974, it was not a rerun of 1972. Apparently, the strike was even more successful. It did, after all, bring down the Heath government – something that had been avoided in 1972. On the other hand, it was a much more passive affair, with much lower rank and file involvement.

At a special delegate conference in October 1973, Gormley surprised the left by calling for a complete overtime ban, including weekend maintenance and safety work.

Gormley’s tactics had nothing to do with militancy. He intended the overtime ban as a substitute and not a preparation for strike action. He hoped that a long, drawn-out ban would defuse the undoubted militancy that existed.

The Broad Left did nothing to expose these tactics and fell in line behind the ban. Accepting from Scargill what they would not from Gormley, militants were lulled into a false sense of security. Few believed by the end of November that the ban would not work.

When the right pressed for a ballot in mid-December, to most militants it looked like a manoeuvre to end the action. The Tories, meanwhile, went onto the offensive. The fifth state of emergency in three years was declared just before Christmas, aimed at ensuring coal stocks till the spring. The evidence suggests that this was propaganda and that in fact stocks were not that low.

Whatever the reality, though, it had the effect of stepping up the miners’ action. The ballot right at the end of January 1974 produced a massive 81 percent in favour of striking. The result was all the more remarkable since up till two weeks before both right and left had encouraged members to believe that the overtime ban alone was sufficient to win.

Gormley did his best to sabotage the strike but did not dare call it off (“the members might walk all over us”, he declared). But he was determined to clamp down (in his own words, “to keep picketing under control”).

Pickets were restricted by the executive six to a line as permitted under the Tories’ anti-union legislation. Because of the low number of pickets supplies could be brought into power stations and steel depots. At Saltley, that proud symbol of rank and file solidarity in the 1972 strike, lorries queued up to get in and out.

According to the Sunday Times an NUM official admitted that fewer than 2,000 were involved in picketing (it had been well over 8,000 in 1972) and stressed that the union was “desperately trying to reduce the points of conflict, such as arose in 1972”. The Transport and General instructed its members not to cross picket lines. On the other hand, “normal quantities” of oil were to be allowed into power stations and steel works.

Once again, the left fell in line behind these tactics. The Communist Party secretary of the Scots miners uttered dire threats against any “outsider” found on the picket line. There was no attempt to defy the executive line and push for the kind of mass picketing that had characterised the 1972 strike.

One reason for the left’s caution was fear of harming Labour’s election chances. If you believe that working class advance is dependent on Labour coming to power: then you have to subordinate everything to that end.

When the Tories were (narrowly) defeated at the polls, the Labour government was in no position to refuse the miners anything. On 6 March the new employment secretary, Michael Foot, announced the settlement. Once again, the executive let the government off the hook.

The left had been insistent that the claim should be met in full and even added to. Now they rushed to defend what was offered. The faceworkers received the full amount, but both underground and surface workers fell well short.

The lack of rank and file involvement in the strike could be seen in the settlement. The most militant (the faceworkers) got everything asked for. But the most noticeable feature of the 1972 strike when the rank and file fought hardest for the lower paid surface workers was absent in 1974.

Special cases

Also because the NUM agreed to use Pay Board figures the only way in which it could argue that the miners should get more than was notionally allocated to them was to argue that they were a special case.

This was a departure from 1972. A high level of activity had taught many miners in 1972 that they had won because of general support from outside their ranks. If they were a special case, then everyone was a special case. But the low level of activity in 1974 strengthened the idea (dear to bureaucrats’ hearts) that victory was due to the brilliant way in which negotiators had used facts and figures to convince the other side. Once again the left inside the NUM fell in line.

Nonetheless the 1974 strike was seen as a political victory by workers over the Tories, and the miners’ strike was followed by action by many groups of trade unionists whose confidence had been boosted. The new Labour government painted a bright future for the miners. The government promised to expand production over a ten-year period.

The NUM executive were jubilant. There was, however, a small catch. The report stated: “Realisation of the potential output for which these plans provide also depends on realising the assumptions on which the plan is based that output per man shift (OMS) can be raised by some 4 percent a year.” That meant, for anyone able to do simple sums of matching rising production against rising productivity, a reduction in manpower of 35 percent. In agreeing to the deal the NUM signed away the rights of 85,000 men to their jobs.

The first test came with the NCB’s proposals for a scheme paying bonuses to men exceeding production targets. The advantage to management was that they could manipulate targets on different faces and in different pits according to whether they wanted them open or shut. Different levels of bonus payment would destroy unity.

The left countered with a scheme which would have paid average bonus rates according to national production targets. They defeated the NCB in the November 1974 ballot but at the cost of rejecting only one particular form of productivity, not the principle itself.

This left the way open for a counterattack by the right. If’ wages did not improve, the frustration would persuade miners that only productivity dealing could give them better wages. And with wages being held by the Labour government’s social contract that kind of right wing argument began to find an echo among miners.

The crunch came in 1977. The NUM conference rejected a fresh attempt by the right to introduce a productivity deal. The result was close – close enough for Gormley to put the deal to ballot though constitutionally his right to do so was shaky. The left’s response was pathetic. They resorted (in vain) to the bourgeois courts to protect union democracy and stop the ballot going ahead, in preference to relying on agitation among the rank and file to stop Gormley.

Even when the ballot confirmed the conference decision (55 percent against the deal in a record 80 percent turnout) the left still failed to learn the lesson. Gormley did not give up. He got the executive on 9 December to set aside the ballot decision and authorise area deals.

Incentive scheme

Once again the left (including Scargill) had recourse to the courts, which once again backed the right wing. Thereafter, the areas resisting incentive schemes gave up one by one. First the Scotland area executive voted 20 to 6 for a local deal (McGahey stated that he didn’t want Scotland isolated or their living standards to decline against other areas).

Then it was Yorkshire’s turn. Scargill refused to campaign to “influence” the decision (on the grounds that his views were known). The result was 26,451 in favour, 15,681 against. A mere two months before the opposition was more than double that figure. But by the time of the ballot (in January 1978) claims that bonuses would be up to GBP 20 and GBP 25 were having their effect.

The consequences of these area schemes are plain. Wide variations in pay (for example, the week ending 23 April 1983 showed North Yorkshire miners earning £90 a week average bonus as against £25 in Scotland) have weakened miners’ unity and have fragmented the fight against the NCB’s pit closure programme.

The broad left has paid a terrible penalty for its political failure. First it conceded the argument about creating a profitable industry. It is a more “radical” version – the subsidies, import controls, etc. which it expects from a Labour government – but there is still the basic acceptance of the same priorities.

It has been unable to dissociate itself from Labour attempts to modernise the industry – and therefore from Labour plans to impose productivity dealing. Ironically, it was “radical” Tony Benn (praised by Scargill as the miners’ true friend) who promoted the incentive scheme, which Scargill so eloquently denounced at the 1983 miners’ conference.

This leads us to the second aspect of the failure of its politics, one that can be clearly traced in the progress of Arthur Scargill from rank and file militant (who justifiably made his name in the 1972 strike) to president of the NUM.

The lesson of the 1972 strike – that only rank and file activity can beat the employer – came to be seen as secondary. Taking over the machinery of the NUM from the right-wing appeared more effective. Change from the top is the link between this and the delusion that with Labour running the British economy a start can be made on implementing socialist measures.

Thus as Scargill moved to becoming Yorkshire president, the rank and file organisation that had been the strength of the union in the area during the 1972 strike was allowed to decay. The Barnsley Forum, with its regular monthly meetings to discuss industrial, union and socialist politics, disappeared, leaving the left with a base of left officials only. Those educated by the struggle in 1972 and 1974 had nowhere to go.

Next came neglect of rank and file struggles. In the 1978 rescuemen’s dispute, Scargill used his powers of persuasion to limit the unofficial action and eventually got a return to work on little more than a promise to resolve the long-standing grievance. He “forgot” that the strength of the union is built out of the myriad tiny trials of strength that give workers the confidence to take on the big issues.

The year 1981 saw the Tories retreat hurriedly on the issue of pit closures. When they were announced the South Wales pits went into action, followed by Kent the same day. Fearing it had provoked more than it could handle, the government suddenly found the financial subsidies it claimed weren’t available. Within a day the NCB cobbled up a deal with the NUM. Even the concessions were insufficient to get the miners back to work despite pleas from Gormley and the national executive.

Yet although the strike was spreading, defiance collapsed in all areas (except Kent) by Friday. Now, it is not that Scargill failed to support the action. Quite the contrary. On Thursday 19 February he announced plans for a total stoppage in Yorkshire the following Monday quite correctly on the grounds that the guarantees were inadequate.

But the fact that Scargill stuck to that date instead of bringing it forward (some Yorkshire pits were already out following the South Wales lead) was instrumental in slowing the momentum of the action. Had he brought it forward, the weight of the largest coalfield in the country might well have been decisive in halting the NCB’s stealthy offensive against “uneconomic” pits.

The only conclusion is that Scargill was anxious to observe the constitutional niceties in the run-up to the presidential election so as to avoid offence to the middle ground.

The same constitutionalism came to the fore in the 1983 South Wales action to stop closures. The miners were persuaded to wait for the ballot rather than go out and picket – with disastrous results. Scargill’s justification was that if the strike situation in the South Wales area had been left as it was it would have “provoked near civil war. It would have divided the union.”

Rank and file

Consequently he preferred the ballot in the certain knowledge that the call for action would be lost: “It was better, in my view, politically... to have a temporary setback at the hands of the members than to have a defeat inflicted upon us in an actual conflict, official or unofficial, by the government and the Coal Board.”

In Scargill we have the curious spectacle of an undoubted left winger whose calls for national action fall on deaf ears (he has in fact led no strike since 1974). With Gormley it was the other way round. Here was a vicious right winger who in spite of his own deepest instincts led two national strikes to victory.

Yet it is not the case that there has been no militancy for Scargill to relate to. In the first five months of 1983 alone, there were 143 registered strikes, and in the autumn 13,000 Barnsley miners came out on unofficial strike. Lacking rank and file organisation Scargill has lost touch.

Neglect of these opportunities to build a national opposition to closures is something the miners are now paying for. Victory in the current struggle will owe nothing to Scargill’s politics and everything to the rediscovery of the rank and file solidarity that won the 1972 strike.

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Last updated: 5 October 2019