Chapter 05: The 1972 Miners Strike

Chapter 5:
The 1972 Miners Strike

During 1971, the NUM conference put forward a large wage-demand under pressure from the rank and file, but Gormley, the NUM president, warned that "pressure from below" must not "lead to anarchy" . The NUM organised a ban on overtime; the NCB employed privately contracted labour whilst rearranging shifts. The NUM was afraid that the tension would allow wildcats to break out immediately, so in December they declared an official strike to start from January 1972. The NCB promised a new productivity deal and five extra days' holiday. But the pay offer was a third of the absolute minimum the miners were demanding. All the press, from the Daily Mirror to the Daily Telegraph via the Guardian, patronisingly urged the miners to give up their fight, that their struggle was hopeless, doomed to defeat.

From day one all 289 pits were closed. Against the wishes of the NUM, on the very first day of the strike, the miners refused to provide safety cover: more than half the pits were deprived of such cover from day one, and by day 2 only 46 had full cover. On the 2nd night, Gormley appeared on TV to appeal to miners to provide safety cover. Safety cover had always constituted a serious threat to the physical structure of the pits due to the risk of fire, flooding or roof falls. On day 3 Gormley complained that "the men are being a damn sight more militant than we would want them to be". On day 4 he said "some men have been over-ambitious in applying the strike" . On day 7 only 38 of the 289 pits had full safety cover, whilst 133 had no cover whatsoever. Pit deputies, NACODS members, were increasingly stopped from trying to provide safety cover, some being threatened with violence. On Jan 31st 250 pickets clashed with 300 cops escorting 68 deputies to work at Clipstone colliery in Notts. Against the South Wales area executive, a mass picket at Penrhiwceiber pit on 4th Feb stopped all NACODS members there from continuing to provide safety cover for the rest of the strike. The same kind of thing happened in Durham, Northumberland and Derbyshire, all against the wishes of the various area executives. In Yorkshire, the area executive waited until 7th February, a month into the strike, before it asked the national executive to ban all safety work. When some miners at a particular pit were asked on TV if they realised that by refusing to do maintenace work, they were putting the future of the pit in danger, one replied, "So what – who wants to go down the bloody pit again anyway?"

Another issue which divided the miners against the NUM leadership was the question of NCB office workers. The NUM had instructed the union's white-collar section (COSA) to stay at work to handle wages for the week in hand and to process tax rebates. Picketting in Notts led to 500 workers at the coal industry's research centre to come out and this was followed by 1200 members in South Wales coming out, and a week later, on 17th Jan, 12,500 came out on strike, all against NUM wishes. And picketting of offices still working continued in various parts of the country throughout the strike, often with some success.

The NUM executive also issued instructions that only NUM literature be distributed at picket lines and that "physical contact" (i.e. violence) was illegal. Neither instruction was adhered to.

There was also massive picketting of Ferrybridge power station; and almost all coal movements were stopped there by the end of day 3 of the strike. A smokeless fuel plant in Grimethorpe near Banrnsley was picketted to prevent road tankers delivering oil. Coke was used to pelt the tankers and the cops were forced to close the plant. Thus picketting was then extended to other power stations and fuel depots, initiallly in Scotland. At Thorpe Marsh power station near Doncaster, after an oil lorry got through the picket line, a striking blacksmith miner returned to his pit and his forge there in order to make "things which you throw on floor and chance which way you throw them there's a spike stuck up to throw under wheels. He'd made about a dozen." They proved very useful.

Labour Research estimated that 500 different places were picketted on a 24-hour basis by an average 40,000 miners every day during the strike.

On the same day (Feb 3rd) that 10,000 people attended the funeral of Fred Matthews, a 37 year old striking miner who'd been run down by a lorry outside Keadby power station near Scunthrope, a picket began at West Midlands Gas Board coke depot in Nechells Place, Saltley, about a mile from the centre of Birmingham. There were just 7 pickets. The next day they were reinforced by 200 miners from Stoke. The TGWU warned lorry drivers to the depot that their firms would be 'blacklisted' if they crossed picket lines. With round-the-clock picketting, the distribution of coke was much reduced but the bosses responded by using non-union firms who were paid as much as £50 to £60 a day plus a £50 bonus per load, a helluva lot when you consider that miners themselves, before the strike, had been getting just over £20 basic per week .The CP, together with the Midlands right-wing area NUM secretary, then contacted the national office to appeal for extra pickets. By 6th Feb. there were several hundred pickets and on the 7th there were over 1000 miners there, the numbers increasing throughout the day, supplemented by workers from Bryant's and McAlpine building sites, and from SU Carburettos, who had already struck in support of the miners. The entire Birmingham police force were put on special alert. On 8th Feb. there were even more miners, joined by 2000 car delivery workers and by 200 workers from HFWard and delegations from British Leyland Tractors and Transmissions, Thorn Electrical and Radiation plants. But this still did not stop the flow of lorries. 2 pickets and a police chief inspector were injured by a scab lorry. Pickets let down the tail-board of one lorry and about 3 tons of coke - black stuff not white stuff - poured onto the road. The cops had to shovel it all back onto the lorry to clear the way.

Scargill, who was the main guy in charge of this picketting, then addressed Tuesday evening's meeting of the AUEW East Birgmingham district committee, calling not for financial support but demanding they come out on strike and come down to the Saltley coke depot. Various meetings were called the next day to organise people to come down on the 10th. Rank and file workers from the NUGMW and EETPU agreed to try to get workers out unofficially, since the union refused to call official action. Miners went round on the 9th to different factories in Birmingham and the Birmingham Trades Council even put an ad in the Birmingham Evening Mail calling for support. At about 10 a.m. 10th February, the picket of 3000 miners, many of them singing, were joined from all sides by up to12,000 striking workers. The enormous force of the picket was reinforced by the cry of "Close the gates!" and each time the slogan was shouted the mass of pickets pushed against the cops until the Chief Constable of Birmingham also shouted "Close the gates!" and they closed them. Everyone cheered with incredible joy and hats were flung in the air. A Gas Board offical locked a padlock on the gates and by 11 a.m. it was announced that the gates would be closed for the rest of the day. Scargill, asked by the chief constable to disperse the crowd, did so using a police loudspeaker to make a nice rhetorical speech about the workers of the world uniting – but clearly they'd done enough uniting for the last hour and were asked to disunite and go home. The strikers, sadly, complied. Who knows what the working class could've achieved that day if it'd done a bit more than just flex its muscles? Sometimes it's in moments like that where a small group of people can initiate something that just snowballs, particularly after a victory like that. History is always a question of connecting with a mood (the 'mood' also has to be part of a general culture of solidarity continuing to exist independently of any particular struggle, as a basis for the possibility of collective struggle; a passing whim/mood is something under-developed, which has been shown in, for example, the struggles against fuel prices in 2000 and in the schoolkids movement against the Iraq war in 2003 - both of which disappeared as quickly as they arose in part because such a community of solidarity and of some comprehension of history has been severely repressed). But despite not going further, it was certainly a memorable day. The chief constable had assured Maudling, the Home Secretary, that the pickets would only succeed over his dead body. "I felt constrained to ring him...to enquire after his health" , wrote Maudling in his memoirs. Under the threat of a more extensive strike in the Birmingham area for the 14th Feb, including that of 8000 TGWU lorry drivers, the Gas Board capitulated in the evening of the 10th, an agreement on essential loads (for things like hospitals) was reached with the NUM and a token picket of 12 was established.

The day the gates closed in Saltley was the day of the first power cuts. The Industry Secretary announced a ban from the 12th on the used of electricity for the heating of "offices, shops, public halls, catering establishments and premised used for recreation, entertainment and sport." and that from 14th Feb. onwards, "most industrial consumers with an estimated maximum demand of 100 kilowatts or more will be required not to use any electricity on Sunday and three other days in the week." This was not the famous 3-day week, which came in 1974, but a one-off 3-day week for the week 14th Feb. to the 19th. About 800,000 workers were laid off on the 14th, and by the 18th this had reached 1.6 million. The Industry Secretary told Parliament that even with the restrictions imposed the "anticipated endurance of the CEGB is approximately 2 weeks and after this capacity will be down to approximately 20% to 25% of normal load...sufficient to meet only the essential services – with very little left available for other users".

The NUM executive showed its anti-working class nature by asking its members to reduce picket numbers. The request was ignored. For 3 days there were fairly violent confrontations between cops and pickets at Longannet power station in Scotland, with sometimes 2000 pickets facing 400 cops. 13 were arrested and charged with "mobbing and rioting", a charge which drew a 200-strong crowd outside the courtroom. Fear of the situation getting out of hand led the Lord Advocate, the senior government law officer for Scotland, to fly to Scotland and get the legal process speeded up, and they were quickly released on bail. At the subsequent trial all 13 were acquitted.

A hastily cobbled together government enquiry recommended wage increases of between 15% and 31.6%, about 4 times what the NCB had originally offered, and a bit more than the miners had originally asked for. Even then, the NUM, under pressure from the miners who had clearly realised the enormity of their power, even rejected this deal, holding out for an extra £1 a week for the non-faceworkers. After appropriately romantic candle-lit beer-and-sandwich-type negotiations at 10 Downing Street, this demand was precisely what the miners got – a pretty good result which boosted working class confidence everywhere. However, the NUM executive unilaterally called off the pickets., leaving unofficial pickets open to management victimisation. Nevertheless, it had been a great victory. The NUM ballot resulted in a 96.5% majority to end the strike. The victory came through a certain autonomous content of struggle, though it has to be said much of it came down to low-level NUM organisation on the part of the leftist, often CP, bureaucrats. One might say that, having been led into radical activity, the miners were led out of it: a bit of an overstatement, because in part it was the miners who pushed the low-level buraucrats into action, but they certainly could have done more if enough of them had wanted to (they had the country in the palm of their hands, after all).

The events at Saltley showed to the State that its forces were not adequately organised. Ultimately the government was able to pay more and was frightened by the unexpected scenes of workers' violence. They wanted a quick settlement not only because of the enormous power cuts which would ensue if the strike had continued but also because they were aware that trouble was brewing everywhere – e.g. the looming confrontation with the dockers over containerisation, and the power workers, and the fact that there were dozens of occupations of engineering factories...

Posted By

Red Marriott
Jul 4 2009 09:25

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1926-1985: So Near - So Far - a selective history of the British miners

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