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John Charlton

The Miners:
The Triumph of 1972
and the Way Ahead

(April 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.57, April 1973, pp.10-11 & 14-15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

1. Skirmishing

The miners’ strike of 1972 was an event of great importance. It was the first official strike of miners since 1926 and the first break in the policy of co-operation at any price, followed by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) since nationalisation. Above all it reasserted the power of rank-and-file miners after many years of passively accepting decisions of the leadership. The co-operation of other trade unionists was the most remarkable demonstration of workers’ solidarity seen for many generations. After a year of victories for the Tory government (defeat of the postmen and power workers), the balance of power between the classes was redressed, which was the precondition for the successful struggles of other workers in 1972. Finally, the manner in which government and NUM leadership were able to dictate terms after eight weeks of militant strike action, illustrated clearly the weakness of the leadership and the great need for a strong rank-and-file organisation.

The new mood among many miners was generated by the unofficial actions of 1969 and 1970. The NUM conference in July 1971 unanimously passed a resolution on wages which demanded pay increases of £5, £8, and £9, the largest claim ever submitted by miners. The National Coal Board (NCB) were incredulous. They offered £1.60, a sum so preposterous that even an experienced ‘sell-out merchant’ like Joe Gormley could not effect a compromise. After a special conference in October, the union imposed a ban on overtime and later held a national ballot of the membership. The members voted to reject the offer and for strike action.

The NCB subsequently made two further offers which came nowhere near to the demand. Nevertheless, two days after the strike had begun, Gormley said that the gap had not been wide: an offer in the region of £3 would have been acceptable. Indeed, Gormley’s attitude was so conciliatory throughout the negotiating period, that neither the Government, the NCB nor the Press actually believed a strike likely, nor – if there was one – that the union was strong enough to win it. On 5 January the Financial Times warned that the miners had no hope of victory since they no longer played a central role in the highly complicated modern economy; it ended:

‘The overall position of the miners is not good if they are hoping for a strike situation that will force a settlement on their terms.’

2. War

The strike began quietly on 9 January. No one could have predicted that it would last so long, or develop in the militant way it did, virtually bringing the Heath Government to its knees and actually achieve a cash settlement without precedent in the miners’ history. The root cause of these developments was undoubtedly the aggressive and determined attitude of the rank-and-file members, in contrast to the NUM leadership.

The first clash between members and leaders came on the question of allowing safety men to work during the strike. In the first week of the strike pitched battles took place at the pitheads between pickets and safety men backed by the police. Members of the National Executive (NEC) were adamant that safety work should be continued. Dai Francis, from South Wales said:

‘rebel lodges have gone against the decision ... (but) the situation is being dealt with immediately as it is in the best interests of our members to keep the pits safe’.

The NCB and the press made a great deal of this issue, attempting to intimidate the miners with the notion that many pits would never open again. Militants did not believe this and after only three days of the strike only 46 if the country’s 289 pits were fully manned by safety men. The rank-and-file were proved right since after the strike not one pit has been closed as a result of the miners’ stand on this question.

The second assertion of rank-and-file power – against the wishes of the NEC – was the determined efforts in every coalfield to close down the NCB offices. Miners have long nursed a grievance against clerical members of the union for their persistent tendency to vote against strike action. The 20 year old girls in the offices actually receive higher wages than surface workers. The most tense scenes were at Doncaster (Yorks.), Alloa (Clack.), Whitburn (North Durham) and Tondu, Bridgend (South Wales). Police were out in force to usher the clerks through picket lines. The press made a great deal of the fact that women were jostled by pickets.

The accusations increased daily as the Government, the NCB and the press tried to turn public attitudes against the miners. Yet the miners retained the support of workers throughout the strike, and the generous solidarity shown by so many workers certainly made life more difficult for the Tories. The question of the clerks became a central issue of the strike for a few days, and increasingly NCB offices in every area became something of a symbol for the enemy at large. In most cases the miners won, the clerks stayed away from work and many joined the picket lines – despite scabbing instructions from some of their union leaders.

3. The Flying Picket

However, the issue which provoked the greatest outcry was the flying mass picket, a tactic which was actually to win the strike. The authorities expected fairly passive pickets at each pithead, and this was proposed by many of the union leaders. In the week leading up to the strike the newspapers were full of confident predictions that pickets would be outmanoeuvred, that the power stations had at least three months of coal stocks and that really the miners should climb down before they suffered complete humiliation.

On the first day of the strike almost every power station on the coalfields was heavily picketed. Throughout January picketing became more and more effective. Trade unionists carrying essential supplies were refusing to cross picket lines. Even bread wagons were turned back! On 31 January the mass picket at Thorpe Marsh, near Doncaster finally strangled the station’s lifeline when it prevented the entry of liquid hydrogen. The elated pickets from the Doncaster Area then moved on to strengthen the picket at the giant power station at Keadby, near Scunthorpe.

It was here, on 4 February that a young miner from Dunscroft, Fred Matthews was killed when a scab lorry, encouraged by the police, smashed through the picket line. The anger of the miners at this point turned into fury. Thousands of miners from every coalfield were joined at the funeral by hundreds of other workers, including power men, building workers, engineers railwaymen and teachers.

Two days later at a mass rally in Trafalgar Square a letter from Fred Matthews’ mother was read from the platform. Mrs Matthews said:

‘I have always been an active member of the labour movement ... It is vital that you keep the unions free, because if you don’t, conditions will be returned back to the last century. My sons who are left will continue to be engaged in that fight just as Freddie would have done.’

The other big trial of strength involving power stations was in Scotland, at Longannet, in the centre of the Fife coalfield. Thousands of miners from all over Scotland descended on Longannet after several days in which pickets had been continually kicked around by a vastly superior force of police. The gates were closed but in the ensuing melee, 13 were arrested. The trial was deliberately postponed for three months yet the charges were laughed out of court by an overwhelmingly working class jury in Dunfermline in June.

4. Saltley

But of all the picketing that occurred in this strike, the picket at Saltiey Coke Works, Birmingham, will be most remembered. Pickets from the Barnsley area had been there for about 10 days. They were routed several times by the West Midlands police. Many were deliberately injured. On 9 February the Birmingham East District of the Engineers Union passed a resolution calling for an all out strike and demonstration on the following day. A young shop steward (AEUW) recalls the scene that morning:

‘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 police had no alternative but to concede the day to the workers, and ask for the gates to be shut. Saltley was the pinnacle of solidarity but throughout the strike there were similar but mostly unrecorded acts. So far as is known, no unionised lorry driver crossed a picket line, no docker moved an ounce of coal. Seamen offered and gave full co-operation, as did the railwaymen. Thousands of shop stewards in factories laid off due to coal shortages, collected thousands of pounds for the strike fund. A factory in Ossett paid into the strikers’ hardship fund 50p per week per man. It was then working a three day week.

Not often referred to was the role of miners’ wives. On 7 February at Tondu, West Wales headquarters of the NCB, miners’ wives took over the picketing to free their men for work in the south west. They linked arms and prevented the clerks from entering. In Nottingham and a number of other places housewives formed committees which gave support to the miners – making collections spreading propaganda, and servicing the picket lines with food. Socials were also organised to keep morale up. This is very important, especially in a long strike, for it is often wives, isolated from the collective experience of the struggle and having to manage the economics of the home, who are open to the insinuations and lies of the media.

The strike also transformed the relationship of socialist students and workers. When the miners moved out from the coalfield areas to East Anglia, the south coast and the south west to picket power stations and ports they were often met and accommodated by students. In Essex, the College authorities took out an injunction to force miners to leave the university premises where they were living. In virtually every university and college collections were made.

Tory councillors protested indignantly when students at Swansea and York tried to pay substantial donations to the strike fund from the Student Union accounts. York overcame this problem by paying substantial speakers’ expenses to Yorkshire Miners who came to do ‘lecture’ courses. Miners have retained a warm and friendly attitude to students since the strike, contrasting 1972 with 1926, when students on the whole played a scabbing role.

5. The settlement

The Wilberforce Enquiry set up on 15 February made its report on the 18th, surely the shortest public enquiry on record. This was not unconnected with the fact that the miners were crippling the country’s economy – despite the fact that the authorities had declared this impossible in the first week of January. By mid-February the power stations were flickering to a halt, many factories were completely closed and most were on short time. A state of emergency had been declared on 9 February. The Government was desperate, the miners jubilant. The miners were in a position to insist on the full claim being awarded; had they done so, it would probably have brought down the Government. However, when the Wilberforce settlement was announced, the union leaders grasped at it hungrily.

It was a very mixed settlement. Rises of £4.50 to £6 were recommended for what the government and the press were describing as ‘The Special Case’. Many miners believed that they were only ‘special’ in that they had fought specially hard. The dangerous part of the settlement were the clauses which proposed the discussion of a future productivity bargain and the imposition of the agreement for 16 months. The first was bad because the miners had been ruined in the sixties by their leaders’ involvement in productivity bargaining and the second, because 16 months meant that the agreement would run out at the end of February, so that a spring-summer battle in 1973 would weaken the miners bargaining position in comparison to the winter struggle of 1972 (the precise point of the clause).

The Government, the NCB, the press, television, labour leaders and the leaders of the NUM combined to persuade the rank-and-file that the Wilberforce decision was a handsome settlement. The union hastily moved to a secret ballot on the complete package. Absolutely no discussion was encouraged or allowed. Members were advised to relax the pickets and coal supplies were immediately rushed to key points before the result was known. Faced by this one-sided situation the miners voted overwhelmingly for acceptance and a return to work.

After Wilberforce

The Wilberforce Settlement began a shameful retreat by the executive of the NUM which in 10 months has all but dissipated the fighting spirit generated by the members in the struggle. In May productivity talks began, and in the same month the NUM became the first trade union to appear before an Industrial Relations Tribunal under the Industrial Relations Act (IRA). The Union executive continued throughout the year to dissociate itself from the militant battle against the IRA – over the gaoling of the Pentonville Five and the Goad and Langston cases. It is also noteworthy that despite the involvement of thousands of miners in the fight against the Fair Rents Act, the union leaders collectively have had nothing whatever to say about the issue.

The annual conference in July 1972 came out clearly for a continuous struggle for decent living standards when it approved a motion calling for a pay increase of from £4.50 to £7. In the prevailing economic climate of late ‘72 early ‘73 it is obvious that to achieve such an increase would involve a tremendous battle with the government. In the face of persistent press propaganda such a battle would require members to be thoroughly prepared. No such preparation was even considered – let alone undertaken. In fact, from July the NUM leaders publicly ignored the fact that such a claim was imminent, suggesting that it was something called ‘an objective’ and not a demand.

In the Autumn, friendly co-operation with the NCB became almost a condition of life, as the leaders waited excitedly for the Tory government’s Coal Industry Bill, published in December. The union leaders joined in the universal cheers for the Government’s ‘good sense’ in recognising that coal had a future. They ignored the equally significant fact that Section Four of the Bill, on redundancy payments, assumed that over the next five years over 100,000 miners will lose their jobs and that mining in Scotland, the North East, Cumberland and substantial parts of South Wales will become no more than a memory. Coal may have a future but there appears to be none for the miners. The union remains silent.

Since May union leaders have been extremely busy talking productivity with the NCB. A number of confidential documents have come to light which indicate that the union is prepared to make startling concessions in methods of work and shift patterns. One of these is the nine day fortnight, with continental shifts, which would terminate the miners’ most jealously guarded week-end, and area financial incentive which would mean a return to the deeply divisive days of piece working.

The executive’s plan was to get negotiations on pay out of the way in February and move to a productivity package in June. A figure of about three pounds was mooted which Gormley believed he could sell to his members – with the promise of more money in June. The development of the Tories’ Phase Two provided some difficulties for the Gormley leadership. Any offer would be limited to about £2.30 and no further money could be conceded for a further 12 months – even if a productivity deal were agreed. Gormley’s initial let-out was agreement to recall the TUC which meant he could appeal for united action against the freeze whilst at the same time working frantically behind the scenes to avoid such action and to gain acceptance for a shabby package deal.

What Next?

The main problem facing the miners in this situation is the question of leadership. The Right wing can be expected to do anything in their power to effect a ‘sell out.’ Few miners have illusions in the Joe Gormleys, Len Martins and the Sid Schotields. But it gives no pleasure to record that the traditional Left wing in the NUM, made up largely of the Communist Party and Labour Party lefts, has played an extremely passive role since the strike. In the face of the determined assault of Gormley and his friends they have remained largely silent. Their real strength has never resided in the committee room but always in the rank-and-file committees on the coalfields.

Since last winter they have signally failed to rally the support of the membership, to tap the spring of fighting spirit created at Saltley and elsewhere. It has been a grievous failure, the consequences of which are not yet fully worked out. They are now paying for the false strategy of the past 10 years. In the late ‘50s, after the election to national office of Will Paynter, a Communist Party member who owed his prominence to the work of the South Wales miners’ unofficial committees, a bitter and ruthless campaign against the rank-and-file organisation was waged. Arguing that now the official union was open to Communist candidates at all levels, these committees were redundant, if not actively dangerous, every effort was made to brand them unconstitutional. The campaign was successful, the committees were smashed and ironically the first step was taken in the undermining of the Communist Party’s base.

Since that time the ‘Lefts’ on the executive have more often than not refused to publicly dissociate themselves from the reactionary policies of the Right. The result is that their own credibility is on the wane.

It remains to outline the development and strategy of the new rank-and-file organising round The Collier. After the strike last year a few members of the union got together and decided to publish a bi-monthly paper, The Collier. A programme was drawn up which had two central features: to tight for better wages, conditions and against the whole productivity bargaining philosophy, and for greater democracy in the union.

This Charter was approved by a conference of miners in March. The paper has now been published six times. Increasingly miners are writing for the paper and are taking on full responsibility for its circulation. It is now quite widely read on all coalfields and steps are being taken to form groups at pit and area level relating to the paper and organised to tight for policies in the union along the lines of the Charter.

In the early months of 1973 it has enjoyed quite spectacular success. It has built up a list of named sponsors in excess of 100 at over 80 collieries. It is slowly but surely beginning to fill the space left by earlier rank-and-file movements and promises to develop tremendous significance in the near future.

The aim of the paper and the organisation can be expressed as follows.

  1. To make propaganda on all issues of concern to the mineworkers.
  2. To agitate within the official channels of the union for the adoption of policies as agreed by democratically controlled conferences of supporters.
  3. To overcome the problems of the isolated militant by linking together as far as possible the multitude of local struggles that take place daily.
  4. To build the confidence in rank-and-file members of the union that they can collectively influence the course of events.

It has been a tremendous 12 months for the new paper and the organisation which has begun to develop around it. It promise to play an increasingly important part in the affairs of the miners’ union in the future.

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Last updated: 15.2.2008