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ON MARCH 16 1984, a series of ballots held across Britain would determine the future for 187,000 coalminers and their families.
With a vast number of pits and a workforce of about 32,000, the Nottinghamshire coalfield was a veritable powerhouse of coal production.
Due to its size and influence, it was seen by many as instrumental to the survival of the nationwide picket. Despite this, the overwhelming verdict of the ballot in Nottinghamshire was to “keep calm and carry on.”
Some 73 per cent of the county’s miners voted to remain in work, and would continue to do so under police protection for the next 12 months.The decision came at a price. To this day, the Nottinghamshire miners are still seen as traitors by many coal-industry veterans.
There were those, however, who defied the majority.
In 1984 about 2,000 men from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire would man their local picket, losing friends and loved ones in the process.
Michael — his name has been changed to protect his identity — was just 18 when the ballot was held. An eighth-generation miner, he had only recently completed his training when he decided to join the picket.
“Our local pit in Derbyshire was sunk in the 1880s. My great-great grandfather came from Oxfordshire to work here, so for 100 years, every generation had worked there — the whole lot,” he said.
“I felt, straight away that it was right to be on strike. I can’t explain it, I just felt it in my stomach — that what was being said and what was being done was right. Not just for workers’ rights down the pit but for everybody’s jobs.”
After their local pit was shut in 1969, Michael’s father moved on to Linby Colliery in south Nottinghamshire, where Michael himself began work in 1984. During the first months of the picket, there were a number of attempts to dissuade the more vulnerable trainees from joining the strike.
“More or less everyone who was training — not everyone, but most — wanted to and did go out on strike,” he said. “I didn’t want to go back. I went picketing as far as Kent, I went to London on Oxford Street, Nottingham, all over.”
As workers with less than two years of experience, however, it was with a heavy heart that Michael and his fellow trainees were forced to return to work.
“The union approached us and said that they sympathised with our cause but they had word from up high that if we didn’t return to work, then management would terminate our employment,” he explained.
“They said that, and as I turned round, there was a lad two or three years older than me. I remember it so well. He said: ‘Surely they can’t do that’ and he was in tears, he was crying like a baby.
“To be told that, when we believed it was such a just cause … I was devastated.”
For Michael, his father, and the other workers at Linby, the divisiveness of the strike would continue to affect every second of their working lives. The dispute would see the men split into two groups: on one side there were those who supported the strike and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM); on the other, those who opposed the strike left the NUM to form the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM).
While the strike at Linby would only last for a few months, this sense of division would remain thoroughly intact until the pit closed in 1988.
“When I first started, Linby had around 1,300 men working there,” continues Michael.
“After the formation of the UDM and the split from the NUM, that colliery was 51 per cent UDM and 49 per cent NUM: it was basically half-and-half.
“If you went to go underground after the strike, an NUM man wouldn’t get on the cage with a UDM man.”
Other collieries, however, would not have such an even split.
After leaving Linby, Michael began work at Silver Hill, a large and lucrative pit to the west of Nottinghamshire that was predominately UDM: of the 1,200 men that worked there, only 35 were NUM members.
They faced constant bombardment: Michael and his fellow NUM members were frequently asked to switch their allegiance from NUM to UDM. If they refused, they were often verbally or even physically harassed.
“The first day I went to get my motties [pay identification for those going underground], I shouted my number out to the bloke in the lamp office. Everyone in that colliery was milling around, waiting to collect their gear.
“Before [the office clerk] gave me my motties and my lamp and all that, he shouted — at the top of his voice so everyone could hear — ‘Do you want to sign over union’?”
“My reply was: ‘Give me my motties,’ so he skimmed them right across the room, across the floor.”
Aside from troubles at work, home life was often much of the same. While many families would suffer a split that could never be healed, some would look beyond their differences to try to mediate the hostility.
After striking at Linby in 1972 and 1974, Michael’s own father made the decision not to go out on strike again in 1984. He would come to regret the choice for the rest of his life.
“When I was out on strike, I came home one night to see my dad, who was working, surrounded by blokes,” says Michael. “They had him collared and they were giving him some verbal.
“Now, put yourself in my shoes: what do I do? I’m going to stick up for my old man, even though he’s working, and I’m out on strike! But it was tough.”
Even now, the effects of 1984 continue to run deep through Nottinghamshire’s former mining communities, with many pit villages looking rather worse for wear.
As the living memory of the strike wanes, so too does the collective memory of Britain’s working class.
But for those who did decide go out on strike — in Notts and beyond — it is more important than ever to remember what the struggle meant for normal working people.
“I took my eldest lad, when he was 17 or 18, up to the mining museum in Huddersfield,” Michael says.
“He said to me: ‘You used to have to do this every day?’ And it was a realisation, an appreciation, of what we used to do.
“I don’t think that even 20, 30 years ago, we were appreciated for what we did, and that still annoys me to this day.
“People listen to me now and think I’m a dinosaur. But I’m a socialist, I believe in socialist values.
“Everybody has a right to get on and live as well as the next man or woman.”
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