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IT IS NOW 40 years since what is widely declared as the start of the 1984 miners’ strike in defence of jobs and communities. It is now 40 years since the British state decided to take on a powerful union which stood up for members and the working class. Many will comment from afar, others will read it in history books.
Forty years on I’ve reached an age whereby looking back has become something of an enjoyable, bittersweet and regular pastime, so I share with you memories of my involvement in the dispute while in Sheffield.
It is important to stress I, like many active trade unionists and political activists, was just a small part of the strike of 1984-85 — all of us including the striking miners were part of something much bigger — it was part of a declared war against the working class and its collective bodies, including the trade union movement and all its support structures established over many years, instigated by Margaret Thatcher, her Tory cohorts and the capitalist state and their supporters.
The strike resulted in the breakdown of a society that included and relied upon mutual support and reliance, in which public services were integral and vital to that mutual support of all society’s members; and the strike’s collapse saw the introduction of a society based on individualism and personal wealth over all else. According to Thatcher and her allies, trade unions were the “enemy within” and as such had to be destroyed. My recollections and memories are based within that toxic environment.
As a 25-year-old active trade unionist, I was very fortunate to be supported and mentored by a group of experienced and caring trade union members and activists.
It was slightly unusual at that time to have a young woman taking a leading role in a large mainly male union structure, but I was the chair of the largest Society of Civil & Public Servants (SCPS) branch, Manpower Services Commission (MSC) Head Quarters Sheffield, within the Department of Employment group. SCPS is now part of the Public and Commercial Services Union.
I and my closest mentors were members of the Communist Party, and we led a disciplined and proactive branch, with close links to comrades in other industries in the surrounding area of Sheffield and South Yorkshire.
At the time, the branch, with support from the members, had a strong record in supporting both external issues such as the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa, and those affecting trade union members within many industries.
Hard to believe in these times, but people actually joined public bodies such as the MSC because they wanted to “help people” and provide a good public service. Thatcher’s war began the dismantling of such a “service approach” to public life.
The miners’ strike began at the end of 1983/early 1984 in South Yorkshire before becoming a national dispute in March 1984.
A key action of the early local dispute in South Yorkshire was the sponsorship of local pits by surrounding local trade unions. Communist Party comrades at the local pit at Kilnhurst, with whom we were close, reached out to us for support. As a branch we secured support to sponsor Kilnhurst pit, but most importantly, we maintained that support throughout the year-long national dispute (despite national NUM instructions to end such activity so as to put all aspects of support into the national strike).
Taking our lead from the branch leadership and its membership at Kilnhurst, we were asked to maintain our sponsorship because of the close ties and relationships we had developed. We of course continued to give full support to the national campaign in different ways.
How did we support the strike?
The significance of the support of SCPS branch in such a dispute cannot be underestimated. As the head office of the MSC, there were a lot of senior civil servants reporting directly to ministers, with whole structures of staff who were articulate and well-versed in current national politics.
It was not a workplace traditionally aligned to the older industries such as coal. At that time the nature of the work delivered meant that there was a predominance of men within the workplace and the branch. This made my role as the chair, and a young woman, both significant at the time, and not always straightforward. It was a huge learning curve for myself, but it was within the security of a group of very supportive comrades who were keen to develop both my learning but also that of themselves as more mature men — an approach I remain grateful for and very appreciative of.
Securing the support of the branch committee and the branch membership involved lots of time, informal discussions in offices during breaks and lunchtimes and, of course, through many branch meetings involving numbers of votes, to secure initial and — throughout the year-long dispute — ongoing support.
Over time discussions and conversations became more difficult, with pressures being placed on members from senior managers and ministers, as well as through the frequent lies and twisted stories dominating the press and media at that time.
It was necessary as branch officers to be honest with people, to “tell it how it is” and not sugar-coat things, and to be prepared to raise and face up to difficult matters, such as around the mass picketing, when some members started to return to work.
Even with hindsight, I must stress this was not an easy task, but as in the present day such developmental work on an very localised level was and remains crucial. It would be wrong of me to suggest that every person in the branch supported our endeavours, but we fought hard to secure the majority, and most importantly continued that work to maintain such support within an ever more toxic environment — within the workplace and externally in public life. Our constant understanding and endeavours were to bring the majority of the branch along with us at all times.
What did sponsorship of the pit mean for our branch?
We were constantly raising money from individual members, securing agreement of the branch to make branch donations and maintaining ongoing support — especially in an environment of national attacks on trade unions and working-class communities by Thatcher, the head of the Coal Board, the right-wing media and many other right-wing politicians and capitalists. There were also threats and constant attempts to undermine senior civil servants working within the branch.
Many very senior civil servants were extremely supportive, making regular personal financial donations, but also alerting us to potential moves on the part of government or its supporters that could undermine the action of trade unions and their members so we could keep the NUM informed, especially where it might directly affect the strikers.
Support to the NUM members and families at Kilnhurst included, as well as regular financial donations:
• Advice about benefits and other employment law both before and after Tory changes
• Any preliminary information to the local NUM leadership that might affect their ability and activities to pursue the dispute
• Supporting the development and growth of Women Against Pit Closures
• Support on picket lines — SCPS branch members at NUM pickets and representatives of the NUM branch at SCPS picket lines, and as speakers at both branch meetings. Each took the viewpoints and practical issues faced by both sets of union members back to their branches as part of a mutual educational process.
• As the dispute grew into a national strike, our alliance with Kilnhurst meant we offered support to other pit NUM officers who had developed links with Kilnhurst and then with ourselves.
As the dispute progressed over the year the government and lackeys, both within the Cabinet and outside, such the National Coal Board, took their war to new heights. There were changes to the benefit system, that directly tried to starve NUM members away from their dispute, and there were measures to bully and spread fear among strikers and their families as well as those who actively supported the NUM and their families.
There were also changes to the legal system, including preventing those from different industries — and indeed companies within an industry — from giving practical support on picket lines. Such changes could not be made immediately, however actions could be put in place to set such changes up.
A ring of police “steel” was imposed around Sheffield at that time — deemed to be a city supporting the strike, and from which many supporters would travel as pickets to neighbouring coalmines. No-one was able to travel out of the city to neighbouring villages, towns or cities (and I’m sure it was the same in other strongholds of the dispute).
Later, when the dispute became national, the influx of police from different forces — and some far worse in their approach than others, such as the London Metropolitan, Manchester and Liverpool police — around the country added to a constant atmosphere of tension and violence across South Yorkshire.
This meant we as a branch leadership had to work harder and harder to retain the branch support, which to the credit of the majority of members, we successfully did, and I will remain wholly proud of them all.
When people talk about “starving the strikers back to work” that is exactly what was attempted. I have many personal memories of this, but one instance in particular sticks in my mind. Christmas of ’84-85 was a particularly bleak time for the strikers and their families — cold, no fuel to keep their homes warm and very little food — especially for holiday time.
The SCPS branch conducted many bucket collections from individual members and indeed also non-members, as well as branch donations towards the food for a Christmas meal and small gifts for the children. Not insignificant amounts were raised to provide meat, vegetables, trimmings and puddings for all households. Evidence of the wider support the miners and their families attracted was demonstrated by the butcher providing the meat at a very low price as a way of showing his support.
It was important to show those people that despite the actions of the government, ruling classes and their lackeys, there was huge support from British public, who fully supported their actions.
Issues surrounding women’s equality and under-representation, both within the workplace and the union, were key at that time. Many of the branch’s women and men visited strikers and their families, and came into contact with people from different backgrounds to themselves.
Discussions exposed how they were all subject to the same and similar issues.
The coalmines were male — the workforce were traditional men and they and their lifestyles reflected this. Many of the men came into contact with a range of different people as they were invited to speak at events and visiting people from different backgrounds and workplaces. Previously they had had little or no contact with the women’s movement and why or how it was necessary for change.
Their wives and partners lived within such a traditional setting, and while the Women Against Pit Closures originally was set up to provide practical support for the families and striking miners, as time progressed the women were invited to speak at events and came into contact with a whole range of different people and circumstances. Again, they had had little or no exposure to the women’s rights and equality movement.
The strike brought education and learning to everybody who came into contact with each other, and we all learnt off each other.
An anecdote that continues to make me smile even after all these years: during the early days of the South Yorkshire strike with the two union branches working together, many of the NUM members could not understand my role as a woman within our branch. When it was explained that my role was the equivalent of their president of the branch, they understood that, but were incredulous that a woman could hold such a position.
Inevitably, as the strike drew into a year’s duration, life became even harder. The pressure grew from Thatcher’s government, its capitalist allies and supportive media, starving families were drowning in debt and there was growing violence and bullying from the police in attempts to send the strikers back to work.
For members of our SCPS branch strenuous efforts were imposed from above to try and prevent staff from supporting the NUM strike, including introducing very strict disciplinary processes and sackings.
When the strike came to a close it was a time filled with sadness, despair in some cases and and many tears, but the return to work — as in other pits — was filled with dignity and heads held high.
Kilnhurst and the Sheffield civil servants were just part of the wider battle, a battle that continues today. As a class we learn from each dispute we are involved in. We educate ourselves through action. None of this is easy but it is essential. I learnt about working-class solidarity and the vital task we have to defend our trade unions and communities, and that continues today.
Denise Taylor was chair of the SCPS MSC HQ Sheffield Branch in 1984. She now lives in Coventry.
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