Background to the UK Miners’ Strike
Chancellor Winston Churchill presented his first Budget. On the advice of the Bank of England, Churchill restored the British currency to the gold standard. As predicted by economists, this led to deflation and rising unemployment. This was particularly felt in the coal industry where the higher rate of the pound increased the price of coal and led to a marked decline in exports.
1947 (1st January)
The Coal industry was nationalised and placed under the control of the National Coal Board.
The rise in cheaper oil from the Middle East led to a decline in demand for coal.
The reduction in demand for coal led to some coal mines being closed.
1972 (9th January)
Around 300,000 coal miners came out on strike. They wanted a 47% pay increase which was refused by the government.
1972 (28th February)
The miners returned to work after accepting the government’s offer of a rise above inflation.
1973 (6th – 25th October)
Yom Kippur War
War broke out between Israel and Egypt after Israel crossed the Suez Canal hoping to gain control of the east bank of the canal. Egypt was supported by Syria, the countries of north Africa and the Middle East. The United States supported Israel.
The oil producing countries of the Middle East perceived that Britain and other western nations supported America and therefore Israel in the Yom Kippur War. In retaliation they placed an embargo on oil exports to those countries. This caused a fuel shortage and prices began to rise drastically.
The miners wanted a further wage rise and began an overtime ban. With an oil shortage the government needed more coal to be produced but Prime Minister Edward Heath did not want to give in to their terms. Instead he introduced a three-day working week (to conserve electricity), a 50 mph speed limit (to reduce petrol consumption) and ordered TV companies to stop broadcasting at 10.30 p.m. (to save electricity).
1974 (28th February)
A general election was held. Edward Heath was hoping people would support the measures introduced to deal with the oil crisis and that the Conservatives would win. The result was a hung parliament and Labour formed a minority government.
1974 (31st July)
Trade Union and Labour Relations Act
This Act repealed and replaced the Industrial Relations Act of 1971. It set out rules on the status and functions of trade unions.
The Social Contract
This was an agreement between the trade unions and the Labour Party. Wilson promised the union leaders that if demands for wage rises were minimised, the Labour government would take action to stop rising prices and work towards a social wage.
1974 (10th October)
Wilson called another election to try to gain a majority in the House of Commons. He succeeded with a majority of just 3 seats in the House of Commons.
Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister because he was aware that his mental capacity was failing. He was succeeded by James Callaghan.
The sudden resignation of Wilson led to a fall in the value of the stock market and the value of the pound. Chancellor Denis Healey needed a loan to prop up the failing pound. The loan was granted on condition that the government made cuts to public spending.
The Ridley Plan
This secret report into Britain’s nationalised industries was produced by Conservative MP Nicholas Ridley following the fall of Edward Heath’s government due to the 1974 Miners’ Strike. The report suggested a number of points that would defeat any challenge from Trade Unions. The points included building up coal stocks and recruiting non-union lorry drivers.
Winter of Discontent
As prices continued to rise, workers were facing increased hardship due to a freeze on pay increases. In support of their members, trade unions called for increases in wages. When this was not forthcoming they went on strike. As strikes dragged on rubbish piled up on the streets, some hospitals would only treat emergencies and petrol stations closed as deliveries of fuel were not made.
Prime Minister James Callaghan lost a vote of no confidence and a general election was called.
1979 (3rd May)
The election was won by the Conservative Party with a majority of 43 seats. Leader of the party, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female Prime Minister. Thatcher was soon dubbed ‘the Iron Lady’ due to her rigid stance against the unions and strikers.
1979 (after May)
The new Conservative government began their privatisation programme by selling off the government’s 51% stake in British Petroleum (BP).
The Yorkshire branch of the NUM held a ballot which approved strike action in the event of any pit threatened with closure for being unprofitable.
The government announced plans to close 23 coal mines across the country. The miners threatened strike action and the government backed down due to low levels of stockpiled coal.
Coal mines began to be closed. The NCB closed them one at a time over a period of three years and minimised the effect on miners by transferring some workers to other pits that were still operating. Selby coalfield was opened providing more jobs in Yorkshire.
The coal industry had continued to decline and by the end of 1981 there were only 173 mines still in operation.
Arthur Scargill was elected President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
A national ballot of NUM members saw strike action over the closures rejected.
Another national ballot of NUM members saw strike action rejected.
A national ballot of NUM members saw strike action rejected.
1983 (28th March)
Ian MacGregor was appointed Head of the National Coal Board. The former chair of British Steel, noted for his ruthless closures and redundancies in pursuit of profit, was committed to seeing the Coal Industry turn a profit by whatever means necessary.
1983 (9th June)
Margaret Thatcher had gained significant popularity following British victory in the Falklands War. A general election was held and she won the election with an increased majority of 144 seats in the House of Commons.
The NUM called for a ban on overtime in protest at a pay rise of 5.2%.
Events of the UK Miners’ Strike
1984 (1st March)
It was announced that Cortonwood Colliery would be closed. The 850 miners working at the pit would lose their jobs. Workers at the pit walked out in protest.
1984 (6th March)
Ian MacGregor announced that around 20 unprofitable coal mines would be closed over the coming year. The closures meant that 20,000 miners would lose their jobs. Many of these mines were in poor economic areas and the miners would find it almost impossible to gain employment elsewhere.
1984 (6th March)
The Yorkshire branch of the NUM used the results of a ballot held in 1981 to call Yorkshire miners out on strike.
1984 (12th March)
NUM President, Arthur Scargill, called a national strike against the pit closures. It was a legal requirement for a national ballot to be held prior to strike action and, although many miners supported the strike, there were others who did not. The ballot was never held.
Strikes began and NUM President, Arthur Scargill used ‘flying pickets’ (miners from other areas to increase numbers on picket lines) to stop those who wanted to work (strike breakers or Scabs) from entering the pits. The police were brought in to allow workers through resulting in often violent confrontations between pickets and police. Scargill hoped to cause a coal shortage which would force the government to give in to their demands.
Thatcher and the Conservative government began building up coal stocks to prevent shortages in the winter.
1984 (10th March)
A ballot of South Wales’ miners showed only 10 out of the 28 pits wanted to strike.
1984 (11th March)
Flying pickets arrived in South Wales to prevent miners going to work. Miners from those pits that had not voted to strike now joined the strike action.
1984 (14th March)
David Jones, a picket at Ollerton Colliery, Nottinghamshire, a brick was thrown at him by an opponent of the strike and he died from the injury to his chest.
1984 (15th – 16th March)
Local ballots saw a number of areas voting against strike action.
Women Against Pit Closures
This movement grew from women coming together in the community to feed the families of striking miners.
1984 (late May)
The Women Against Pit Closures group held a rally in Barnsley. Around 5,000 women attended.
The Women Against Pit Closures held a conference to decide strategy.
1984 (15th June)
Joe Green, a miner on the picket line at Kellingley colliery, Yorkshire, was killed when a lorry mounted the pavement to enter the pit and ran him down.
1984 (18th June)
Battle of Orgreave
Around 5,000 pickets were gathered outside Orgreave Colliery to prevent lorry loads of coal entering the plant and coke leaving. Around 5,000 police in riot gear, mounted police and dogs arrived to break the picket line. A violent battle ensued and 51 pickets and 72 police were injured. 93 miners were arrested and charged with rioting.
A public opinion poll showed that while people were sympathetic to the miners’ plight, most did not support strike action. Similarly most popular newspapers were critical of the strike particularly the violence being seen on the picket lines. Nevertheless, Robert Maxwell owner of the Daily Mirror paid for striking miners and their families to take a trip to the seaside.
1984 (19th July)
Margaret Thatcher made a speech where she referred to union leaders as ‘the enemy within’.
1984 (11th August)
Women Against Pit Closures held a protest march in London. More than 23,000 women marched through the streets.
The Miners’ Strike was ruled illegal on the grounds that a national ballot of NUM members had not been held.
Following the ruling that the strike was illegal, a trickle of miners began to return to work.
1984 (18th November)
Teenagers Paul Holmes, Darren Holmes, Paul Wormersley and Jim Rawson, sons of striking miners, decided to raise some money for Christmas by digging for coal and selling it locally. The boys had dug into an exposed seam of coal in a railway embankment at Goldthorpe, Yorkshire. They were buried when wet soil slid down the embankment. They were dug out but Paul and Darren Holmes and Paul Womersley died before they reached hospital. Jim Rawson suffered broken bones but survived.
1984 (30th Novmeber)
A large concrete block was dropped onto a taxi carrying two strike breakers to work. Taxi driver David Wilkie was killed. The incident caused widespread shock and many thought the action was a step too far.
Increasing numbers of miners began to return to work. Many were now suffering severe financial hardship and felt they had little choice.
1985 (3rd March)
The miners’ strike officially ended when many areas called for a return to work.
The coal industry was privatised. There were just 15 coal mines remaining.