Limerick and the Miners strike

Dominic Haugh, Limerick SP

I would like to comment on the piece by Brendan Halligan in the Limerick Leader of 29/01/2005 entitled “Has Limerick Sympathy for Sad Scargill?”

In my opinion this is a piece that is one-sided and biased in its view of the events surrounding the miners’ strike in 1984 and its lessons for trade unionists in Limerick.

As someone who was heavily involved in solidarity work in the Mid-West region during the miners’ strike, it was clear to me that there was an enormous level of support for the mineworkers in Limerick at that time. Large sums of money and other goods were donated; significant numbers of people regularly attended public meetings addressed by striking miners and fund-raising events. One other thing that people were aware of was the political and industrial significance of this strike. They understood the motives of Thatcher and her government to smash the British trade union movement to pave the way for privatisation and wholesale job losses.

The three reasons that Brendan Halligan outlines for ridiculing the strike are false.

He states “the strategy was essentially flawed” because Thatcher was prepared with fuel stockpiles to keep the economy going. There is no doubt that the Thatcher government had planned this dispute, beginning preparations even before they were elected to power. New legislation was introduced to attempt to strangle the trade union movement in the event of industrial disputes. The media in Britain played an enormous role in denigrating and undermining the trade union movement. Rupert Murdoch was to use all of these things to his advantage in his attack on the print unions during the Wapping dispute. The reality is that the miners had no choice but to fight. If they had not the decimation of the mining industry would have been even more complete than it already has and the impact on the wider trade union movement even greater.

The failure of the strike can ultimately be laid at the door of the leadership of the British Trade Union Congress and the Labour Party of Kinnock for not alone refusing to back the strike but consciously undermining it during the entire dispute. Irrespective of the stockpiling of fuel, if the TUC had allowed energy workers to engage in solidarity strike action (something which they wanted to do) rather than meekly accepting the Tory laws banning secondary strike action, the government would have been forced into a climb down within weeks. Indeed if a general strike was called it would have been over in days. Of course mistakes in tactics were made, this can happen in all disputes, but that does not mean that the miners were wrong to engage in strike action to defend their jobs, their livelihoods, their communities (many mining villages are now little more than ghost towns) and their children’s future.

Brendan Halligan states “the strike was undemocratic” and he continues by saying that “most miners wanted to keep working”. This is a falsehood, something constantly peddled by the right-wing in political and media circles. The strike was called in accordance with the rules of the NUM, which were decided by a democratically convened conference of mine workers. The fact that they may not have conformed to the “undemocratic” laws of Thatcher’s government does not make the action of the NUM undemocratic. Votes were organised and took place at all pit-heads and in most cases were overwhelmingly in favour of strike action. The claim that “most miners wanted to keep working” beggars belief. What evidence does Mr Halligan have for this assertion? The strike would not have lasted a year if the vast majority of mineworkers didn’t support it. Ask any ordinary worker in Limerick if they would be willing to stay out on strike for a year if they and the majority of their workmates didn't want to. I think Mr Halligan would get a very clear answer.

The third assertion “the strike was illegal, not only in principle but in practice. It provoked violence” is even more ludicrous. Every worker has a right to withdraw his or her labour. This is a civil right that every worker will defend. Violence occurred during the miners’ strike. The overwhelming majority of the violence was planned, instigated and executed by the police and the Thatcher government. Picket-lines were indiscriminately attacked by riot-police and mounted police, whole villages were raided in the middle of the night by hundreds of police arresting local strike leaders and police agents mingled with crowds of miners instigating violence. There is ample evidence to show this was the case. The vast majority of the injuries that did occur were of miners and their families, including children. One very regrettable and tragic incident did occur in south Wales in the latter stages of the strike when a taxi driver ferrying a strikebreaker to work was killed when a concrete block thrown from a bridge hit his car. This had an enormous impact on the miners in terms of an outpouring of sympathy and regret from the mining communities but was cynically used by Thatcher and the media to attack the strike.

To suggest that the justification for the strike was spurious again shows where Mr Halligan’s sympathies lie. Is it spurious to seek to stop the destruction of your job, your livelihood, your workplace, your entire community, indeed your entire life? I do not believe so. Yes the NUM and the mining communities were decimated in the years after the strike. But this would have happened even without the strike taking place given the plans Thatcher and her backers had for the mining industry. The effect on the wider trade union movement could have been very different if the leadership of the TUC had not lay down and meekly accepted the dictates of Thatcher.

As to the unelectability of the Labour Party in Britain in the aftermath of the dispute, this had more to do with the effort by Kinnock to make the Labour Party more Tory than the Tories, something that Blair finally succeeded in doing in recent years. Labour only got elected in Britain when the Tories buried themselves so deep in the mire of corruption that Screaming Lord Sutch stood a better chance of being elected than them. The evidence in the aftermath of the strike is far different. During the local elections in areas like Merseyside where the left was prominent, the Labour Party made significant gains. In areas under the control of Kinnockites, Labour lost votes. In the General Election of 1987, in areas like Liverpool, Coventry, Bradford, parts of Scotland, south Wales and London, left-wing candidates experienced massive swings to the Labour Party which, if replicated throughout Britain would have seen Labour elected with a 100 seat majority. Instead the Tories were swept back to power.

Finally I would like to comment on Brendan Halligan’s advice for Limerick trade unionists. Mr Halligan claims that companies now accept more responsibility towards their workers and the wider community. Can Mr Halligan outline what he means by “responsibility” and give us examples of where this is happening.

I think it would be advisable for him to talk with some postal workers, or workers from Dairygold or Kantoher, to find out what responsibility their company is taking towards these workers and communities. Perhaps Mr Halligan could seek information from workers in the building industry in Limerick and they will tell him when they attempt to ensure that workers are not forced into the black-economy by cowboy builders, and that safety regulations are adhered to, they regularly end up in the High Court fighting laws similar to those used by Thatcher during the miners’ strike. Do not forget the increasing number of workers who have been killed as a result of the flouting of safety regulations.

Brendan Halligan is not alone in supporting the idea of partnership and the “common good”. This is the same partnership process that has seen workers wages restricted since 1987 as a result of National Programmes, while at the same time company profits have gone through the roof without any restriction. Is Mr Halligan suggesting that the workers in the industries mentioned above should be willing to give up their jobs for the “common good”. Does Mr Halligan suggest that only workers should embrace the values of individual dignity and social justice? The reality is that, as a result of global capitalism, working class people are the only ones who display such values.

Irrespective of the political differences that I might have with Arthur Scargill, he has steadfastly stood by the workers who elected him and done his utmost to defend their jobs, wages and conditions, unlike the recent example of the Irish trade union leader, a prominent supporter of partnership, who pocketed a seven figure sum while getting his members to accept thousands of job losses in Eircom. Workers in Limerick would enormously benefit from trade unionists as committed as Arthur Scargill. As for workers in present day Britain, Mr Halligan has failed to point out the victory of the British civil service union PCS over attempts by the Blair government to cut thousands of jobs. This is a trade union with an elected leadership that Mr Halligan would probably describe as ‘loony left’. Despite the claim by Mr Halligan that capitalism has triumphed, socialists are still active and the left is very much alive and will continue to campaign for the rights of workers faced with the realities of neo-liberal economic policies.

Read Brendan Halligan’s original article on the Limerick Leader website.
(An edited version of this letter was published in the Limerick Leader 19 February 2005)

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