Links: Twenty years on

Ann Suddick of Women Against Pit Closures recalls the miners' strike and its lessons for today's global justice campaigners.

April 1, 2005
8 min read

In March 1984, the largest industrial dispute in recent trade union history took place – the miners’ strike. Debate about its causes and conduct, how theorists would have done it if they had been leading the strike, has continued ever since. I want to now describe why this is not just of historical interest, but how the links made at that time have provided knowledge which as at the heart of understanding today’s global power conflicts.

The government, led at that time by Margaret Thatcher, wanted to break the grip of the NUM in order to break the grip of trade unionism as a whole. Socialism would be rendered extinct and the threat of workers rights would be banished to the history books. Furthermore, with the pits closed, an alternative nuclear energy programme could be developed.

But something strange happened. The range of people supporting the miners became immense. First were the women from the pit communities, angry at the vilification, their anger fuelling a thirst for knowledge. There were banners at rallies demonstrating the support of Greenham women, gays and lesbians, the anti-apartheid movement, and of course, the many and varied miners’ support groups spawned in the cities of England and Europe, many of whom had never even seen a mine. It was at this time that links between the campaigns began to be identified. It all came to a head for me, a member of Women Against Pit Closures, as we were preparing evidence for yet another opencast mine application enquiry. While the government and British Coal were forcing through pit closures on the grounds that there was no market for the amount of coal being mined, more and more applications were being made to expand opencast mining. Even if we succeeded in opposing an application at a local public enquiry, the Secretary of State could, and usually did, overturn the local decision. We began to look at why this was happening. The government were phasing out the building of new coal-fired power stations on the grounds that the emissions from these power stations were adding to the ‘greenhouse effect.’ However technology was available to prevent emissions at coal-fired power stations. Why was it not being put in place? Why was the government so hell-bent on building new nuclear power stations, even after the accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power station in the USA, and subsequently the Chernobyl disaster? The very real contradiction in terms of market and economy were beginning to be exposed.

It came together for the women in the Northumberland and Durham Miners’ Support Groups in a small way. Bates Colliery in Northumberland mined coal for the Blyth Power Station. The colliery was closed by British Coal. Not far away, the beautiful Northumberland coastline of Druridge Bay was being threatened by a proposal to build a nuclear power station. Why was the proposal even being thought about when Blyth was so close? It was the discussions with the women at Greenham which gave the glimmering of an answer. The by-product of nuclear power generation was weapons grade plutonium. It began to make sense. A new industry was rapidly developing – weapons production.

The women of the Durham Miners’ Support Groups began to see links between our various campaigns – the anti-nuclear movement, the peace protesters, and the proposed decimation of the mining industry. Similarly, the National Union of Mineworkers were opposing the importation of cheap coal through the Rotterdam market from the apartheid regime of South Africa, which had invaded Namibia to exploit its mineral resources – the source of cheap coal to importing nations, including Great Britain.

The links made by the women during a time of struggle brought this information to the fore. A conference was arranged in the North East in 1985 to bring these separate groups such as the Durham Mining Support Groups, BAND (Billingham Against Nuclear Dumping), Peace Action Durham, Durham Anti-Apartheid group, women from Greenham Common, CND and others from the Anti-Nuclear movement together to explore strategies that could be used when working together. To do this, they formed a new network based on the organic linking of issues that affected all these campaigns. This network was effective in organising a petition and picketing electricity board showrooms immediately following the Chernobyl disaster.

The philosophy for action for Links clearly stated that “it merely attempts to understand and respond to the needs of existing campaigns by an informal network which will enable other groups to support initiatives by taking their own actions, in their own way, in their own area, under their own control.” Reading this, you may be asking why I am raising this issue twenty years later. However, we are now facing new threats to democracy with the globalisation of business, and the bitterness and hate of war is in our midst once again.

It is for this reason that the philosophy behind LINKS is so important to socialists, peace campaigners, anti-globalisation campaigners, fair trade exponents – in fact to all. People involved in a single issue campaign usually have a breadth of knowledge that could be useful to others campaigning on like issues. It is up to each one of us in struggle to look for and make these links and broaden our campaigns. It is an opportune time at the moment to build on the wave of revulsion in society against the Iraq war.

The LINKS philosophy also helps understand similarities over time. Mary Mellor, a member of a research group into changes in mining communities at Northumbria University, recently pointed out to me the similarities between the economic changes at the time of the miners’ strike and the war on Iraq twenty years later.

During the strike, the principal argument was about the price of coal. It was relatively easy for management to make a pit uneconomic by putting in new machinery so pushing up costs (Huw Beynon exposed this in his study of Horden Colliery in the Durham Coalfield, ‘(Mis)Managing Horden’.) But changes in exchange rates between world currencies also alter the relative costs of coal (or any commodity). This is even more true now when a lot of money is made gambling on currencies and altering exchange rates, which then have nothing to do with real trade at all.

When the euro was due to be launched in 2000, Saddam Hussein let it be known that he was going to price Iraqi oil in euros rather than dollars. He also negotiated trading arrangements with Germany, France and Russia. This was drastic news for the US, and consequently its domination of world currency exchange. There was also an implicit threat that other oil producing nations would follow suit, and this, in itself, would be a sound economic reason for President Bush to wage war on Iraq to defend the dollar and for Prime Minister Tony Blair to follow suit to defend the pound. If oil producing countries moved to the euro, the whole balance of world trade would shift away from the US.

At the Women Against Pit Closures celebration weekend, held in Wortley Hall in early October this year, American women mineworkers, members of the United Mineworkers of America, told how there were many coal mines being opened in the United States but most of those mines were operated by non-union labour. The USA has a no-build policy on nuclear power stations since the accident at Three Mile Island and so needs a pliant workforce to produce coal for its coal-fired power stations. Tony Blair recently spoke of the need to increase nuclear electricity generation from one fifth of the country’s requirements to 50 per cent. Taking into account the obvious danger of accident or terrorist attack, why would the government be contemplating a massive increase in nuclear power stations? Could it be for the weapons grade plutonium needed by the USA, which can’t produce enough itself? It is a chilling thought.

The LINKS Philosophy for Action stated that the only way to move forward is to refuse to work in isolation any longer. Can this be applied to issues of racial tensions in our cities and anti-social behaviour? Are we working too much in isolation? Can we use the LINKS philosophy to find common ground to work together? The sharing of information between issues is crucial towards our understanding of what is happening in our community, our country or our world today.

We had a saying twenty years ago – ‘Make the links, break the chain’. It is as relevant now as it was then.

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