Throughout the 20th century, unions went toe-to-toe with the British government demanding better working conditions and higher pay for skilled workers throughout the country. The 1984 miners’ strike, perhaps the most infamous of them all, not only ended in disaster for the miners but spelt the end of the power that the unions had held over the government since the conclusion of World War Two.
Here are ten facts about the UK miners' strike and how it changed the history of industrial action in the country.
1. When was the UK miners' strike?
The miners' strike started on 6th March 1984 and ended almost a year later on 3rd March 1985.
2. What caused the miners' strike?
The miners' strike was an attempt by the miners and unions to prevent the closure of 20 collieries across the UK. The local colliery's closure (including the mine and all additional buildings or offices) meant almost certain death for the mining communities built up around them. As these towns and villages were often built solely around employment in the mine, closures meant mass redundancy in an area with little-to-no other employment opportunities.
Over the previous decades, mining costs had been on the rise while the demand for coal had started to fall. Coal deposits were starting to deplete, and the number of miners across the country was dropping as alternative forms of employment were on the rise. The changing landscape of the UK’s energy sector meant that soon many collieries would be obsolete.
3. Who was involved in the miners' strike?
The strike was led by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) against the National Coal Board. Wider implications, however, meant that it was perceived as a much larger class battle being waged by the government.
4. Who was to blame for the miners' strike?
There is no one deciding factor as to who was to blame for the miners' strike.
On the one hand, the government, along with the National Coal Board, were increasingly aware of the growing costs of the mines, along with the fall in demand. The closure of the mines was considered a necessary evil to save a failing economy.
What wasn’t taken into account, however, was the human element. Many of the miners had been part of multi-generational mining families. Their loved ones relied on them, and mining was the only vocation that they had ever known. The government had shown little to no interest in the impact of the closures on these communities and offered no alternatives or assistance options to support the closures.
5. Did the UK run out of coal during the miners' strike?
The government had anticipated that the closures would prompt strike action and spent time before the announcement collecting an extra reserve of coal.
One of the criticisms of the government highlighted how they had the foresight to secure a coal reserve to outlast the strikes but hadn’t considered options that could help support the communities where the mines were being closed.
6. Were the miner strikes violent?
While most of the strikes across the UK were non-violent, there were a few occasions where fights and protests broke out, with a lot of the violence directed at strike-breakers - the workers who crossed the picket line and continued to work.
Flying picketers would travel to other mines to stop local workers from continuing to work. This would often end in violent clashes with police. Strikebreakers living in areas with a heavy sense of community often found themselves ostracised.
7. How many people died during the miners' strikes?
Eight deaths were attributed to the strike, including picketers, workers, and a taxi driver.
8. How was the miners' strike resolved?
The strike was declared illegal five months after it started in September 1984. The NUM hadn’t run a national ballot of its members to approve the strike action. Slowly throughout the year, more and more miners returned to work nationally, and solidarity amongst other mining communities started to dwindle.
When the strikes finally ended on 3rd March 1985, the NUM had made no headway with their demands. Margaret Thatcher had refused to concede to any of the NUM’s demands, and new miners' unions had started to gain traction among workers who lost faith in the NUM’s ability.
After 362 days, many strikers returned to work disheartened at the lack of progress made by a union that, for many, had started the strike against their own best interests.
9. What was the public opinion of the miners' strike?
The successful strikes in the public sector during the winter of ‘78-’79 (known as the Winter of Discontent) had soured public opinion on striking workers due to the considerable inconvenience it had caused the wider public.
Rolling blackouts, coal shortages, and severe transport disruption were the unfortunate side effects that had played a large part in Thatcher’s Conservative government coming to power in early 1979.
As the strike in 1984 was ruled illegal, it deeply divided public opinion. Even the miners themselves weren’t all of one mind as many disagreed with the NUM’s decision to strike. Some felt that the actions of striking miners against those who chose to continue to work were unreasonable.
10. What was the legacy of the miners' strike?
Thanks, in part, to the government’s stockpiling of coal before the strikes, disruption to the wider public was kept to a minimum. Britain’s economy received the kick start that it needed, and by the early 90s, coal mining across the UK had been privatised.
Only three working collieries remain in the UK today. Many of the mining communities that were once reliant on the collieries for their livelihoods were affected by the closure of the mines, and have since adapted to a new way of living.