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Romania: Miners' Strike Recalls Marathon British Coal Strike

  • Ben Partridge

London, 22 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The current Romanian miners' strike has clear parallels with a bitter confrontation between coal miners and the British government in the mid-1980s.

Tens of thousands of British coal miners stayed out on strike for a full year between 1984 and 1985 in one of the longest and most acrimonious industrial disputes of the 20th century. As in Romania this week, the British strike was prompted by pit closures.

The strike was staged by the miners' union to protest plans by the conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to close scores of coal mines because they were uneconomic.

The strike brought months of violent clashes between police and union pickets, deeply divided the labor movement and the country, and, at times, threatened to spill into open class warfare. In the end, the miners drifted back to work after a humiliating defeat.

The dispute was dramatic because it pitched Margaret Thatcher, the apostle of free market forces, against miners' union President Arthur Scargill, a fiery Marxist orator.

Thatcher came to power in 1979 regarding union militancy as the single most important reason for Britain's post-war decline. She blamed the unions for the strikes and poor productivity that had given Britain an unenviable reputation as "the sick man of Europe." She was particularly hostile to the coal miners, faulting them for bringing down a previous conservative government in 1974.

Many British coal mines were losing millions of pounds/dollars a year, and were kept going only with subsidies from taxpayers. Thatcher argued that the coal industry should conform to market forces and, if they could not make a profit, they should be closed.

That put her on a collision course with Scargill, who thought the coal industry should be run largely for the benefit of its members. He refused on principle to accept the closure of mines.

Coal has had a central role in Britain's history, fueling its 19th century industrial revolution, and powering the Royal Navy ships which enabled London to rule over a vast colonial empire. At its peak in the 1920s, the British coal industry employed more than one million men at more than 1,000 large mines.

But demand for coal later contracted because of cheap Middle East oil, natural gas from the North Sea, and the use of nuclear energy. At the same time, new technological developments (like the rotary cutter and conveyor-belt loading) cut manpower needs in the pits.

By the early 1980s, the coal industry had contracted to the point where only 180,000 men remained in 174 pits. Many older miners had taken advantage of a generous redundancy package offered by pro-union Labor governments. But the shrinkage of the industry caused bitterness in mining areas because of the erosion of a traditional way of life. This lent an emotional edge to the coal strike.

The strike was triggered by an announcement in March 1984 of the closure of 20 loss-making mines at a cost of 20,000 jobs. In taking on the labor movement, Thatcher took a big gamble.

The unions had won a number of famous victories over post-war governments -- including that of Labour leader James Callaghan, who was undermined by the 1979 "winter of (industrial) discontent."

But Thatcher prepared for the confrontation cunningly. Her government built up maximum coal stocks at power stations, and made plans to import coal from abroad. It also trained a force of 140,000 police equipped with riot gear to handle violent pickets.

Scargill refused to hold a national ballot of the miners before calling them out on strike. This was a mistake as it split the union. Where a ballot was held, in central England, the men voted against a strike. While most collieries joined the strike, they worked on.

Over the next year TV news nightly showed the clashes between picketing miners and police. But there was a ritual element to much of the violence which mostly stopped short of serious bloodshed.

However, Scargill's position was undermined by the killing of a taxi driver, who was crushed to death when two strikers dropped a concrete block onto his car as he was taking another miner to work.

Then it was disclosed that Scargill had flown under a false name to Paris to meet a representative of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in search of financial support (Gaddafi admitted later that he gave more than $200,000 to the miners' union).

Scargill's attempt to win backing from a regime accused of terrorism, his encouragement of picket line clashes, and reports that he was also seeking financial support from Moscow, proved a public relations disaster. Opposition Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, himself the son of a miner, compared Scargill with a World War I general. Other critics said the miners were "lions led by donkeys."

The strike dragged on until March 1985 when a trickle of demoralized men returning to work turned into a flood. Many returned to the pits with brass bands playing and banners flying. But nothing could hide the fact that they had suffered a defeat.

There was a lot of sympathy in the country for miners who had suffered many privations and whose industry was being run down. That is one characteristic of the British strike that differs from current events in Romania. The privileges of Romanian miners and their previous violent strikes have made them widely unpopular in the country. Still, the campaign by the Thatcher government to undercut the British union monopoly in the labor market did have some popular support.

After it was all over, Thatcher introduced union reforms, including legislation requiring union leaders to hold secret ballots of their members before calling a strike. But, in one sense, Scargill got it right: the contraction of the British coal industry continued after the year-long strike, exactly as he had predicted.

(Second of Two Features on Coal Mine Sectors and Reform.)