Organised women are key to strike success: Learning from the 1985 British miners’ strike
The British coalminers’ strike of 1984-5, which ended 25 years ago on March 3, was a turning point in British politics. In this article, Terry Conway discusses the impact of Women Against Pit Closures and its legacy.
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March 3, 2010 -- Socialist Resistance -- Since her election as prime minister in 1979, Margaret Thatcher had wasted little time in attacking working people in every way she could. The massive program of coal pit closures was critical for her government.
The strike was to be “the” central issue of British politics. The stakes were understood by the majority of members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), who saw that what was at stake was the loss of the thousands upon thousands of jobs and the devastation of entire communities in the many areas where the coal pit was the centre of local life.
The formation of women’s support groups happened soon after the start of the strike on March 9, 1984. Women were angry at the way the media depicted them as being opposed to the action -- supposedly victims of the irresponsible behaviour of the NUM in taking strike action.
The press played on the fact that support for the strike was weak in the Nottinghamshire area, and managed to identify women there who were urging their husbands to go to work. With this ammunition they ran headlines on this issue on the third day of the dispute -- implying that all women wanted the strike called off.
This so enraged a group of five women in Barnsley, Yorkshire, that they wrote a letter to the local paper:
We realise that miners and their families will endure hardships during the strike and that no-one relishes the prospect of mounting bills. However those same sacrifices were made by our forefathers who gave their lives to the industry and struggled to protect jobs and improve conditions. Let us take their example and stand firmly together to ensure the future of our community We wish to object to the assumption made in some sections of the press that all miners’ wives oppose the decision to strike.
The letter was printed in the paper by a sympathetic reporter -- with an invitation for those who agreed with its views to get in touch. Within two weeks the group had mushroomed to two dozen, within a few more weeks hundreds of women had made contact.
Similar patterns were being played out across the different coalfields. As well as writing to the press, the groups were kept busy. Many set up emergency advice centres to help miners’ wives and children claim welfare benefits if they were not working, as the strikers themselves were not eligible. Then there was fundraising, organising meetings and demonstrations, speaking at meetings -- and of course picketing.
One of the focal points for many was the organisation of a village soup kitchen. The need for such activity was highly practical -- the desperate shortage of funds to sustain a long fight. In many areas there was overwhelming support for the strike, not only from trade unionists but from local shopkeepers and some factory owners who understood that without the industry their own livelihoods were threatened -- and who may have had relatives on strike.
The kitchens became a hive of activity not only for cooking and eating but for discussing how the strike could be furthered.
While it was assumed that the cooking was women’s responsibility, being part of a large group catering for hundreds of meals a day was very different from providing a meal in the isolation of your own kitchen for "your" man. And you didn’t have to worry how you were going to pay for the ingredients! Women were able to talk to each other and to the men much more freely than before the dispute. Roles began to change in other ways too. Christine from Hoyland explains: “I’ve seen older men, not usually bothered with children, actually nurse youngsters while their parents eat their meal in peace.”
At the beginning of the strike, women in most areas didn’t consider becoming involved in picketing. But as they gained in confidence, through the other support group activities, they decided to try.
One Barnsley woman explained:
At first we were a little nervous at the prospect of standing face to face with thousands of police, and we were unsure of the response we would receive from the men. However, we were welcomed at every pit we visited, and quite soon we were joined by women from all over.
Two months into the strike, the bitterness generated by scabs was reaching fever pitch. Because the police and the scabs had responded a little more tolerantly to the presence of women on the picket line, the idea of a women’s mass picket was born.
The miners were certainly enthusiastic to see their unexpected visitors. “You can do things we can’t, they won’t `get' you, because you’re women", they said. How wrong they were. That day, 14 women were arrested at two Nottinghamshire pits, including Anne Scargill, wife of NUM President Arthur Scargill.
One of the enduring images of the strike was the image of a young woman being brutally batoned by a heavily armoured police on horseback at the "Battle of Orgreave", one of the most bitter battles between the strikers and their supporters and the police.
These different activities had a profound impact on the women involved. Some women in the more isolated coalfields might never have left their village before the strike, but during it they travelled to meetings in different parts of the country and spoke in front of audiences of strangers.
A large proportion of the women involved were not involved in paid work and had taken total responsibility for the home and children. Now they were travelling to meetings or pickets, the men had to take their share of responsibility at home. The effect of these changes was varied -- some relationships changed for the better, and others buckled under the strain.
One of the unusual features of the dispute was the development of “twinning” -- the linking of a particular pit with either a local area support group or a particular trade union branch. Thousands of activists, mainly from the large cities, travelled to mining areas, often on a regular basis. Many became firm friends with people in these areas and there was an exchange of experiences and political ideas that would not normally have taken place.
Women’s groups made direct links with Women Against Pit Closures groups. Women Against Pit Closures activists also visited the women’s peace camp outside the Greenham Common US Air Force Base, which was expected to receive Trident nuclear missiles.
Lesbians and Gay men organised their own groups in support of the strike, as did black people. On these issues too there was clearly movement in the thinking of at least some of the strikers and their supporters in the mining areas -- a real demonstration of the political ferment the dispute had generated.
The NUM itself was an overwhelmingly male union -- there were no women miners in Britain, only a very small number of women clerical members. Before the dispute there had been a bitter row between the NUM leadership and feminists outside the union who had criticised The Yorkshire Miner, a union newspaper, for publishing pictures of scantily clad women. Arthur Scargill and his “comrades” in the leadership of the Yorkshire NUM dismissed this criticism out of hand.
But by the end of the strike, the “Page 3 girl” had disappeared -- and Women against Pit Closures had been accepted into associate membership of the NUM. The involvement of women at the centre of the dispute had other ramifications too. It certainly made it harder for the Thatcherite press to attack the strike as being led by macho men.
The Liverpool dockers’ strike
The defeat of the miners' strike in 1985 had profound effects. It strengthened the Thatcher regime and weakened workers’ confidence to take action to defend their rights or their jobs. However when the situation began to shift it was to become clear that at least some of the lessons of the miners’ strike had been taken to heart elsewhere.
Since 1989, when the Tories had abolished the national dock labour scheme, there had been mass sackings in most of the other great ports of England. Liverpool was the last bastion of a once great industry with a proud tradition of union organisation -- it had to be smashed.
Some women had been attending the mass meetings from the beginning of the dispute, obviously anxious to know what was going on. This fact is presented in most histories of the strike without comment -- but it is certainly unusual in most British strikes for "outsiders" to be present at mass meetings. This demonstrates the relatively high political and democratic consciousness of the Liverpool dockers.
At one of these early meetings, Doreen McNally got up and started talking about the way that casualisation was destroying her family life. This was to be the spark that led to the formation of Women On the Waterfront (WOW) in the second week of the dispute.
The group was involved in a variety of activities; fundraising, participating in international and national delegations, picketing at the docks as well as less-conventional activities such as taking actions outside the homes of scabs and senior members of the Mersy Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC).
The dockers themselves, at a theoretical level at least, were supportive of the move to set up a women’s support group. “I already knew about the tremendous role that women had played in the miners’ strike and other struggles in this country”, says Jimmy Nolan, secretary of the Shop Stewards Committee. “The women have made a tremendous contribution to our struggle.”
The first WOW meeting was attended by 60 women, who heard two women from Women Against Pit Closures talk about their experiences during the miners’ strike. They set up a committee and held weekly meetings as well as running their own office.
Their meetings were attended by a union shop steward who kept them informed of what was going on while a number of them attended the dockers’ mass meetings which had a standing item of a report back from WOW. Women’s activity was seen as an integral part of the strike.
Probably a higher percentage of women involved in WOW had paid jobs than the women involved in the miners strike. Doreen McNally, often WOW spokesperson, is a nurse. She explains her own history:
My father was badly injured on the docks and I think that was part of the reason I went into nursing. At that time there was no union for nurses, only the Royal College of Nurses (a professional body, hostile to strikes and unions) which you could join when you qualified. My father had always been a strong trade unionist and believed everyone should be in a union so he contacted someone in NUPE [National Union of Public Employees, now part of UNISON] and we arranged a meeting with some colleagues. I was one of the first nurses in Liverpool to join a real union.
Nevertheless for all those involved there was a massive change in their horizons, their self-confidence. Joan says:
If anyone had told me that I would be addressing meetings all over the country I would have said `not me' but you have so much anger at what they have done that you don’t think about it. You want to tell people the truth.
Sue explains what the strike has meant both for her and her relationship with her partner:
The dispute has changed me dramatically… Before I was content being a mother and a housewife but now I want to go out into the world, I think I’ve found myself again and when the dispute finishes I want to stay politically active and get a job. There has also been changes in Colin’s and my relationship. Before we were very traditional -- he went to work and earned the money and I took charge of the house and the housekeeping. Now this has changed. Colin is much more involved at home -- he has to be because I’m away so much. He takes the budget, cooks meals and looks after the house. Now we share our roles and are both very supportive of each other’s union, political and outside activities.
Not just at the weekends …
Individual dockers reacted differently. Billy admits:
Personally at first I wasn’t too keen on the idea of there being an active women’s group but that soon changed. The women have been vitally important to us. Prior to the dispute I suppose I would be what you would call an old-fashioned male chauvinist. I always thought that the place for women was in the home, looking after the kids, which is a hard enough job.
Another striker, Keith, comments:
I’d never been in the kitchen before… I can use a tin opener now! I make the beds and vacuum-clean the carpets during the week, not just at the weekends.
The parallels with many of the comments made and situations described by those involved in the miners’ strike are clear. But there are important differences. Some are clearly a function of the differences between the two disputes. The dockers’ dispute was much smaller and more isolated than the miner’s strike was.
The general level of confrontation between workers, employers and the state was less intense and there was much less generalised support from a range of groups in society. The dispute was confined to one geographical area, the Port of Liverpool, where the miners’ strike had a much wider spread.
The financial situation was also been very different. In Liverpool the men were sacked, so were eligible for welfare benefits much more easily than the striking miners.
In the miners’ strike the whole union was taking action and financial sources were hugely stretched -- whereas the Liverpool dockers comprised a tiny proportion of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), which did give some financial support, though not official backing.
Much of the focus of the dockers’ shop stewards throughout the dispute had been on international solidarity -- resulting in some dramatically successful days of action in ports across the globe. But there was little focus on fighting for action within the TGWU. All of these features set partial limits on the development of WOW.
There were other differences too. The British women’s movement in general was much weaker in 1995 than in 1984. There were fewer direct links therefore between WOW and women’s groups than during the time of the Women Against Pit Closures. This impacted on the level of political discussion that women involved in the docks dispute had access too.
And while women’s activity was integrated into the Liverpool dispute, in some ways their profile was not as high as during the miners’ strike. So for example on the second anniversary demonstration, Doreen McNally from WOW was the only woman on a platform of over 20 speakers -- and spoke last.
Although WOW was capable of mobilising significant numbers of women for its activities, such as family pickets, the activists who regularly attended the meetings and involved in delegation work represented a minority of the dockers’ wives, partners and families.
It is only within these, the most involved, that we could expect to see the substantial changes in confidence, attitudes and lives that occurred during and after the miners’ strike. Though, of course, the experience and consciousness of women involved in solidarity movements is as complex and varied as that of the strikers themselves.
Despite this unevenness, the involvement of women in the Liverpool dock strike suggests that something significant had changed in British politics.
The Magnet strike
Our final example of a women’s support group relates to the strike at Magnet. Three hundred and forty workers were sacked in September 1996 for going on strike for a modest pay rise. The strikers, mostly men, belonged to a range of different unions which formally supported the dispute but did nothing effective to help win it.
According to Ian Crammond, secretary of the strike committee, a women’s support group was quickly set up, based on groups like WOW and WAPC. Women were involved in a whole range of activities -- picketing, speaking at meetings, fundraising and organising leafleting of Magnet showrooms to persuade people not to buy the shoddy goods now being produced by scab labour, rather than those previously by skilled craftspeople.
Like the Liverpool women, a favourite occupation has been high-profile actions against leading shareholders -- in this case Bersfords, the parent company of Magnet. While there was a caravan provided by one of the unions, which provided food for the regular pickets and staffed by men, this was not sufficient on mass picket days. Then the women’s support group produced additional hot food -- to the great delight of everyone standing freezing by the gates.
Lynne Fawcett from the Women’s support Group explained some of the things that motivated her and others to get involved:
I have three children of my own in their 20s and I’m extremely lucky they are all working. What Magnet have done -- I’m terrified the same thing could be done to them… When you take men’s jobs away their whole self-esteem and self-worth collapses. The motivation goes out of your family life; you lose your security; and the knock-on effect for the whole town is less money, less prospects and more poverty. There’s enough poverty in Darlington already -- we don’t need any more… We’re not going to take much more of this…
Like in the other disputes we have looked at, the involvement of women in the dispute at Magnet was often a morale booster for the strikers, with the women’s determination and sense of humour raising confidence when spirits have been low. In some families, the women became more involved than the men -- with big implications for the division of labour in the family.
The Magnet dispute continued for 21 months until the strikers accepted a management deal. The formation of the women’s support group contributed to the strength of the strike. If the deal was not the victory hoped for, it certainly wasn’t because of any lack of courage and determination of the women involved.
A new tradition
The organised women’s liberation movement in Britain remains very weak. But many women who came into contact with this new wave of working-class women’s organisation since the 1984-5 miners' strike have been inspired by it. The lie has been given to the idea that many of the ideas of feminism -- for socialisation of the roles of the family and for equal participation in political life for women -- are of no relevance to working-class women.
The chance for the bosses and for governments to use women as ammunition against strikes in male-dominated industries has been seriously weakened.
[This article first appeared at the Socialist Resistance website. An earlier version of this article was written for International Viewpoint.]