Academic journal article Hecate

'Iron Ladies': Women in the 1984/85 British Miners' Strike

Academic journal article Hecate

'Iron Ladies': Women in the 1984/85 British Miners' Strike

Article excerpt

"The Archbishop of Bologna said to me, through an interpreter, `Your Prime Minister's a woman. And she's an Iron Lady.' I said, `Tell him that she might be an Iron Lady, but she didn't bank on thousands of Iron Ladies coming up.'"

(Miner's wife)(1)

The British miners' strike of 1984/5 was the longest mass strike in European history. After ten years of economic crisis and rightward political movement, at last a major trade union stood up to Margaret Thatcher. There are political lessons to be learnt from this struggle -- about the nature of trade union officials and Labourism, about the methods necessary to win such a class struggle. But there are also other lessons, equally political but not always recognised.

Pessimists constantly declare to socialists: "You can't change human nature." But people -- men and women -- changed during this strike. In their new-found collective strength, they found a new confidence in themselves. They became open to new ideas and discarded old prejudices. They changed in the way they behaved towards each other; they found new friends and new hopes.

We saw little of the struggle in Australia apart from shock/horror stories about picket line violence. But the experience is highly relevant to anyone working for the liberation of women. Women appear to be absent from much labour history, and their participation in struggles often has to be rediscovered.(2) But in the miners' strike, the active and leading role of the women in the mining communities was obvious. Without their support, the strike could not have been maintained for so long. It is with the changes in their consciousness that this article is centrally concerned. But their experience can't be separated from the more general lessons of the strike, and this article also aims to show the interactions between the two.

Mining communities, isolated as they are, tend to be traditional in attitudes. Women in Britain's coalfields were beginning to break out, but change was very slow. The strike altered all that, almost overnight:

"To get up in front of complete strangers of varying age groups, varying occupations...and you think `My god. This time last year I was doing the washing up'."(3)

Blood, Sweat and Tears -- The Great Strike

On I March 1984, the National Coal Board (NCB) threw down a gauntlet to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).(4) They closed Cottonwood, a Yorkshire mine which still had several years of coal in it.

Thatcher had politically served the ruling class well. But economically she had failed -- real wages rose while the economy was declining. Her offensive against the working class movement was aimed not at the destruction of the trade unions but, rather, at their Americanisation -- the creation of a weaker, more bureaucratic, less political trade union movement, closely policed by the courts. This could only be achieved by taking on, and decisively defeating, a powerful group of workers. The miners were the obvious candidates.

The Tories had carefully planned the battle. Coal stocks were built up and the police force re-organised and trained in strike-breaking. Already the NCB had closed 23 pits in the previous year, and destroyed 21,000 jobs. With Cottonwood, the Yorkshire miners knew it was fight now or never and they reacted swiftly. Flying pickets brought the rest of Yorkshire to a stand-still. Kent and the traditionally militant areas of South Wales and Scotland followed. But in Nottinghamshire (Notts), and other areas, a large percentage of miners remained at work. From the beginning the strike was deprived of solidarity and unity.

This need not have happened. Flying pickets from Yorkshire were initially very successful at picketing out the Notts miners, particularly when they were allowed to talk to them to put their case. But they were up against two obstacles. A massive police operation set out to prevent the pickets from gaining access to the working miners. …

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