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Time to strike out anew

The fiasco of the day of action for the miners on 2 April confirms that the old labour movement is a luxury we can no longer afford, says Mike Freeman

The 2 April day of action brought to a closing whimper the cycle of protests unleashed by industry minister Michael Heseltine's announcement last October of 31 pit closures and 30 000 job losses in mining. After a six month delay, the pit closures are likely to proceed along the lines of the original announcement, while privatisation accelerates job losses on the railways and on the buses. If, as Arthur Scargill told a rally in Barnsley on 2 April, 'this is not the end of the campaign, but the beginning', then it will clearly have to be a radically different campaign from that waged by Scargill and his colleagues over the past six months.

Last October's announcement provoked a storm of protest. After months of deepening recession and government failures, the scale of redundancies in mining focused the fears of millions, not least in the ranks of the Tory Party. The result was a backbench revolt against the government and two mass demonstrations in London within a week. While some on the left hailed the long-awaited upturn of the class struggle, the government backed down on the closure plan and announced an inquiry.

On 2 April, most of the remaining miners came out on strike, and so did many railworkers. But, as union leaders had thoughtfully given the employers ample notice and selected a Friday, many workers were given the day off and the occasion was turned into a long weekend. Disruption was slight and the public impact of the event minimal. The Independent announced that the 'British disease' had 'changed its symptoms. A country of strikers has been transformed into a nation of skivers' (3 April).

Heady days

Meanwhile, at the main London rally attended by 400 people, Labour MP Dennis Skinner called for a return to the heady days of the 1970s when miners brought down Edward Heath's Conservative government. Nostalgia was rife. Miniature miners' lamps and other 'heritage' bric-a-brac were on sale from a stall at the back. In Barnsley, Scargill declared that there would be more days of action to a small and apprehensive audience.

In the months between the events of October and April, the debate over the future of the pits has raged. After carefully balancing all the vested interests, Heseltine opted for a package of closing 19 pits and keeping 12 open - if a market could be found for the coal produced. To soften up backbench resistance, Heseltine offered the possibility of 'enterprise zones' in the mining areas. Social security minister Peter Lilley helpfully announced the payment of disability benefits to miners with more than 20 years service who suffered from bronchitis or emphysema. When in the ensuing debate Tory MP Michael Grylls observed that the miners had been 'exceptionally fortunate' to have been given a chance by the government, you could almost hear a wheeze of gratitude uniting the mining areas.

While Labour's Richard Caborn, chair of the parliamentary select committee that investigated the mining industry, tried to split the difference between Heseltine and Skinner, the Tory backbench revolt crumbled. With only four votes against and three abstentions, the government won a majority of 22, compared with 13 in October. When Labour leader John Smith had his first chance to confront the prime minister on the pit closure plans, he chose to ask him about...the plight of the British film industry as revealed by the announcement of this year's Oscars.

For six months the miners had been spectators as their union leaders had waited for the Tory rebels, the select committee, the Labour front bench, the TUC, the media and assorted celebrities to come to their rescue. It was true that Julie Goodyear (Bet Lynch), Jimmy Nail and Marcelle D'Argy Smith, editor of Cosmopolitan, had remained loyal. But the prospect of any action that might save jobs had long since disappeared.

By April the only thriving initiative was the project for twinning petit-bourgeois citadels in the south to mining towns. Cheltenham linked arms with Chesterfield, Southampton with Doncaster, Eastbourne with Newark/Sherwood and Oxford with Barnsley. The Tory voters of the Home Counties who had long looked upon the miners with hatred and fear as the vanguard of the proletariat, now regarded them as a threatened part of Britain's national heritage, as deserving recipients of charity.

Far from being a 'day of action' to force the government to back down on its mass redundancy plans, the 2 April protest was a token gesture by the union leadership. It was, as the Guardian remarked, 'the last gasps of the ancien regime of industrial relations'. The degradation of industrial action was clear when the UDM, the scab union that emerged from the 1984-85 strike, announced that it was to hold a ballot on strike action. President Neil Greatrex confessed that he had been 'extremely disappointed': having been 'led to expect favourable treatment', his union had been 'kicked in the teeth'. At the same time the UDM appealed to Nottingham businessmen to close for a day in support of the miners.

Vegetative state

One outcome of the day of action that has received little comment was the announcement by British Coal that it was going to stop deducting union dues from wages and paying them directly to the NUM. The end of the 'check-off' system means that henceforth the NUM will have to collect its members dues locally. For a union like the NUM, which has been in a persistent vegetative state since the defeat of the 1984-85 strike, the end of the check-off is the equivalent of turning off the life-support machine.

The events of the past six months confirm that workers faced with threats to their jobs and conditions, in mining and in other spheres, will have to rely on their own initiatives outside the moribund structures of the old labour movement.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993



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