Untold story of international help in 1984-85 miners’ strike
- Category: Trade Union Reporting
Such was the divisive nature of so much of the news reporting of the 1984-85 miners’ strike – and media concentration on picket line violence – that there was often little coverage of the remarkable solidarity shown by the international trade union movement.
Pit Props, a new book examining the strength of international support during the dispute, seeks to put the record straight. Editor Granville Williams says it tells the story of the magnificent response of fellow trade unionists around the world.
Nicholas Jones, a former labour and industrial correspondent, who reported the strike for BBC Radio, compiled a diary of news reports of help and assistance from overseas during the miners’ year-long struggle.
For the first time for 30 years he re-opened his file marked “miners’ international solidarity”, and it took him straight back to the events surrounding the largely under-reported, but totally unprecedented action by other mining unions and the wider international trade union movement.
There in front of me were a pile of radio scripts and notes, together with an extensive and disparate collection of press releases and yellowing clippings from newspapers, magazines and trade union journals, all telling the story of what without any exaggeration was a magnificent international response by fellow trade unionists and sympathisers.
The defiant, all-out struggle of those on strike in withstanding for a year the full force of the British state, and the resulting plight of their families, generated a level of financial and practical help that went far beyond the expectations of the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her government.
As the dispute extended from summer into winter, and the spontaneous flow of humanitarian assistance steadily increased, the greater was the potential shame for Mrs Thatcher, which, as a consequence, explained why the unparalleled international backing for the miners was always underplayed, and often ignored by the Conservatives’ allies in the mainstream news media.
The National Union of Mineworkers, for so long the shock troops of the British trade union movement, had an unrivalled reputation at home for supporting trade unionists in dispute. Rarely was there a workplace confrontation, in factories or the public services, where the NUM had failed to respond when asked for help and encouragement.
Internationally the NUM was held in the highest esteem, especially in countries where mineworkers were exploited, ill-treated or lacked trade union recognition. Indeed, the miners’ union could always be relied upon to rally to their cause, a debt that was about to be handsomely repaid.
Initially the NUM sought international recognition for their dispute and union-wide backing for attempts to limit the amount of coal that they feared might be imported into Britain in an attempt to weaken the effectiveness of the strike.
Attempts to enforce sympathy action to stop shipments to UK ports were nowhere near as successful as the union’s leadership had hoped or expected; in fact, the rate of coal imports rose significantly during the strike.
Although companies at the forefront of the international coal trade succeeded in thwarting trade union attempts to impose a blockade, workers across the world went to extraordinary lengths to express their solidarity.
Vast sums were raised to help the NUM meet the cost of sustaining picket lines at pits around the country, and also for providing financial help for the strikers’ families. The total amount raised abroad ran into millions of pounds, but there are no published figures.
Initially donations went either to NUM headquarters, or straight to area offices in the coalfields, but in early October, after a High Court ruling that the strike was unlawful on the grounds that there had been no pit head ballot, the union established the Miners’ Solidarity Fund to ensure hardship money could not be sequestrated by the courts.
Arthur Scargill told me that he had taken several steps to “protect the NUM’s remaining assets” as the union itself was in debt, and there was “nothing left for the courts to seize”. The solidarity fund was a “separate legal entity”, under independent control, and had been set up in the name of three independent signatories, David Blunkett, the leader of Sheffield City Council, and two Sheffield Labour MPs, Bill Michie and Richard Caborn.
Of all the gestures of solidarity, perhaps the support that had the greatest practical impact was the exceptional level of humanitarian assistance aimed directly at alleviating family hardship, action that did more than anything else to raise hopes and sustain beleaguered mining communities.
Food and clothes arrived by the lorry load; containers packed with boxes of tinned food and basic household necessities; miners’ children were invited to spend their school holidays in the homes of trade unionists across Europe, and even further afield. Never before had the British union movement witnessed such an unbelievable outpouring of international support...a shipment of 100,000 chickens from Denmark; tens tons of raisins from Afghanistan; Christmas toys from France; and so the flow of sustenance and gifts went on and on, week after week.
By the turn of the year I had accumulated sufficient background information about the world-wide efforts to support the NUM that I suggested to the editors of BBC Radio 4 that there was enough material to sustain a half-hour documentary charting what was clearly an unprecedented degree of international solidarity for a strike in Britain.
“Solidarity with the NUM” was broadcast on 17 January, 1985, and included interviews and reports from various BBC foreign correspondents. Their accounts reflected the great diversity of international support, and the absolute determination of so many trade unionists to stand shoulder to shoulder with the NUM.
My starting point was a story-line that I had been researching for some time: false bills of lading were being used to provide cover for ships that were carrying coal from Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Ghent, and that were being diverted into small unregistered ports along the east coast of England.
Interviews with the skippers and crews of ships unloading coal at Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea in Essex revealed the lengths to which the importers were prepared to go to make money out of the pit strike.
Two contrasting interviews underlined what had been a stake. Malcolm Edwards, the National Coal Board’s marketing director, claimed the NUM’s appeal for international solidarity had failed: coal imports during 1984 were twice that of the previous year.
But Peter Heathfield, the NUM’s General Secretary, insisted that the impact of the miners’ struggle on trade unions around the world had been “tremendous”, and they had responded “magnificently”.
My diary of international solidarity is a digest compiled from my own broadcasts, news stories and notes, and also from a vast personal archive of press clippings, plus other background information that I accumulated during the strike. While by no means comprehensive, I offer a selection of stories that illustrate the strength of international support, and some fine writing by journalists reporting the strike.
Wivenhoe, Essex – Kent miners started picketing the dock gates at Wivenhoe, Essex, one of five privately-owned ports along the River Colne estuary, where freighters carrying coal from Germany and Poland had begun to unload. The aim of the pickets was to turn back lorries sent to collect the coal. Within days convoys of unmarked trucks were arriving at the two largest ports, Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea, which both relied on non-union labour. In her book, Strike Breaking in Essex, Moira Abdel-Rahim, said Wivenhoe became the focus of picketing because the port was co-operating with haulage companies employing lorry drivers prepared to cross picket lines. “The police response was immediate. Every early morning before 5 a.m. from mid-April a fleet of 18 white police transits could be seen travelling at high speed through north-east Essex in the direction of the five ports.”
Over 50 “flying pickets” from South Wales joined Kent miners at the gates to Wivenhoe port.
Miners from Durham join the mass picket at Wivenhoe. In his Wivenhoe Diary, published by The Guardian (25.7.2015), Martin Newell described the welcome the strikers were given by local residents. “Two young Geordies I met are staying with Mrs W. I’ve been told she really fusses over them. Clean white sheets, meals on the table – the whole bit. Makes my own mattresses and doss-bags look a bit shabby I suppose, but the lads don’t seem to mind.”
Paris – NUM President, Arthur Scargill, and General Secretary, Peter Heathfield, flew to Paris to call for support for the strike from members of what it was hoped would become the International Federation of Miners and Energy Workers. The NUM’s aim was to persuade trade unions in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to put pressure on their governments to stop coal exports to the UK. Scargill had taken a leading role in moves to establish a new international federation that included unions in the Communist bloc. In May 1983 he walked out of a meeting in Essen, West Germany, of the pro-Western Miners International Federation, based in London, vowing to create a truly “universal international mineworkers’ organisation” that included both Communist and non-Communist unions, an international for both east and west. The trip to Paris followed unsuccessful attempts by the NUM to persuade the Polish government to stop sending coal to Britain. “Mr Scargill already has the support of the British seamen’s union, and he hopes that through international pressure it may be possible to stop all coal imports, including those from Poland, and also get a ban on oil shipments to the power stations.” (Nicholas Jones, BBC Radio News, 19.5.1984).
Calais – Two hundred children of miners on strike set sail for Calais for a three-week holiday provided by miners in the French Communist-led trade union CGT. The children, aged 11 to 15, were heading for trade union holiday centres and the homes of French mining families. They had been taken to Dover in coaches that were driven by TGWU members donating their time, and that had been provided by the Scottish, Welsh, North West and Yorkshire and Humberside regions of the TUC. Ferry tickets for the children were obtained by the National Union of Seamen at the best possible travel discount from P&O shipping. The holidays had been made possible by the support and generosity of not only other trade unions, but commercial organisations as well. Labels and badges for the youngsters in transit had been donated by the printers Macdermott & Chant; Thomas Cook had provided ticket and passport wallets; and the French tourist office had contributed maps and tourist information. (NUM press office)
“Arthur’s men get free hols in Russia! ‘Goodwill’ by Red unions” said the headline in the Sun over a report that “striking miners and their families” were being offered free holidays “behind the Iron Curtain”. Russia’s mining unions had picked up the bill for 100 pitmen and their wives and children to spend a fortnight at a Black Sea resort. “The Reds will pay for all air fares and accommodation as a gesture of goodwill...Yorkshire NUM officials have taken up the offer and plan to hold a grand draw next month to find the lucky winners.” (Martyn Sharpe, Sun, 18.8.84)
BBC monitoring service reported that intercepted broadcasts from Moscow State Radio said that Ukranian miners had raised 50,000 roubles (£46,000) for their British counterparts following appeals for donations to help the strikers. Bronislav Myakota, a Russian radio commentator, said an aid fund had been established and invited donations through any savings bank or branch of the state bank. Reports of the Ukranian donation followed news the previous week at the TUC conference in Brighton that Bulgarian unions had donated in the region of £20,000. Tass news agency said placards carried by miners in the Karanda coal region in Soviet Kazakhstan sated: “We shall not let our class brothers be strangled by hunger and repression.” The mass-circulation newspaper Izvestia described Arthur Scargill as an uncompromising working class hero. It praised his unwavering determination to defend his members’ right to work and quoted him as saying there could be no compromise in a struggle which had led to 5,000 arrests, 2,000 wounded and two deaths. (The Times, Daily Telegraph, 15.9.84)
Pitsunda, Georgia – A group of 150 striking miners and their families left Gatwick on their way to an all-expenses-paid holiday at the Georgian Black Sea resort of Pitsunda, organised and paid for by the Russian mineworkers’ union. Before boarding an Aeroflot aircraft at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, Derek Reeves, a Yorkshire NUM official, was quoted by The Times as having told Soviet media of their gratitude to Russian miners for having shown their “class solidarity in deeds rather than words”. So many strikers and their families had wanted to accept the offer of a two-and-a-half-week holiday at the luxury health resort that they had been chosen by lottery. They were each given 30 roubles (nearly £30) in spending money. Among them was Margaret Ricalton, a Northumberland miner’s wife, from Ashington, with her 12-year-old daughter Tracey. She told the Sunday Times: “It’s the chance of a lifetime. I’ve never been further than Yarmouth before.” For Mrs Ricalton, who has been struggling to keep her husband, Tracey and nine-year-old son Mark on £29 a week for more than six months, the holiday was a much needed break. (Sunday Times, 30.9.84; The Times, 2.10.84)
Frankfurt (Reuter) – The West German engineering and metalworking union IG Metal is to give DM 350,000 (about £93,500) to the children of striking British miners.
Prague (Agence France-Presse) – A group of 40 striking British miners and their children arrived here yesterday at the invitation of the Czechoslovak miners’ union to stay in holiday homes in the Tatra mountains. The union has organised efforts to send five tonnes of food to British miners.
Tokyo – The Japan Coal Miners Union voted at its conference to send money to Britain’s striking miners in a show of sympathy and support. Robert Whymant, The Guardian’s correspondent, said the gesture was all the more impressive because the union was fast losing members as the coal industry shrank and was preoccupied with placing hundreds of miners who had been unemployed since Japan’s third largest mine closed three years ago. Only 20 mines, all in private hands, are still being operated in Japan, employing 18,000 workers. In the early post-war period 300,000 men worked in the industry with an output of 55 million tons. Despite their hardships, the union’s 12,000 members donated 65 pence each to help the British strikers. (Guardian, 9.10.84)
Barnsley – A cheque for around £5,000 was handed over to Yorkshire NUM area officials at their headquarters in Barnsley by Robert Privee of the Dutch trade union centre OVB.
Strasbourg – A banner from the Blaenau Gwent lodge of the NUM – proclaiming ‘United We Stand. Divided We Fall.” – was held aloft by South-East Wales MEP Llewellyn Smith at a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. As Mr Smith held up the banner, the Merseyside East MEP Les Huckfield, tried to raise the miners’ cause under a point of order. When Mr Huckfield began listing statistics of arrests of miners’ pickets, Conservative MEPs abandoned any pretence at self-control and started booing and catcalling. After uproar lasting for a few minutes, Mr Huckfield’s microphone was switched off, but not before he had completed his rallying cry: “We brought this sacred emblem of the South Wales miners to the chamber, and that is an indication of how strongly we feel about the issue.” (Morning Star, Guardian, 11.10.1984)
Paris – A convoy of more than 30 lorries containing food for British striking miners and their families converged on the outskirts of Paris to the strains of the first “Victory” bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for a 200-mile drive through the mining villages of northern France to the Channel ports. Four hundred tonnes of foodstuffs and medical supplies, worth an estimated £50,000, represented the largest overseas shipment of provisions for the strikers’ families. The provisions had been collected from all over France by the Communist-led CGT which represents about half the country’s 56,000 miners. The supplies included potatoes, coffee, sugar, cooking oil, and babies’ nappies, all items specifically requested by the NUM. The CGT, which intends to hand over a cheque for £10,000 together with the food, has already paid for 200 miners’ children to spend three weeks’ holiday in France. The previous week Mrs Anne Scargill, wife of the NUM President, had toured French coalfields to raise funds. (David Cross, The Times, 13.10.84)
Calais – Kent NUM President Malcolm Pitt and the General Secretary of the National Union of Seamen, Jim Slater, were on the dockside at Calais to meet the CGT’s convoy of lorries as they assembled at the port ready to board the British ferry St. Christopher. The 35 lorries were accompanied by 800 French workers who were given a rousing send-off as they set sail for Dover. In a short speech before they boarded the ferry, the CGT general secretary Henri Krasucki criticised the British government. Speaking from a platform on the quayside bedecked with French and British flags, and a joint CGT-NUM banner supporting the strike, he condemned Margaret Thatcher for cutting off family allowances and punishing the strikers: “The police have formed special repressive brigades to unleash violence in the mining communities. British miners no longer have enough food to eat, enough money to clothe their new-born babies, or to bury their dead.” In faltering French, Pitt told CGT members that Mrs Thatcher was “the parrot of President Reagan, perching on his shoulder”, preaching the same militarist and imperialist policies. “There is blood on British coal,” shouted Mr Pitt, to chants of: “Thatcher is a fascist” from among the crowd. On its way to Calais the long procession of lorries had lumbered through the straggling villages north of Arras on a tour of French mining communities. “Outside the town hall of each mining village with names like Bully les Mines or Billy les Montigny, the convoy stopped briefly to present the local mayor with a gilt medal to commemorate the CGT’s generosity. Copies of the medal, complete with red, white and blue ribbons, were later put on sale to union members at about £4 a time as they munched sausages and bags of chips in a carnival atmosphere on the quayside at Calais.” (The Times, 15.10.1984). The convoy drove on to the ferry to a rousing chorus of the Red Flag and three cheers for the striking miners. The St Christopher left Calais in blazing sunshine, under blue skies, and the atmosphere of solidarity was felt immediately the huge delegation was on board. “As the white cliffs of Dover came into view, a roar of pleasure rose from the throats of the 800. The French blue, white and red tricolour, the British Union Jack and the red flag of the CGT fluttered in the light breeze.” (Morning Star, 15.10.1984).
Hull – The Danish cargo ship Libra, chartered by the Danish Seamen’s Union, docked at Hull carrying foodstuffs, including baby food and badly needed nearly-new children’s clothing for mining communities. The 200-tonne delivery of humanitarian assistance was organised by the World Federation of Trade Unions, and paid for by workplace collections in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Bulgaria, Denmark and Sweden. A team of 30 TGWU Hull dockers unloaded the ship in just under four hours and gave their services free of charge, as did seafarers, dockers and crane drivers in Copenhagen and Rostock in the GDR. At the quayside miners from Yorkshire, Northumberland, Durham and Derbyshire joined dockers, seafarers and representatives of the WFTU in toasting international solidarity with bottles of Danish lager. Owen Briscoe, Yorkshire NUM General Secretary, praised a “wonderful act” of international friendship that would always be remembered by British miners and their families. Seref Kaura of the WFTU secretariat presented a message of support and a donation from the All Indian Trades Union Congress, which was collecting among its three million members. Several letters from Swedish schoolchildren expressing support for the mining communities arrived with the ship.
Dover – A 20-strong reception committee from Kent NUM were at Dover harbour to meet the St Christopher as it arrived with a convoy of 35 lorries containing 400 tons of food in a goodwill gesture by French trade unionists. The lorries were accompanied by a large contingent of French union officials led by General Secretary Henri Krasucki. He told the reception committee that the gift of the food was an act of solidarity: “In putting our feet on British soil our first thought goes out to the British miners, to their wives and families.” One of the 3,000 Kent strikers, Mick Carey, 36, married with two children, who was in the welcoming committee, offered his thanks. “The food is definitely a help, but the solidarity they are showing means more to us than that. It shows that they are thinking of us over here.” Paul Harris, a staff reporter for the Press Association news agency, described the scene at the dockside as the Kent men greeted the French contingent: “For many of the miners it will certainly have been the first time they have been kissed on each cheek by a lorry driver.” (Press Association, 13.10.84)
Aylesham, Kent – The Snowdown colliery miners’ welfare hall was packed – and so was the car park outside fitted with loudspeakers – when Aylesham became “the world centre for international solidarity” as Kent NUM welcomed 800 members of the French CGT. Morning Star reporter Harry Samson described why the Kent pit village would never be the same again. “On Saturday evening it was invaded by the French. But no protests were made because unlike William the Conqueror, they came to give not to take.” The Times was equally impressed by what its reporter David Cross said was a show of solidarity by a contingent from “France’s Communist-led union CGT, who had ventured briefly on to British soil” to hand over a huge consignment of provisions. “In the end, it was not Mr Arthur Scargill, the British miners’ leader, but 30 French lorry drivers in their jeans and leather jackets who stole the show in the Kent coalfield where the biggest rally so far in support of the seven-month strike took place at the weekend.” British and French families mingled together, French miners wearing their working clothes and helmets; a Kent miner’s wife with a wide-eyed baby. Malcolm Pitt, the Kent NUM area president, “bravely, but competently speaking in French”, introduced the platform. Speaking first, Kent area secretary Jack Collins, recalled the French miners’ strike of 1948 when men of Kent sent food across the Channel in their time of need. Augustin “Tintin” Dufresne, France’s miners’ leader, stressed that his union would never fail the NUM. “We are both victims of the same policies of the same class. Your battle is ours and we will continue to do everything within our power to help you to victory.” Arthur Scargill, the NUM President, had been expected to address the rally, but was held up in London by talks at the conciliation service ACAS, and the final speaker was Henri Krasucki. “In the face of extreme hardship and brutal repression, the British miners are showing the courage, dignity and endurance which are part and parcel of the greatest traditions of the British people. “Finishing his speech and visibly moved, he said, the CGT – which had received 200 miners’ children in France this summer – would make a similar effort for the coming Christmas. Then, handing over a cheque for nearly £60,000 he shouted in English the miners’ slogan: ‘Here we go.’ The miners’ chant which went on for several minutes must have been heard for miles.” (Morning Star, The Times, 15.10.1984)
Dover – A consignment of foodstuffs collected by the CGT that had been impounded overnight at Dover by British customs authorities was finally released and distributed among mining communities in the Kent coalfield.
Hull – Most of a 170-tonne consignment of foodstuffs sent by trade unionists in the Soviet bloc remains impounded at Hull docks because of a government ruling that it contravenes Britain’s strict import regulations. The food was unloaded from the Danish cargo ship on October 13, but was seized by Customs and Excise officers, and sealed in a warehouse on the instructions of the Ministry of Agriculture because it infringed regulations designed to keep out highly infectious animal diseases. The ship’s agent had been told the food must be re-exported or destroyed within 14 days. Impounded food included canned meat from Russia and Eastern Europe and egg and milk powder from East Germany. However, condensed milk and fruit-based baby foods from Russia have been allowed to leave because they complied with the regulations. (BBC newsroom, Leeds, 19.10.1984)
Hull – A renewed attempt to get customs clearance for 30 tonnes of essential foodstuffs held for a week in a bonded warehouse in Hull docks were dealt a fresh blow when customs officials demanded £12,000 in duty for the release of the consignment. Tom Sibley, London representative of the WFTU, said the blocking of the food, and the attempt a week later to levy “enormous import duties”, was an “act of petty bureaucratic malice”. A spokesman for the ship’s agent said the meat products in the Libra’s cargo had no hope of being admitted because of the risk of spreading salmonella and foot and mouth disease.
Hull – Foodstuffs sent to Britain by Russian and East European trade unionists finally hit the road after being loaded on to lorries at Hull. Chris Jones of the Derbyshire NUM executive had to pay over £11,000 in import duties and levies to secure the release of the food. But 43 tonnes of tinned meat, and powdered milk and eggs, remained impounded prior to re-export or destruction.
Broadcasting House, London – Along with other journalists I was informed mid-evening by the BBC’s newsroom of an exclusive story in the early editions of next day’s Sunday Times that would reverberate for weeks, and keep the spotlight turned firmly on the NUM’s international links. “Scargill: the Libyan connection” said the front-page banner headline over a report by the paper’s Insight team into the “Secret visit to Tripoli by top NUM official”. Roger Windsor, the NUM’s chief executive officer, was photographed arriving at Frankfurt airport on a flight from Tripoli after having met the Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi. Later television pictures emerged of Windsor embracing Gadaffi in his bunker, grainy footage that became one of the defining images of the final stages of the strike. Almost eight months into the dispute, as the return to work was gathering pace, Scargill was already on the defensive. News of the NUM’s Libyan adventure, perhaps like no other story, was about to test almost to breaking point the patience of many in the wider labour and trade union movement. In April, Britain had broken off diplomatic relations with the Gadaffi regime after the murder of Woman Police Constable Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan People’s Bureau in London. The revelation that the NUM had sent Windsor to seek support and assistance in Tripoli provoked outrage among politicians and trade union leaders. I was under no illusions about the likely source of the story: it had all the hallmarks of a tip off to the Sunday Times from the security services. Labour correspondents had known for months that the miners’ leadership were under constant surveillance, so Scargill had taken an enormous risk in authorising Windsor’s trip to a regime linked to terrorist acts. The Sunday Times’ report revealed in great detail the extent to which the movements of Scargill and Windsor had been monitored, listing the flights they had taken, including one from Manchester to Paris where they met a Libyan delegation, and where the arrangements were made for Windsor’s visit. My immediate task that Saturday evening was to seek the union’s response, and assess the reaction. Nell Myers, NUM press officer, told me that Windsor went to Tripoli to see Libyan trade unionists in the hope they could help provide money, food and clothing for the strikers. “Arthur Scargill has always said the NUM is ready meet trade unions in any country to see if they can offer assistance.” She promised a full statement later that evening. My own NUM contacts around the country had no knowledge of the Libyan trip, and I was advised by the BBC newsroom in Glasgow that the NUM Vice-President, Mick McGahey, did not know about Windsor’s meeting with Gadaffi until Scargill was approached by a Sunday Times reporter during an NUM march in Edinburgh. “Scargill told McGahey ‘We have run into some trouble over Libya’, and apparently McGahey was furious.” Just after midnight Scargill released a statement in the joint name of the Miners’ Hardship Fund and the NUM. He said that since the start of the strike the union had accepted invitations to visit well over 50 countries to explain the campaign against pit closures, and seek financial support for the families of striking miners. On October 8, he and Windsor went to Paris to meet Alain Simon of the CGT, who was also the Secretary General of the Miners’ Trade Union International. “We also met a number of delegations which were in Paris, including representatives from Hungary, Libya and the Soviet Union. Our General Secretary was invited to attend a conference in Prague, and our Chief Executive Officer was invited to meet trade unionists in Libya to explain and discuss the NUM’s campaign to save pits and jobs. Both invitations were accepted. Our union welcomes any financial contributions from trade unionists anywhere who support our campaign.”
Arthur Scargill was still fighting his corner, justifying Roger Windsor’s visit to Tripoli as the morning news bulletins caught up with the Sunday Times’ exclusive. He recorded a lunchtime interview for Radio 4’s World This Weekend, standing by his earlier declaration that the NUM “would welcome assistance from trade unionists anywhere, while miners, their families and their children are suffering terrible hardship”. Gordon Clough, the presenter, then challenged Scargill to explain whether he thought Libyan trade unions were “entirely separated” from the Gadaffi regime – a challenge the NUM would face repeatedly as the day progressed:
Clough: And you genuinely think that any cheque that you get from the Libyan trade unionists is not financed by the Libyan government?
Scargill: And what gives you the right to say anything other?
Clough: I think we’d better leave it there.
Scargill: Why? You’re not only interviewing me, you’re making assertions that you can’t back up by any facts whatsoever and I think that’s really deplorable on the part of a BBC interview.
Clough: I could refer you, Mr Scargill, to the human rights handbook which says that trade unions in Libya are under constant pressure from the government to merge the national socialism with the Islamic state.
Scargill: Well, what you’re saying is, of course, that trade unions are under pressure. That obviously suggests that what I am saying to you is correct and that what you have been suggesting to me is not.
Clough: Mr Scargill, thank you very much indeed.
During the interview, Scargill had insisted that the NUM had not received “one single penny” from the Libyan trade unionists, but by repeating the union’s willingness to accept money from “trade unionists anywhere” he angered still further the new TUC General Secretary, Norman Willis. Since succeeding Len Murray at the September Congress, Willis had largely kept his counsel over the continuing disquiet over violence on picket lines and the inter-union divisions caused by the pit strike, but the diplomatic silence he had maintained for almost two months was about to end, and for the first time he intervened directly to challenge Scargill’s leadership of the dispute. He demanded a categorical assurance that the NUM would not ask for, or accept support from the “odious tyranny” in Tripoli. In a statement later, Willis said he had expressed to Scargill the TUC’s condemnation of the meeting with Colonel Gadaffi, and for having created the impression that the NUM was “prepared to consort with a government which is heavily implicated in terrorist campaigns outside its own borders”. Fearing many more damaging headlines once the daily newspapers followed up the story the following morning, the TUC press officer Brendan Barber, was at pains to emphasise that Scargill understood the damage that had been done to the miners’ cause. “We hope the undertakings we have been given by him will dampen down the row. We have received an assurance from the NUM that the union neither sought, nor have they received, nor would they accept any money from the Libyan regime. In Libya trade unions only operate as part of the Gadaffi structure. So within the spirit of the Scargill undertaking, it was made clear by Scargill to the TUC that he would not accept any money from Libya that had the Gadaffi label.” Nell Myers told me the NUM appreciated the fact that the TUC had checked its facts, unlike she said the Labour leader Neil Kinnock who had immediately sought to dissociate himself from the NUM’s contacts with Gadaffi’s “vile regime”. Kinnock said accepting any offers of assistance would be “an insult to everything the British labour movement stands for”. Ms Myers stressed that “shaking hands with Gadaffi” was not the reason Windsor went to Libya. “The fact that he got enrolled into being welcomed by the head of state was not something that Windsor thought would happen. These visits don’t usually lead to such handshakes. Roger never had it in his mind that this would happen, but he was told the unions would like to present him to the head of state. Roger said that was ‘fine, OK’...but the showing of Libyan television pictures was not something premeditated.” Her explanation did not satisfy many senior voices in the trade union movement. George Henderson, a TGWU national officer, told me Scargill had done irreparable damage to the miners’ cause. “It is easy to make out a case for direct contact with union people in Libya, but film of Windsor embracing Gadaffi in his bunker is just too much to expect people to accept, especially when Libya is accused of shooting a policewoman in London.”
Brendan Barber’s efforts to publicise the unprecedented rebuke that had been administered by the TUC General Secretary made little impact in a tsunami-like flood of hostile headlines in the morning papers. “OUTRAGEOUS” was the one-word banner headline across the Daily Mail front page; “Outrage” said the Daily Star over a picture of the moment the miners’ union executive officer Roger Windsor was “kissed on the cheek by Gadaffi”; “Blood money fury” fumed the Sun; and the Daily Mirror followed suit, “Rage over Scargill’s Libyan connection”. Paul Routledge, labour editor, had the splash story on the front page of The Times for his account of how the NUM President “suffered an unprecedented public rebuke” from Norman Willis. Routledge noted that under TUC pressure, Scargill had “backed down from hard-line statements suggesting the NUM would accept aid from any international source”. The speed with which the Secretary of State for Energy, Peter Walker, had “rushed into print” to condemn the “supposed terrorist subsidies” paid to the NUM was highlighted by Mick Costello in the Morning Star’s report. “This engineered row strongly suggests foreknowledge...Indeed, it is no secret among Fleet Street journalists that Mr Walker maintains direct contact with a number of newspaper editors, to whom he feeds anti-NUM propaganda.” In his report, John Bulloch of the Daily Telegraph’s diplomatic staff, said the flaw in Scargill’s justification for the visit was that there were no unions in Libya as they had been replaced by People’s Committees. “Back in the late 1960s unions began to be organised in Libya during the rule of King Idriss. When Colonel Gadaffi seized power in a coup in 1969, one of his first acts was to dissolve them all.”
A transcript of Roger Windsor’s conversation with Colonel Gadaffi was reproduced in the Daily Mirror under the front-page headline “The Poisonous Embrace”. It had been obtained from Libyan Television and JANA, the official Libyan news agency, and was reproduced alongside the Mirror’s exclusive interview with the Libyan leader. The transcript suggested that the NUM’s chief executive officer had indeed sought financial assistance:
Windsor: I must tell you, Colonel Gadaffi, that in Britain miners’ families are a target of hunger and hardship reaching the extent of their inability to feed their children and bury their dead. We need all the money that you can send us through the Libyan trade unions.
Colonel Gadaffi: Please convey to Mr Scargill and the executive of British miners our warmest sympathy with the striking workers who suffer from abuse and exploitation at the hands of the British ruling class. Please also convey to the NUM and its workers Libya’s solidarity in their struggle to gain their legitimate rights...and finally, I can confirm that the Libyan trade unions will contribute substantial cash to enable you to win the struggle against Mrs Thatcher the American lackey. We shall make sure that the money is sent to you into a foreign bank account.”
In his 30-minute telephone interview with the “crazy Colonel”, Mirrorman Clive Entwistle tried without success to establish whether any money would be sent to the NUM. “Although I asked him three times if he would provide financial aid for Mr Scargill, Colonel Gadaffi ducked the question and replied: This is for trade unionists here in Libya. I know they want to support their British friends against a disgraceful regime’.” (Daily Mirror, 30.10.84)
Over 100 miners’ children have been invited to spend a holiday at the West German miners’ holiday centre at Miesbach, Bavaria. The West German miners’ union extended the invitation as a mark of international solidarity with Britain’s striking miners. The union is to pay all costs including fares and incidentals during the holiday period in December and January at a total cost of £27,000. (Morning Star, 1.11.1984)
Tilbury, Essex – A whip-round among the 18-man crew of the container ship Australian Venture raised £512 for the miners’ strike fund while she was berthed at Tilbury. The Seamen’s Union of Australia decided in October to give £22,000 to the NUM, making a total of £47,000 since the dispute began. Greek seamen gave the NUM £15,000, and the New Zealand Seamen’s Union paid for six tons of lamb to be distributed to hard-pressed miners’ families. (The Seaman, NUS, November 1984)
Congress House, London – At the launch of a fund to alleviate the hardship being suffered by striking miners and their families, the TUC General Secretary, Norman Willis, thanked trade unions around the world for contributing to their appeal. The TUC Miners Hardship Fund, which included among its five trustees three of the UK’s leading churchmen, had already amassed £240,000, most of which had been sent to Congress House by overseas trade union centres. Among those who had made donations were FNV in Holland, LO in Denmark and union centres in Finland, Canada and Japan. Mr Willis said that even small countries like Bermuda had made contributions to the relief of hardship. “One New Zealand union with only 5,500 members has sent a donation of more than £7,000. An appeal has been made by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and by the European TUC to their affiliates and it is expected this will provide a continuing source of funds.” The three church leaders who agreed to act as trustees were the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, the Most Reverend Derek Worlock; the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Reverend David Sheppard; and the Moderator of the Free Church Federal Council, the Reverend Dr Howard Williams. Willis said money sent to the TUC fund at Congress House would be passed directly to the Miners’ Solidarity Fund in Sheffield to be distributed within the coalfields. (BBC News, 6.11.1984).
Trade unionists from northern Italy said they had collected about $8,000 (£6,350) in two days for Britain’s striking miners. (The Times, 16.11.1984).
Vietnam – Vietnamese miners have demanded that Britain immediately end what they called “all acts of persecution and terror” against striking British miners, said Radio Hanoi. About 9,000 miners rallied on Thursday and Friday to support the eight-month-old British strike and to demand the release of all arrested miners, the radio, monitored in Bangkok, said. (Reuter, 18.11.84)
Dalkeith, Midlothian – NUM Vice-President Mick McGahey issued a forthright declaration of thanks for the help striking miners were receiving from miners in the Soviet Union. “They are proud and grateful for it”, said McGahey, who was responding to a campaign that was attempting to smear the NUM for accepting “Russian gold”. He told a rally that Britain’s miners had received from “our Soviet comrades” a total of 1,138,000 dollars (£903,000) worth of support. These donations included £500,000-worth of food and clothing from Ukrainian miners, the remainder being made up of collections for the miners’ hardship fund. McGahey emphasised that the solidarity between British and Soviet trade unionists went back a very long way. British miners were among the first to send a delegation to the young Soviet Union in 1924. “We have always remembered the contribution the Soviet miners gave us in 1926. In Scotland it was called the ‘Russian hauf croon’. This union is proud of our internationalism, and we welcome and are grateful for donations coming from Soviet trade unionists.” (Morning Star, 19.11.84)
Toronto – Contributions from Canadian trade unionists were “beginning to roll in” to support Britain’s striking miners, said the Ontario director of the Steelworkers’ Union, David Paterson. No count had yet been made, but one branch had decided to send $1,000 (£602) a month, and he predicted Canadian trade unionists would have “no problem” raising a million dollars. Mr Paterson’s union is organising a speaking tour by Brian Dakin, 44, a striker from Castleford, Yorkshire, who worked at Fryston colliery. Mr Dakin, and his wife Irene, have completed the first week of a three-week tour organised by Canadian unions who paid their fares and are putting them up at members’ homes. So far Mr Dakin has spoken to groups of union members in half a dozen cities and appeared on two of the three nationwide television networks. (Daily Telegraph, 19.11.84).
South Africa – After advertisements aimed at striking miners started appearing in British newspapers offering jobs in South African gold mines, union leaders have warned the British men that if they emigrate they might face conscription into the South African army. An advertisement by Rand Mines published in the Daily Mirror offered jobs in the Orange Free State or the Transvaal for underground electricians in possession of a shot-firers’ or deputies’ certificate. Unions representing 200,000 black workers in South Africa’s mine and metal industries say they are concerned about the possible take-up for the advertisements, and have appealed to miners on strike in Britain not to emigrate. According to the International Metal Workers’ Federation, the black unions have said that all whites who emigrate to South Africa face conscription into the South African army, and could be used against local black workers. (Press Association, 22.11.84).
Rome – At a press conference addressed by Anne Scargill and Barnsley Miners’ Support Group secretary Marsha Marshall, Italian unions said they had now raised over £55,000 in solidarity with British miners, and the bulk of the money had already been sent to the UK. Officials of CGIL, CISL and UIL, announced the total that had been raised following an appeal by the three union confederations in October. Truckloads of food, clothes and toys have also been sent to Britain, and a hundred miners’ children, aged 10 to 15 have been invited to Italy for Christmas. (Morning Star, 12.12.2015)
Cologne – Over £8,700 has been collected by West German workers in Cologne where a miners’ support group has been set up. The rank-and-file initiative received the backing of the important Cologne branch of the West German engineering union IG Metal. The major portion of the money was from collections at workplaces, and a quarter was raised through collections at the engineering centre of Ford Cologne.
Edinburgh – “Vive La France” is the cry today of Scottish miners and their families after the delivery over the weekend of a mountain of toys. Eyes widened in amazement at the Macdonald Road library off Leith Walk, Edinburgh, as three wagon loads of gifts were unloaded. The packing cases bore the legend: “300,000 colis aux enfants des mineurs Britannique. C’est notre solidarite.” (Three hundred thousand parcels for the children of British miners. That’s our solidarity). Some of the boxes were open, so it was instantly clear these were really good presents, the kind you give your own kids when (and if) you’re in the money. Trucks, dolls, bears, prams, games in cartons four-feet square were passed hand-to-hand down a double line of French and Scottish miners under the beaming eyes of Scottish NUM President Mick McGahey, and his old friend, Augustin Dufresne, General Secretary of the miners’ CGT. The weekend delivery was the first batch of 100,000 items, in a total of 300,000, and the Scottish collection goes out from storage in the Edinburgh library hall to some 90 strike centres in a colossal distribution operation. After the delivery, Mr Dufresne completely captivated a 2,000 strong audience in the Usher Hall, describing how the French mining communities had given “from the bottom of our hearts.” The French miners (CGT) had made a commitment at Dover harbour on October 13 – when they brought a 40-lorry convoy of food and a cheque for 700,000 francs – that every British miner’s child would get a CGT toy for Christmas. “We have kept our word.” Mr Dufresne may not be aware of how frustrated the miners are about the inaction of some British trade union leaders, because he mentioned very casually, as if it was of little account, that CGT workers had dumped thousands of tons of coal bound for Britain on a railway line. He looked surprised by the outburst of applause, but was similarly low key in telling the audience that CGT dockers were this weekend refusing to load coal for Britain. Mr Dufresne explained that British and French miners had the same cause of defending their industries, jobs and communities against destruction for their own profits by multinationals and monopolies, through the EEC and its member states. Victory for the British miners would be their victory too, because it would “checkmate” these anti-coal policies in the EEC. The French mining communities’ sympathy was deep and response immediate, because of the “most severe repression from batons, prison and that vile weapon hunger” which their British brothers and sisters face. Bourgeois class justice was stealing the assets of the NUM. The bourgeoisie did not hold back from anything, even crime, when its privileges were threatened. But, said Mr Dufresne, “Mrs Thatcher must be afraid of your fight, and what follows from it, to fall so low”. The Christmas gifts were a message of solidarity and admiration. “You are not alone. You have thousands of sisters and brothers everywhere who will do everything they can to help.” Mr Dufresne was guilty of untypical understatement, when he described the gifts as “modest”. Everybody thought they were magnificent, and in the Usher Hall they told him so with a prolonged and rapturous standing ovation. (Scottish Correspondent, Morning Star, 17.12.84)
Vatican City, Rome – Anne Scargill recorded an interview for Radio Vatican’s Four Voices programme, a round-up of news and features broadcast on five continents. She told listeners why British mineworkers are on strike. Four Voices, transmitted in English, French, Spanish and Italian, is intended mainly for visitors to Rome and throughout Italy. The programme is also translated into possibly as many as 30 languages and broadcast around the world on the Vatican’s World Service. (Daily Mail, 18.12.84)
Black South African miners have sent financial support for their colleagues on strike in Britain. North Staffordshire miner Roy Jones has brought back an initial 500 Rand donation after a visit to the South African NUM, along with many messages of support. He said the money, worth around £200, represented around three months’ wages for a black South African miner. (Press Association, 17.12.84)
Hull – A Danish coaster, the Berth Bjorn, carrying 200 tons of Christmas toys and clothes for striking miners’ families and children, docked at Hull after a crossing from Copenhagen. The cargo, unloaded without pay by TGWU dockers, included shoes, winter coats and sweaters, plus 50,000 toys. The gifts had been collected over a ten-day period following an appeal issued by the Danish Seafarers Union. Trade unionists in Denmark established 174 collection centres. The scale of the response to the request for solidarity with the mining communities, and the support this had received from children especially, had amazed the Seafarers Union, said its President, Henrik Berlau. As the appeal gathered pace, advertisements were placed in Danish newspapers stimulating an even bigger response. Unemployed workers who helped to collect and transport clothes and toys to Copenhagen, sacrificed their unemployment benefit to do so. The ship was chartered by the Seafarers Union with assistance from the World Federation of Trade Unions. Waiting on the dockside for the Berth Bjorn to dock were Jim Slater, General Secretary of the National Union of Seamen, and a large contingent of Yorkshire miners and their families, led by the Yorkshire NUM General Secretary, Owen Briscoe. Mr Slater said the support for the strikers’ families from children in other countries who had learned about their hardship showed that the miners’ struggle was one that had backing from the “whole international working class movement”. Mr Briscoe praised the support shown throughout Scandinavia which had been “fantastic and second to none”. Yorkshire NUM executive member Brian Conley said the clothes and toys would be distributed among the families of the 53,000 striking miners in Yorkshire, and would help mitigate the effects of the tremendous hardship they faced. “It will put smiles on our children’s faces and bring home the fact that our communities are not isolated.” Tom Sibley, London representative of the WTFU, said all its affiliated organisations had pledged to continue supporting the British until the “victory they deserve” is achieved. “International aid is pouring in to ensure that miners’ families, particularly children, get a little extra at Christmas.” (Press Association, 19.12.84; Graeme Atkinson, Morning Star, 20.12.84)
Geneva – An audience of several hundred Swiss citizens were “hanging on every word” of two Yorkshire miners’ wives when they “spoke simply and plainly about the privations being suffered in mining communities”. One of those present was Denis MacShane, then policy director of the International Metal Workers’ Federation (and later Labour MP for Rotherham) who put to good use his previous experience as a reporter for BBC local radio. MacShane’s report of what he said was “one of the strangest public meetings Geneva had seen in years” was published by the New Statesman. In a country that had not witnessed a serious strike in half a century, and where public policy was aimed at consensus, full employment, a high standard of living and planned growth, the words of Margaret Coulson, Sheena Stapleton and Peter Kitchin, all from Upton in West Yorkshire, were far removed from Swiss consciousness. “To a woman who asked smugly why the British government had not been overthrown as a result of the strike, Margaret Coulson replied: ‘We’re not trying to overthrow the government. We’re fighting for our jobs.’ They referred freely to ‘scabs’ – that sharp Anglo-Saxon epithet coming over poorly in French as ‘travailleur jeaune’ and described what they had seen with their own eyes of police behaviour. A doughty old English lady who raised the question of violence against working miners was put down with cheers by a balding ‘soixante-huitarde’, who snarled about the brutality of ‘les flics de Madame Thatcher’. Whatever else is the result of the strike, the television portrayal in most West European countries of British police in action against the miners means that the century-old image of ‘le bobby et son fair-play’ is forever dead. In fact, the international image of Britain has suffered immensely because of the miners’ strike...Even the Mayor of Geneva was tucked away discreetly in a corner, leaving diplomatically before someone proposed that Geneva twin itself with Doncaster, or some other strike-hit town...Questions about Scargill’s relationship with the Soviet Union or his lack of support for the Polish miners in Solidarity were turned away by the three Britons with remarks ‘Those are questions for a top official. We are here representing our people.’ Most of the questions were directed to the two women about how they fed their children or whether they faced eviction, what they would do to celebrate Christmas. Geneva holds many meetings for political refugees from Third World countries, but the discussions then tend to be about high politics, imperialism, multinationals and the like. Here there was an open fascination about daily survival in the pit communities of northern England. As they left, the Swiss pressed 100 franc notes – worth about £33 – into the hands of Margaret and Sheena. Small change in Geneva, a lifeline in Upton.” (Denis MacShane, New Statesman, 28.12.84)
London – At a presentation sponsored by the Friends of Afghanistan Society a cheque for £10,000 was handed over for the NUM from the Central Council of Afghanistan Trade Unions. The cheque was accompanied with the promise of a gift of ten tons of raisins that could be given to the strikers’ families, or auctioned to raise money. A letter from the Council’s President, A S Purdeli, expressed the praise of Afghanistan workers for the heroism of British coal miners and the “rude and cowardly acts of repression” they faced. In November, thousands of miners in the Karkar and Doodkash coal mines, located 180 miles north of Kabul, had adopted a resolution that denounced the “inhuman acts of British imperialism and the demands of the Thatcher government.”
Tenby, South Wales – I was reminded of the bonds forged during the strike with mineworkers from around the world when there was a two-minute standing ovation at the NUM’s 1986 annual conference in Tenby for two surprise fraternal delegates, the two most senior officials of South Africa’s NUM, its President, James Motlatsi, and General Secretary, Cyril Ramaphosa. The two men had evaded arrest two weeks earlier when the South African government imposed a state of emergency that led to the detention of nine of the union’s national and regional officials. Motlatsi and Ramaphosa had avoided the police by hiding in safe houses, and had managed to leave South Africa without revealing they were travelling to Britain. The aim of their visit was to encourage British miners to do more to persuade the TUC to get workers to ban the handling South African goods, and to launch a union-led campaign to put pressure on Mrs Thatcher’s government to impose economic sanctions against apartheid. The 300,000 black miners in the union – which took the name NUM in tribute to the militancy of their British counterparts – were about to start a series of stoppages at gold mines and collieries that could grow into an all-out strike against the emergency laws. Mr Motlatsi (35), a miner himself, told the conference that South African miners worked at above 40 degrees centigrade for about £86 a month. They worked an 11-shift fortnight, and often put in more than 10 hours a day without overtime. The compounds where they lived 30 to a room in hostels were ruled like barracks, and tear gas canisters were available to the authorities in case of strike action. Mr Ramaphosa (34), said that the support of the British working class “would probably be decisive” in winning their battle. He was disappointed by the response so far of the TUC, which he thought had been “vacillating” over South Africa and should be taking a “much more revolutionary” approach. “So you can impose sanctions against South Africa. The working class will never suffer from that. We have suffered for more than 300 years and we are still suffering now.” The two men, whose families remained in South African, said that they expected to be arrested on their return and punished for daring to speak out about the conditions in their country. Arthur Scargill had told me the night before the unannounced appearance of Motlatsi and Ramaphosa that the miners’ conference would once again be making headlines. He smiled with satisfaction as he accompanied two black union leaders on President Botha’s wanted list on a round of television appearances, including interviews for the BBC World Service, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and a live satellite link from Tenby to America for CBS.
Pit Props is to be launched at an all-day event, With Banners Held High, at Unity Works, Wakefield, on Saturday 5 March 2016