10 March 2014
By Tim Wetherell, an employment lawyer at UNISON who has also worked for trade unions in Australia
On 10 February 2014 Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the creation of a Royal Commission into the governance of trade unions. Controversy surrounds the decision primarily because of the extraordinary powers of a Royal Commission to gather evidence, the open-ended nature of the government’s terms of reference and its thinly veiled political benefits to a conservative government.
31st March 2014
Roger Jeary, Former Director of Research at Unite the Union
I find it hard to believe that 30 years have passed since the commencement of the 1984/85 miners’ strike. The meetings, the rallies and the collections are still quite vivid in my mind. And of course the violence both direct and indirect meted out by government and police and portrayed daily on the news media.
But for workers and trade unions the question arises what did we learn from that dispute and what would we do differently today. Last Saturday the Trade Union Forum of the History & Policy Group convened a research gathering at which the audience heard from miners who were there, politicians of the time, journalists who reported the events and leading industrial relations academics. Listening first to miners and leaders of the NUM from that time I was struck by their clear view that the actions that took place had to happen. Whole communities and thousands of jobs were under threat and the alternative was to do nothing. Neil Kinnock, recently elected labour leader then, was unsurprisingly critical of the leadership of the NUM but offered little practical alternative given the stance and strategy of the Thatcher government. Academics pointed to the ways in which other countries had followed a similar policy of reducing coal capacity but without the battles incurred in the UK, and also importantly, without the destruction of communities.
Prof Keith Ewing told the audience that Thatcher did not actually use the recently enacted trade union and employment legislation but rather used subterfuge through encouraging and supporting individual miners to challenge the NUM in the courts on the basis of breaches in the union rules. So was this a strike that could ever succeed? With hindsight it has to be said that it was unlikely. The methods adopted by the NUM of mass picketing were remnants of the previous decade when such tactics had indeed been successful. But much had passed by since then, not least the ‘winter of discontent’, an election of a Tory government and a recent re-election of that same government only the previous year. The fact that an initial plan to close pits had been announced and dropped in a matter of days in the early 1980s once strikes were threatened was a clue to the recognition by Thatcher that a strategy to defeat any strike had to be developed. So when 1983 arrived with a new plan for pit closures, coal stocks had been built up, private contractors hired to deliver imported coal signed up and the police mobilised on a national basis.
Media coverage both written and visual was prominent in setting public opinion against the miners with the exception of the Morning Star. In the absence of social media and personal mobile phones, a true picture of what was happening was never broadcast and thus popular support for the mining communities and abhorrence at police and state violence never investigated.
Today it would be different. It could be said that trade unions have become more ‘media savvy’, employ large media teams to present their policies and views and are quite adept at using social media to get their points across. It could also be said that the miners’ strike of 30 years ago showed the way for unions to involve the community in their battles, a development that is increasingly recognised by unions today as essential to build support for campaigns. But one lesson perhaps we have not learnt. In 1984 other trade unions and their members lent financial support to the miners but industrial support was not forthcoming in any major way. (Lord) John Monks (a legal officer at the TUC during the strike) admitted at the gathering that the TUC had deliberately held back at the beginning of the strike remembering its unhelpful involvement in the 1926 strike, and whilst it issued a statement of support at the September Congress that year he recalled it was described at the time as “giving Scargill a blank cheque but forgetting to sign it”.
It is perhaps unlikely that the events of 1984 will ever be repeated in the UK. However to think that the strike has no relevance to today’s trade unionists would be a mistake. The weakness imposed on trade union activity by today’s laws still need to be redressed; an understanding of how the importance of wider community support in disputes provides sustenance to long term action; and a media strategy is even more important today with the advent of round the clock news coverage and social media.
Perhaps most importantly is the ability to build a structural political relationship capable of being sustained during difficult industrial restructuring which delivers the appropriate support and protection to workers and their families before, during and after the event. It was this approach which ensured that similar restructuring in Germany and other parts of Europe did not lead to the disruption and heartbreak such as that suffered in mining communities across Britain as a result of the cruel and callous attack on the industry and its workers by Margaret Thatcher’s government.
Wednesday 19 March 2014
A one-day conference
UNISON centre, 130 Euston Road, London NW1.
Following the introduction of far-reaching changes to employment tribunals practice and procedures, this timely IER event provided information and analysis of changes to dispute resolution and access to justice.
14 March 2014
By John Earls, research section head at Unite the Union
This article first appeared on Left Foot Forward