August 7, 2020
Photography by Jason Shipley
Words by Karin Svadlenak Gomez
Jason Shipley is a British documentary photographer from Kingston upon Hull. For the past two years he has been engaged in a project to bring the cause of former coal miners from Yorkshire, England, to public attention. Mining is a tough and dangerous job, with high risks of accidents leading to injuries and deaths, and long-term health impacts. Jason got to know and photographed a large number of former miners and union leaders involved in the 1984-85 miner strikes, which turned into violently suppressed struggles that left an embittered long-term legacy. The dramatic events of those days and months are still being felt by the people involved. Jason feels that the miners deserve recognition for their work and the struggles they endured.
In its heyday in 1920 the coal mining in the United Kingdom provided livelihoods for 1.2 million workers. By 1950 this figure had fallen to just under 700,000 and in 1980 there were 237,000 British miners. By the early 1980s the Northeastern coal fields, which were open-cast mines dating back to Victorian times, had been in a three decade decline. The mines that had fueled the building of ships and steel machines that once powered the British Empire´s trade dominance were no longer profitable. After nationalization of those mines, more and more pits began closing. In Durham, for example, in 1947 there had been 134 mines employing 108,000 miners, but by 1984 there were only 11 mines and 17,000 miners. This trend took place all over the U.K., but the Northeastern region was especially hard hit. Where today the reasons for closing down coal mines often have to do with climate change policies, back in the 1980s closures were all about efficiency and economics. There was extensive competition in the world coal market and a move towards oil and gas for power production.
The so-called McGregor plan (after the manager of the National Coal Board, NCB) was to close 20 pits and lose 20,000 jobs to gain efficiency, but this, the miners knew, would just be the beginning. Newer, more modern mines were already producing the same amount of coal with a much reduced workforce. The NCB promised to redeployment miners from closed collieries to other sites - but on the one hand those sites would be in other parts of England, in fact uprooting the miners from their homes, and on the other hand they did not trust the NCB's promises.
The miners felt they were fighting not just for themselves, but for their entire communities, even those not employed in mining - local shop owners and service providers, who would also lose their source of income if the miners no longer had jobs. The closures of mines would turn their hometowns into blighted areas and disrupt entire communities.
British coal miners had been promised secure jobs and a future in the industry, many had bought their homes and were raising families. Their fear was that standing by and accepting the NCB´s plans would lead to a complete job loss in the long term. The NCB´s assurances that there would be no compulsory redundancies were met with distrust.
The prospect of finding employment in other types of factory work in the area seemed hopeless, as many other factories created in the 1970s now also stood empty. In some areas where local collieries (underground coal mines) had closed, youth unemployment stood at 60%. Many feared that even if they were moved to another mine, they would not be employed in their particular learned trades.
Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) from 1982 to 2002, had a key role in mobilizing the miners. “The National Union of Mineworkers do not want to go on strike,” he said. “But we are faced with an impossible situation. We either stand up and fight to protect our industry and our jobs, or we don't. We're fighting, not on a political platform, we're fighting for the right to work”. Scargill argued that closing pits that still had lots of coal in them would cost the British taxpayers twice as much in severance pay and unemployment benefits to laid off miners, than it would to keep them in their jobs and subsidize the colliery operations instead. Their fight had unwittingly become a political struggle with the conservative Thatcher government. The NCB's strategy was defined by conservative policies to end subsidies in the name of economic growth. Thatcher was abandoning the Plan for Coal that had been agreed to by a previous government in the late 1970s. A strike seemed the only possible response.
The 1984-85 miners’ strike was the longest, most bitter national strike in British working class history. For 12 months the miners fought an unprecedented battle to defend their jobs and communities against the full might of the government and ruling class. For the miners it was not just about jobs, but also about preserving their way of life. Those who went on strike did not earn any money - the NCB sacked striking miners - apart from some small union benefits that eventually ran out, and their families were ineligible for government benefits, as the Social Security Act of 1980 had banned the dependents of strikers from receiving "urgent needs" payments and applied a compulsory deduction from the benefits of strikers' dependents. So the strikers had to rely on economizing, savings, and handouts.
THE BATTLE OF ORGREAVE
One of the fateful choices the government made at the time was to send riot police to striking collieries to protect strike-breakers who crossed the picket lines. Back in 1972, the police had been overwhelmed by much larger numbers of pickets, and in the end the government was defeated by the strike. Thatcher was determined not to let this happen again. Her government enforced a law that required unions to ballot members on strike action.
Scargill had not called a ballot for national strike action. Instead, he started the strike by allowing each region to call its own strikes, and not all coal mining areas had chosen to strike. Only about a quarter of the Nottinghamshire county miners joined the national strike. In other areas it was much better supported - for example in south Wales, 99.6% of the 21,500 workers joined the action and, a year on, 93% were still not working. Nottinghamshire was the home of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM), whose members continued to work after splitting from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), arguing the strike had not been approved in a vote.
During the strike coal production dropped by more than half, but the government was prepared. They had stockpiled coal and, with supplies coming from the still working pits in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, power stations were able to stay open, thus weakening the impact the striking miners were able to have.
The strikes caused rifts not only between the miners and the government; communities, friends, family, turned on one another as some were desperate enough to go back to work — “scabs”. Striking miners lined the streets leading to pits in an attempt to stop their colleagues from going to work, shouting “scab, scab, scab” at them. The majority of picket lines were non-violent, but instances of violence directed against working miners and vandalism of their property were reported from the start. As tensions rose, a 24-year-old picket from Wakefield, David Jones, died after being hit by a brick in the Nottinghamshire town of Ollerton. Joe Green, a worker from Kellingley Colliery was also killed while picketing, accidentally struck by a trailer while trying to dissuade lorries from delivering fuel to a nearby power-station. Families were destroyed and split apart under the financial strain.
What remains engraved in people's minds though are the violent abuses the police perpetrated on unarmed miners during a June 1984 picket at the Orgreave coking plant. On that fateful day pickets had traveled to Orgreave from all over the North to try to block access to the plant by strike breakers.
In what appears to have been a planned police action, riot police enclosed strikers in a field, with riot shields and rows of policemen, dogs on one side and mounted police on the other. Documentary videos from that day show the miners using some ritual pushing tactics against police shields and throwing coals at the shields. The videos also show the police banging threateningly on riot shields, advancing against strikers, mounted police charging on horseback and chasing the miners through the field and up streets, violently clubbing and seriously injuring many unarmed fleeing pickets.
Many of the pickets were arrested and charged with “rioting”, one of the worst public order offences, at the time punishable by a potential life sentence, or with the somewhat lesser charge of “unlawful assembly”. The events were reported by most media as if the pickets had set out to purposely use force, which caused the strikers to lose the support of many people. In July 1984, Thatcher stated that giving in to the miners would be surrendering the rule of parliamentary democracy to the “rule of the mob”, referring to union leaders as "the enemy within" who did not share the values of other British people.
While the official line at the time purported government and police neutrality, an investigative report released in 2014 showed that Thatcher had in fact instructed the police to “seek a more vigorous interpretation of their duties”. In a statement, Thatcher had said,“The rule of law must prevail over the rule of the mob.” The aim appears to have been to intimidate strikers and break their spirit.
When the government charges against the miners were brought to trial a year later, the prosecution had to abandon the cases in the face of apparent inconsistencies and false evidence given in police statements. But even trumped up charges can potentially tarnish a person's record for life, despite acquittal. There was no investigation into the unlawful police conduct, nor were there any disciplinary actions against individual police officers involved. Five years later though, the South Yorkshire Police did agree to pay compensation to 39 of the miners.
“The miners fought a government that first provoked the strike and then prosecuted it like a civil war. They withstood unprecedented police brutality, travesties of justice in the courts, poverty, hunger and media harassment, holding firm for a year,” says Jason. “Almost 10,000 miners were arrested during the strike. More than 180 miners spent time in jail and 700 were sacked in its aftermath. Welfare and social services agencies were turned into a weapon by the Tories, denying miners and their families the benefits they were entitled to, in a bid to starve them back to work. What happened to these miners was a human rights abuse,” he adds. Even today some of the former miners suffer financially and emotionally, as well as physically.
The number of strikebreakers increased from the start of January 1985, as the miners struggled to pay for food when union pay ran out. When the strikes ended, tensions between strikers and those who had continued to work continued. Many strikebreakers left the industry and were shunned or even attacked by other miners.
NO JUSTICE NO PEACE
The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, members of which can be seen marching in some of Jason's pictures, is even now pressing for a full independent inquiry into the Orgreave events. According to the miners, police were colluding with the media to falsely blame the strikers for the vents and draw attention away from unlawful police action.
The representatives believe that the Orgreave events set a precedent that allowed the police to get away with similar actions in other situations of aggressive handling of demonstrators. To this day, the children and grandchildren of the miners involved in the 1984 strikes deeply mistrust the police. This neither benefits the government nor the communities themselves. A fresh start would be good for everyone. The campaigners also argue that the latest amendment to the Trade Union Act jeopardizes the right to protest in public. What the Truth and Justice campaign is asking for is proper accountability of police action. A public investigation into the affair would in their view also draw renewed attention to the history and allow the miners to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of the public, and feed into discussions about the role of the State in a democracy. Public inquiries, the campaigners hope, will help the truth come out.
After all this time the miners involved in these events still think of one another as comrades. “After 30 years the miners still check up regularly on each other for health and social related issues, I have never seen such comradeship from any bunch of workers,” says Jason. Some, such as Jason's contact into the mining community, Simon Cahill (red hat), are now counselling other workers. Edward Downes (in orange overall and white helmet) is well known in the mining community, in Jason's words "a true gentleman", a mining fundraiser and historian. Similarly, Tony Banks (in orange overall and green cap) is keeping mining ways and memories alive and raising money for mining monuments. A Dutch miner, Hans Jacobs (portrayed in a yellow miner's helmet below), even visits the UK miners regularly to support the rallies and take part in fundraising for miners' memorials. Inky Thompson (white shirt, second from left) used to work in the Barnsley coalfields and today supports and gives advice to miners.
The miners also proudly participate in the annual rally “With Banners Held High”, which celebrates the British Labour and Trade Union movement and its rich cultural heritage. Jason photographed some of the miners participating in the march in 2019.
THE END OF BLACK GOLD
History was to bear out the miners' fears. Scargill claimed in 1984 that the NCB were planning to close many more pits than had been officially announced, a claim that was denied by McGregor. However, Cabinet papers released in 2014 indicate that MacGregor wished to close 75 pits over a three year period. The failed strikes of 1984-85 were followed by a continuous decline in the coal industry as other sources of energy were increasingly being used, to a point where now only some 1000 workers are employed in the sector.
In keeping with global trends, the British government is aiming to phase out coal to reach its goal of carbon neutrality to combat climate change by 2050. What is left of the industry is thus set to further contract in the future.