UK miners' strike (1972)
The 1972 UK miners' strike was a major strike involving a dispute between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Conservative Government of Edward Heath over pay, which began on 9 January 1972 and ended on 28 February 1972 when the miners returned to work. The strike was called by the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the NUM and ended when the miners accepted an improved pay offer in a ballot. It was the first time since 1926 that British miners had been on official strike, but there had been a widespread unofficial strike in 1969.
The background and issues in the strike
The strike occurred after wage negotiations between the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board had broken down. It was the first time since 1926 that British miners had officially gone on strike (although there had been unofficial strikes). The dispute was caused by the issue of pay. In 1960, according to one study, “miners, of whom there were still half a million in 1960, enjoyed historically unprecedented standards of living.” According to another study, while the real net income of an average miner in 1957 with a wife and two children was approximately 22% above that of his male counterpart in manufacturing, this fell to approximately 2% below the manufacturing figure in 1969. During the Fifties, the wages of miners went up from a pre-war position of 84th to near the top in the league table of the wages earned by industrial workers, and by 1960, miners’ wages were 7.4% above the average pay of workers in manufacturing industries. During the Sixties, however, miners’ pay fell behind other workers, and by 1970 were earning 3.1% less than the average worker in manufacturing. During a parliamentary debate on the strike in its second week, both Labour and Conservative MPs praised the miners for the forbearance shown during the mass pit closures in the 1960s.
The National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers did not strike. Following some confrontations with NUM pickets, the National Coal Board adopted a policy of giving leave on full pay to any members of NACODS who would face aggressive intimidation on the way to work.
The strike was characterised by the use of flying pickets sent to other industrial sites to persuade other workers to strike in solidarity with the miners, which led to railway workers' refusing to transport coal and power-station workers' refusing to handle coal. Power shortages emerged and a state of emergency was declared on 9 February, after the weather had turned cold unexpectedly and voltage had been reduced across the entire national grid.
A miner from Hatfield Colliery near Doncaster, Freddie Matthews, was killed by a lorry whilst picketing on 3rd February 1972, which led to a huge crowd at his funeral. The non-unionised lorry driver had mounted the pavement to pass the picket line and struck Matthews in the process. In the aftermath of the death, the picketing in the Doncaster area became more violent with clashes reported with the NACODS members at Markham Main and Kilnhurst. This led Tom Swain, Labour MP to Derbyshire North East, to remark "This could be the start of another Ulster in the Yorkshire coalfield." He threatened to "advocate violence" if an immediate statement were not made on Matthews's death.
The strike lasted seven weeks and ended after miners agreed to a pay offer on 19 February. This offer came after the Battle of Saltley Gate, when around 2000 NUM pickets descended on a coke works in Birmingham and were later joined by thousands of workers from other industries in Birmingham.
The result was characterised as a "victory for violence" by the Conservative Cabinet at the time, in reference to some clashes between miners and police, and to some throwing of stones and bottles at lorries trying to pass the pickets.
The planned strikebreaking force
A volunteer force was planned in Scotland to break the miners' pickets during the strike, it has emerged under the thirty-year rule, which shows that civil servants, police, local authorities and other organisations worked on a secret project to gather hundreds of drivers to supply the country's power stations.
A Royal Air Force base was to be used for the unit. They were to have between 400 and 600 trucks and drivers. Fire brigades were also contacted to provide off-duty staff and volunteer groups to cater for the coal convoys. The role of the volunteers was to drive in convoys to break the picketlines blocking the supply of coal to the Scottish power plants. The plans were never put into the place, because the dispute was brought to a close.
- UK miners' strike (disambiguation)
- British Film Institute - Film by Durham Police on the 1972 strike showing the policing of picketing, which focused on protecting members of NACODS as they arrived at work
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