THE MINERS STRIKE – 35 YEARS ON
I first moved to South Wales 33 years ago to Seven Sisters in the Dulais valley. At that time there were few ‘outsiders’ in the village but the warmth and generosity that we were greeted with was very welcome. The people that initially befriended me were miners, still then at work at Blaenant colliery, Crynant. We would spend hours in the Legion, playing pool and drinking pint after pint of the weakest beer known to man, CPA. Apart from the banter they fed me with stories and tales of life underground and inevitably the strike. These were proud men, who enjoyed the comradeship of their fellow workers and the community that they lived in. But life as they knew it was rapidly coming to an end. Pit closure was followed by pit closure as the whole industry was dismantled and with it their way of life. My friends that had been well paid miners working on the coal face were reduced to working 12 hour shifts as security guards for £1.50 per hour. A skilled, highly motivated workforce put out to grass.
Last month, inspired by Malcolm Bubb, a commemoration of the strike was held in Pontardawe Arts Centre. Following a short film, Jeremy Miles AM chaired a meeting with a panel of four, who had different experiences of the strike. He started though with an introduction to how and why the strike had started. On 1st March 1984, the NCB announced that it planned to close 20 mines with the loss of 20,000 jobs across South Wales alone. The year-long strike changed the political, economic and social history of Wales forever. For the majority of families who lived in the valleys at the time, mining had been their dominant profession for generations. Many towns, communities, friendships and Labour clubs were built because of and around the mines. Hence, the miners and their families took these pit closures as a deliberate attack on their communities as they simply had no other option of work in any other industry.
The South Wales coalfield contained the staunchest supporters of strike action. At the start 99.6% of the 21,500 workers joined the action and this only reduced to 93% by the end. Although Wales did not suffer the picket line violence seen in some other British coalfields, Welsh miners were killed on picket duty and carrying out colliery safety work and a taxi driver was killed as he took a strike-breaker to work. More than 25,000 Welsh mineworkers lost their jobs in the decade-long programme of pit closures following the strike. However, the coalfield communities in Wales still account for a quarter of the entire Welsh population.
The panel was made up of:
Sian James, the former MP for Swansea East who started her political journey during the miners strike. As a young mother and a wife of a striking miner her involvement in supporting the miners’ families was portrayed in the 2014 film, Pride.
Wayne Pedrick, left school at 16 and started work in Abernant Colliery as a coalface worker until 1986 when he became Mine Deputy. In 2000 Wayne started work part time as a brass peripatetic teacher whilst studying for a music degree. He is now manager of Cerdd NPT music.
Christine Powell was married to a face fitter at Blaenant Colliery and is from a mining family. She studied at Cardiff University and taught Physics at Olchfa School. Christine became the treasurer of the Swansea, Neath and Dulais Valley Miners’ support group, keeping the accounts and paying the bills.
Eric Davies started working in Garngoch Colliery in 1959. Eric was the Youth Delegate of the NUM. He remained on the executive until 1989 when as a result of pit closures he left the industry and went to work for another trade union as regional organiser.
The panel worked well. They all had different roles and experiences throughout the year long campaign. There was, though, still anger and bitterness against those that had betrayed them. Scabs from 35 years ago were still not spoken to today and were ostracised from their communities. When they were picketing in Nottinghamshire, they were warned that if they called anyone a scab they would be arrested. So the pickets lined up on either side of the road and on one side of it they would shout ‘Sc’ whilsts the otherside would respond with ‘abs’! The Government’s strategy had been to split the miners and undermine the NUM. So the miners on the ‘super pits’ of Nottingham were being paid £485 per week, or just under £1,500 per week in today’s money. It wasn’t surprising that they didn’t feel the need to strike.
A common theme throughout the discussion was the role of the media and the police. People were genuinely disgusted at the stance taken by the media throughout the strike. Miners were depicted as greedy and as thugs and as part of some left wing agenda that was determined to bring down the government. The reality is that they just wanted to protect their jobs and their communities. And although not all miners were saints it was the police that initiated most of the bloody battles. Protected to the hilt in their riot gear they would taunt the miners and certainly showed little compassion or understanding. It was different in Wales. Nearly every family in Wales had someone working in the industry. The valleys were coal and therefore there was far more empathy and understanding.
One of the most contentious issues throughout the strike was that it was deemed to be illegal. Although this was vigorously contested by the NUM it meant that striking miners and their families were not entitled to benefits. It meant that there was a huge effort needed to raise funds to keep the miners fed and housed. Monies came in from all directions, from pennies in collection boxes to sizable donations from other Trade Unions and celebrities. The financial pressures on families at times caused marriages and relationships to break up but in the main the resolve stayed constant.
In the end, in March 1985, the strike ended without an agreement. And the beginning of the end was in sight. A letter from a reader in last month’s magazine asked why a defeat was being celebrated? Well it wasn’t a celebration it was a commemoration. And perhaps there are things to celebrate, the spirit and resilience of those communities throughout South Wales and the opportunities and emergence of valley women that gave them the confidence to tackle new ambitions. The pits have gone but the strength of those communities remains.