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Last updated:28 April 2015

Mining unions - and the 1984-85 miners' strike

Miners Federation of Great Britain

Prior to the post-WW2 nationalisation of the mining industry, and the creation of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1945, the mining unions were organised into the Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB).

Badge celebrating the centenary of the National Union of MineworkersThe MFGB effectively dates from 1908, when it comprised an affiliated membership of 600,000 - although it was founded at a conference in Newport in 1889 various organisations, eg Durham Miners' Association, did not affiliate until 1908. 

The basis of organisation lay in the colliery lodges. The Federation had no organisational control over the domestic affairs of its affiliate units. The 22 districts of the MFGB retained their own powerful autonomy, which was one of the causes of Spencerism* in the Nottinghamshire coalfield, a situation that recurred in the 1984-85 strike with the creation of the Union of Democratic Miners in the same area.

* George Spencer was an official of the Nottinghamshire Miners Association who led a breakaway from the MFGB in 1926 at the height of the General Strike.  Called the Nottinghamshire and District Miners’ Industrial Union and based mostly in the Dukeries district at the eastern end of the Nottinghamshire coalfield, it lasted for 11 years before merging with the Nottinghamshire Miners Association as part of the MFGB.

National Union of Mineworkers

National Union of Mineworkers badgeIn January 1945, the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain became the National Union of Mineworkers.  The old district unions became administrative areas of the NUM with which they had a new legal and financial relationship.  It was an industrial union negotiating directly with the National Coal Board and, after privatisation in 1987, with British Coal. It included coalmining staff, chemical workers and coke men.  Within the NUM each coalfield continued to exercise a degree of autonomy, having its own District Association, President, General Secretary and headquarters.

The NUM took part in three national strikes in 1972, 1974 and 1984-85.

Originally, a national strike required a two thirds majority.  This proved near impossible to achieve with only 55% in 1970 and 50% (crucially) in 1984.  Also, regions could call their own strikes.  Militancy varied across the country and animosity was common between areas.

In 1974 the miners’ strike came to an end when Harold Wilson’s newly formed second Labour government acceded to the miners’ pay demands.  Prime Minister Ted Heath had called an election with the slogan ‘Who rules Britain?’, implying that the trade unions - especially the miners - needed to be challenged.  He lost the election.

Justice for mineworkers plateThe 1984-85 miners' strike lasted a year and was one of the longest and potentially most damaging industrial disputes ever seen in Britain.  It was called on the basis of Arthur Scargill’s warnings that the government of Margaret Thatcher was intent on effectively closing down almost all of the coal industry in the UK.  It has been argued that she had a political agenda and that it was not just an economic decision.  Certainly her talk about the ‘enemy within’ and the way in which the police were used during the dispute supports this idea.

On 5 March 1984 some local strikes began at Cortonwood Colliery and other Yorkshire collieries over pit closures that had been announced by the Conservative Government. On 12 March, Arthur Scargill, President of the NUM, called a national strike. There was some controversy over the legality of the strike as a national ballot was not held. In some areas of the country such as Nottinghamshire miners did not join the strike.  Famously the leader of the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, refused to give the strike his full support because the strike did not have the authority conferred by a successful national ballot.  He was also increasingly concerned about picket line violence.  

South East Regional Trades Union Congress poster in support of striking miners 1984/1985Support for the miners brought together disparate radical groups across Britain, involving more people in a greater intensity of activity over a lengthier period than any other campaign in the history of the labour movement. As with many industrial disputes it was a life-changing experience for those involved, notably the women, whose status in the mining communities changed completely.  There was also tremendous support financially, and shows of solidarity, from all over the UK and internationally.  During the year the strike lasted miners and their families suffered great hardship, many relying on food parcels, soup kitchens and other donations.

There were several violent incidents during the strike, the worst being a clash between striking Orgreave Veterans t-shirtminers and the police at Orgreave, South Yorkshire on 29 June 1984. Police charged crowds on horseback with their batons and several people were seriously injured.

On 3 March 1985 NUM delegates voted to abandon the strike at a specially convened conference. Two days later the miners returned to work.

After the strike the pit closure programme of the conservative Government continued rapidly. The strike divided some communities and families and united others, and victimisation and imprisonment went on for many years afterwards. In 2011 the NUM had just 1,855 members.

Arthur Scargill’s predictions regarding the future of coal were vindicated in the late 1980s onwards, despite valiant efforts to keep the pits open.  In 1984 there were 170 coal mines open in the UK, but by 2015 only three deep-pit mines were still open with two of those under threat of closure.

Listen here to an ex-miner talking about the effect the miners' strike had on him.


Related Objects of the Month

February 2014: LGBT History Month - 'Coal not Dole' poster from the miners' strike 1984-85

Coal not Dole posterDuring the '84-'85 strikes ‘Coal not Dole' was vocalised, printed and worn by striking miners and their supporters. Arthur Scargill had taken the decision to call a strike without a ballot and no ballot meant the action was illegal, leaving those on strike ineligible for benefits and with no income. So they relied on support groups. One of these was Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM).


March 2011: International Women's Day centenary

Drawing sent to the Lancashire Women Against Pit Closures Campaign2011 marks the centenary of International Women's Day.  The Library celebrated the occasion with a free event, Striking a Light, on Saturday 5 March. March's Object of the Month is a drawing sent by 'Isobel aged Twelve yrs 9 months' to express solidarity with the Lancashire Women Against Pit Closures Campaign in 1993.


March 2010: Miners strike, cards of support

Miners' Strike support cardMarch's object was chosen by Bethan Murray, volunteer: “I chose this collection of 5 cards, created by the group Artvists from Barnsley, Yorkshire, as I feel they are a great way to show support and to make the public aware of the situation in the mining communities. With their eye-catching images of the events through out the strike and bold colours, they draw people in to look at the contents inside."


March 2009: Miners Strike, 25th Anniversary

Arthur ScargillMarch's object was a satirical figurine of Arthur Scargill. Kate Hart, Project Archivist chose this month's object: "I like this statue for its satirical look. The statue is wearing miners' clothes, holding a pick in his right hand and has a candle burning on his cap of liberty. You may not recognise his face but the mining symbols leave you with little doubt that it is Arthur Scargill, the leader of the Miners' Strike."


Resources in the Library about the mining industry and its unions

Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, Annual reports 1893, 1898, 1900-1944 - Shelfmark: T15

Lancashire and Cheshire Miners’ Federation, Annual reports 1897-1944 (not complete) - Shelfmark: T20

National Coal Board, Memoranda of agreements 1945-1986 (not complete) Shelfmark: T19

National Union of Mineworkers, Annual reports 1945-1957, 1968-1991 (not complete) - Shelfmark: AF Mining Box 5

Miners' strike 1984-85:

Personal accounts including:

Norma Dolby, Norma Dolby's diary: an account of the great miners' strike (1987) - Shelfmark: FR01

David John Douglass, A year of our lives: a colliery community in the great coal strike of 1984/85 (1986) - Shelfmark: H32

R Forbes, and D Smithson, Feelings alive '84/85: poems of the miners’ strike in Durham (1986) -  Shelfmark: AE Miners Strike Box 6

Jackie Keating, Counting the cost: a family in the miners' strike (1991) - Shelfmark: S45

A large box containing a pasted-up collection of locally-generated leaflet material, press cuttings etc

A collection of over 100 posters

Our mining periodicals collection includes copies both of The Miner, produced by the National Union of Mineworkers, and The UDM Miner, produced by the Union of Democratic Mineworkers

Post 1985:
National Union of Mineworkers, Nottingham area, Gedling branch: branch records
1985-1993 including minutes, letter book, cash book and other papers (Shelfmark AF Mining Boxes 7-18)

Archive of Lancashire Women Against Pit Closures – two banners, plus 14 boxes of material from 1992 LWAPC bannerto 1995, including letters of support and letters sending donations, minutes and accounts, media including publicity materials, literature relating to Parkside Pit Camp, petitions, address lists and visitors' book, papers relating to fundraising, videos, photographs, poetry and songs (Shelfmark AG LWAPC)

Search the catalogue for more material about the 1984-85 miners' strike, and mining unions more generally.


Resources held by the Modern Records Office

Other records are held at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick:

Mineworkers' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) and its constituent associations/National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) (MSS.45/MFG, MSS.429/MFG, MSS.822/MFG, MSS.1018/MFG)

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