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Striking back

03/11/2014

Frickley 1

Unless, like me, you’re a regular peruser of the Northern Premier League’s website over your morning cereal, you may have missed one of the more heartwarming football stories of the last week or so. Towards the end of February, Frickley Athletic’s clubhouse was broken into and ransacked with the thieves making off with the club’s television and a considerable amount of stock. It might not sound much in the context of the riches of the Premiership but clubs at this level are often run on very tight budgets and reliant on the graft of dedicated volunteers. They can ill afford acts of mindless vandalism.

On hearing the news, FC United of Manchester’s General Manager Andy Walsh put Frickley in touch with FC United supporter Tim Worrall of Airwave Europe. Tim is a stalwart of FC’s southern supporters’ branch, regularly driving a minibus to games and a nicer bloke it is difficult to find. He quickly arranged for a replacement refurbished telly to be delivered to the club. In a similarly generous act, supporters of Whitby Town produced a number of Frickley-badged mugs and mobile phone cases that they donated to the club to raise funds.

Like many northern football clubs, Frickley Athletic FC was born from a team of workers at the former Frickley colliery. The pit, at its height in the 1930s, employed over four thousand people and was regarded as one of the most militant in Yorkshire. Of a workforce of over two thousand in 1984 only four broke the strike and when it ended in March 1985 the miners at Frickley stayed out a few days longer than most of their NUM colleagues. Sadly the pit, which about a quarter of the town relied on for work, closed in November 1993.

Miners strike

It’s a reminder that the miners’ strike began thirty years ago this month. On 1st March 1984 the National Coal Board announced the closure of Cortonwood colliery and twenty other pits with the loss of twenty thousand jobs across the industry. Some local strikes began on the fifth and by the twelfth of the month a full-on national strike had been called.

The strike lasted for over a year and Paul Foot in his brilliant book The Vote described it as “the greatest act of sustained defiance in the history of British labour”. More than 165,000 miners walked out on strike. The miners and their families suffered great hardship but a groundswell of support from across the country brought food, money and clothing to mining communities.

Contrary to popular historical revisionism, the miners didn’t have a choice about when the strike should start; the Thatcher government prepared thoroughly for the strike and provoked it on its own terms and at a time of its choosing. Nicholas Ridley, one of Thatcher’s closest allies, drafted the so-called Ridley Plan which aimed to avenge the defeats that Tory governments had experienced at the hands of the miners in the early seventies. Thatcher was clear that she wanted to defeat the miners in open conflict. The Ridley Plan involved, amongst other things, building up coal stocks before a strike and organising the police service into a mobile national “anti-strike” force.

Miners strike Wales

As a fifteen year old watching the media coverage of the strike there are two words that I distinctly remember being repeated over and over again. One was “uneconomic”. And the other was “undemocratic”. We were constantly told that the twenty pits to be closed were uneconomic and therefore must be shut down. In addition we were assured that there was no intention to close more pits. The ones being closed were simply those that were unprofitable. The National Union of Mineworkers’ leader Arthur Scargill disagreed vehemently and claimed the closures were part of a wider plan to destroy the coal industry. Scargill has, of course, been proved right and sadly, once proud, former mining communities across the country have struggled with unemployment and social problems ever since.

The label “undemocratic” was thrown at the NUM and Scargill throughout the strike for not balloting members. Nowadays trade unions can’t sneeze without holding a ballot but the Tory onslaught on the unions was still gathering steam in 1984. The reality, at the time, was that the careful Tory planning for the strike had imposed incentive deals on miners. Ironically miners had voted against these incentive deals. The deals gave miners at profitable pits big increases in pay at the expense of workers in other pits and had the secondary effect of significantly reducing the likelihood of all miners voting in favour of a strike. This was something that Scargill understood. But what was he expected to do? Stand by and watch the industry be destroyed?

What we witnessed was a different form of democracy in action as groups of striking miners travelled far and wide to persuade other miners of the case for striking. As Bob Crow once said “democracy is not a spectator sport”. It’s about more than simply putting a mark on a piece of paper every four or five years. This was participatory democracy in action; one miner trying to convince another, face to face, of the need to come out on strike together. The right wing press, predictably, labelled it as “bullying”.

Women Against Pit Closures

Paul Foot reckoned that “the strike produced a convulsion of thought and democratic ideas that far exceeded anything unleashed by the processes of electoral democracy”. Many mining communities had tended to be insular but the strike had an extraordinary impact on miners and their families as support came in from often unexpected sources; from ethnic minority communities and gay and lesbian groups in urban areas in the south for instance. In addition, women and, in particular the Women Against Pit Closures movement, played a hugely important role in the dispute. As a result of the strike, many miners became  keen to understand, not simply the immediate issues of the strike, but also other matters outside their areas and country.

This awakening of working class communities to what was going on around them stretched way beyond mining areas. For many of a certain age, including myself, the miners’ strike represented a political coming of age. The first time that many people had stopped to think about politics and the affect of political decisions on their own lives. It was a liberating feeling. The strike ultimately failed as the government, big business, the police, the media and the courts threw everything they had at the miners and their families. But, if nothing else, the miners’ strike taught us that collectively people can tackle big business and over bearing governments and transform society. It showed that another world is possible and set a template for working class movements to organise and make a stand.

In my dreamier moments I like to think that FC United of Manchester, the only visible sign of resistance to the hostile takeover of Manchester United nine years’ ago, have grasped the mantle laid down by the miners and their families. That telly in the Bigfellas Clubhouse at Frickley. It’s not just any old telly. It’s wrapped in the cockle warming, radical thinking, loveliness of working class solidarity.

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From → Politics, Sport

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