The Dirty Thirty

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In 2019, the phasing out of coal power as a means to generate electricity broke new ground. For a period of 18 days, Britain’s National Grid provided an ample supply of electricity to homes and businesses, without the need for activity from coal-fired power stations. Since then the government has committed to closing all coal-fired power stations by 2025.

In the 19th century, communities had formed around the mouths of the mines, with people drawn to the job opportunities afforded by the coalfields. There was an insatiable demand for coal in this period. With technological advancements and the expansion of the railways, coal production reached its peak output at the start of the 20th century. Following the Second World War, over 200,000 miners lost their jobs; in an effort to prevent further unemployment and preserve the industry it was nationalised, bringing it under government control. The National Coal Board was a feature of Clement Attlee’s Labour government, investing millions of pounds into securing a future for coal mining in Britain. However, an inevitable transition was to take hold, with competition coming from the alternative, cheaper energy sources of gas and oil. Subsidies for mines ended in the 1960s and pit closures began, signalling the start of a decades-long struggle for mining communities.

Coal has been mined in the United Kingdom for over 200 years. Contrary to government plans to close all mines over the coming years, new open cast and deep set mines have been proposed in locations across the country. Proponents of coal reference the positive medium term effects of coal mining for job creation and local investment. Those on the opposing side can draw upon the Paris Agreement of 2015, in which utilising coal in long-term energy plans would contradict the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

To prevent the planned permanent closure of the nations collieries in the 1980s, with the backing of the National Union of Miners (NUM), the workers downed tools in major industrial action. Their goal was to shut down the British coal industry, preventing further pit closures. The Conservative government was prepared for strike action by the time of the 1984 strike. Ted Heath’s Conservative government had been felled by the strikes of 1973-74, in which every mine in Britain had unified in closing. The economy had been affected by high rates of inflation and in response public sector pay rises were capped. This measure caused unrest amongst the trade unions, with wages failing to keep pace with rising prices. The NUM, representing a sizeable workforce who provided the majority of the country’s fuel, wielded vast power and influence. As inflation increased further, miners wages fell below the level recommended by the 1972 Wilberforce Inquiry. A pay offer from the NCB was rejected by the NUM, signifying the start of an overtime ban that sought to halve production levels.

In response to this, Nicholas Ridley MP of the Conservative party conducted a report, proposing how Ted Heath’s predecessor could fight, and defeat, a major strike in a nationalised industry. The report analysed the measures that would have to be taken for a government to quash long term industrial action. These preparations included increasing stockpiles of coal, training and equipping a large number of police officers with power to employ riot tactics on ‘violent picketing’ and cutting the supply of money, forcing trade unions into financing their own efforts. These measures were successfully utilised by Margaret Thatcher to defeat the National Union of Miners. The Ridley Report and the tactics adopted within its pages were leaked many years prior to the strike of 1984-85, but the NUM failed to respond and adapt in preparation. It was said that the power of the trade union was manipulating market forces and causing inflation, leading the Conservatives to restore profitability by any means necessary.

On the 6th of March 1984, led by Arthur Scargill, the NUM shut down activities across many of the collieries in Britain. The president of the NUM called for a national strike without seeking a ballot, in a move that was both illegal and deeply unpopular. Miners in Yorkshire and Kent were first to join, though the failure to seek a national referendum saw the coalfields of the Midlands boycott a national strike.

Arthur Scargill, President of the NUM during the 1984-85 strikes

The ‘Dirty Thirty’ was the name given to a band of miners from the Leicestershire collieries. Their name has lived long in the memory of the miners who took part in the year long strikes; an act of solidarity with the struggles of their brethren in the face of pit closures and job losses. Unlike many of the counties in the country, the Leicestershire pits were unsupportive of strike action. Right-wing NUM leaders aided Thatcher by orchestrating ‘scabbing’ activities in the four pits found in the county. Sympathetic to the Conservative government, the right-leaning NUM members influenced the Leicestershire workforce by encouraging them to continue working. Their manipulation is one act of many that caused lasting damage to the legacy of the trade unions, as it became evident that the strength of unions had waned.

Together, though small in number, the ‘Dirty Thirty’ were encouraged by the Labour Party Young Socialists and Militant Tendency to join picketing action across the country. The Trotskyist group Militant provided significant help to the brave minority, on hand with practical support to miners and their families. Prior to a meeting in Coalville, the striking few thought they were the only miners to come out in solidarity. Johnny Gamble, one of the ‘Thirty’, was the ‘sole striker at the South Leicester Colliery’. The strikers received physical and verbal abuse from colleagues who continued to work; the term ‘scab’ was chanted by the working majority at the few who joined the industrial action, despite the term commonly being used to describe those who continued working.

The group made significant sacrifices but their action has lived long in the memory, immortalised in socialist songs and in working class folklore. The ‘Dirty Thirty’ were a symbolic few who exhibited compassion for the national struggle, against those with power at a local level. Leicestershire’s coalfield would cease its output in 1997, when the Asfordy Mine closed. Some of the redundant miners moved to Warwickshire and Yorkshire, transferring to pits that were yet to outlive their usefulness.

The Conservative party’s ruthlessness was extreme. A significant hardship was bestowed upon the local communities; hunger and harassment were constant themes in daily life. Communities were unified however, with miners and their families travelling to other mines in solidarity with fellow picketing workers. Women’s Action Groups were a vital community asset, providing food for miners and family members that grew increasingly desperate when choked by the policies of the government. Community cohesiveness was to be quashed by Thatcher. Such strength in number; the mystique and pride in the trade unions had led to the toppling of the Tory fight in the previous decade.

With the miners' strike going on for many months, the NCB offered incentives to return to work before Christmas. The divisions formed at the start of the industrial action persisted, with alternative trade unions and the Nottinghamshire section of the NUM going on to form a breakaway union known as the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. A year after the strike was called, the NUM voted in favour of a return to work. Accompanied by the colliery bands and supportive family members, the miners returned to the coalfields defeated.