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30th anniversary: the Battle of Orgreave

Thirty years ago in the Yorkshire coalfield, thousands of striking miners and their supporters faced an army of riot police intent on smashing the union and demoralising the pickets. Chris Clough looks back on and asks if the battle could have been won

By May 1984, the miners, in their tens of thousands, had been on strike for nearly 12 weeks over plans to close dozens of pits in what was rightly seen as a political attack on the UK’s most militant section of workers.

In many ways the strike had reached a stalemate. The police, using tactics usually reserved for the north of Ireland, had managed to keep some pits working in the Midlands. These working miners had initially come out on strike after being picketed out, but the police were then used to block the pickets from talking to the scabbing miners and thereby facilitating a return to work.

The British state was using increasingly authoritarian tactics to achieve its aim, including mass arrests and blockading the whole of Nottinghamshire.

The National Union of Miners (NUM) was in a difficult situation. Coal stocks were high and a minority of miners was continuing to produce coal under police protection. If the miners were not allowed to picket in Nottinghamshire, then coal would continue to be mined and they couldn’t hit profits at the point of production. So it was decided to hit coal profits at the point of use, by targeting industries that relied on scab coal.

The Orgreave coal coking plant, which turned the coal into usable fuel for Scunthorpe steel works, was identified as the main target. Many workers and truck drivers were sabotaging the strike by handling scab coal, despite the brave stand taken by the railway workers and many dockers in refusing to do so. So the plan was to call mass pickets, thousands strong, to block the scab lorries and starve Orgreave, and therefore Scunthorpe Steel, of coal.

‘Turn Orgreave into Saltley!’
In the 1972 Miners’ Strike, a coking plant at Saltley had been closed through pickets of miners supported by engineers from Birmingham. The key to their success was the strike of 40,000 engineering workers. They flocked to Saltley and outnumbered the police, who were forced to close the gates. Working class solidarity had humiliated the Conservative government. The Tories would spend the next 10 years learning the lessons and preparing for revenge, whereas the rank and file network that made Saltley possible would become a distant memory.

The ruling class, and especially the Tories, never wanted a repeat of Saltley and so the police had to be reorganised and radically altered. Police across the country were regimented into a national strikebreaking force run by the National Reporting Centre, accountable to Thatcher. Officers from different regions could be deployed in military-style operations to combat mass pickets. The British state was preparing a militarised police force to take on the vanguard of the working class, a force which would be used to devastating effect in the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike.

The Battle of Orgreave
Full-scale picketing of Orgreave started on 25 May. The police mobilised over 2000 officers in riot gear, and used horses and baton charges to keep the coke plant open. Hundreds of picketers, including NUM president Arthur Scargill, were arrested in these set piece battles, and many picketers suffered serious injuries.

The showdown at Orgreave happened on 18 June. More than 5000 riot police, with dozens of horses and attack dogs, appeared on the battlefield, whereas the miners turned up in t-shirts and trainers, unaware of the planned police attack. At first many described the atmosphere as peaceful – until the police charged on the picketers. Most of the police hid their identification numbers. Without any notice, the police lines would break and dozens of horses charged down miners – and the police mercilessly beat those that couldn’t run.

Picketers were chased into the village, while dozens of unconscious bodies were left lying in the street; attack dogs were let off their leads to savage people. This was a conscious attempt to terrify the picketers, regardless of the damage. Although many ended up in hospital with severe injuries, such as broken legs, arms and ribs, it was lucky no one died. Scargill was one of 59 injured.

The fear of charging police and bloody truncheons soon turned into indignation and anger. Many miners resisted after fleeing the field; they built barricade after barricade, setting them on fire if the police tried to take them. They threw rocks and glass at police lines, pulled down telegraph poles and rolled them down hills to oncoming police thugs. To stop the police horses charging the miners, they strung barbed wire across the road; they also set up stakes and “tank traps” to halt the police.

Neither the sporadic defence nor the disorganised charges of the miners were enough to win the day against a well-oiled military machine. The first lesson learnt by miners on this day was that the police had changed their tactics and organisation since Saltley. What the miners needed now were dedicated defence squads, disciplined and well equipped, which could form their own wedges to penetrate police lines.

As one miner from Merthyr Vale put it: “We learnt from Orgreave. We’ve got to be a lot stronger, got to beat them like they do us. I’ll go mass picketing again, only better prepared; not in daps and t-shirts but protected and armed.”

The crucial missing element that made Orgreave different from Saltley was solidarity strike action from other workers. In 1972 Arthur Harper, president of Birmingham East District AUEW, invited Scargill, as leader of the Yorkshire miners, to make a request for assistance. This became a recommendation for strike action and a march on Saltley. No similar approaches were made at Orgreave, despite the town being on the outskirts of Sheffield, boasting a big industrial area.

A call by Scargill directly to the rank and file for solidarity action would have made the world of difference. This, combined with constant agitation to bring in wider working class forces, could have quantitatively and qualitatively transformed the mass pickets and turned Sheffield into a centre of resistance.

Only Workers Power activists issued a call for solidarity strikes in Sheffield, but the Communist Party blocked any such call to action. The CP was an influential force on the many shop stewards committees in the area. And while Scargill called on other unions for support, he never challenged other union leaders nor called on union members to disobey leaders if and when they refused. There was a desperate need for the rank and file to bypass the CP and TU leaders’ obstruction.

Disgracefully TUC General Secretary Len Murray declared regional one-day general strikes “unconstitutional”, but in South Yorkshire a regional day of action showed the potential: “Large numbers of workers struck on the Day of Action – buses in Doncaster and Barnsley stopped; all trains were stopped through Sheffield and Doncaster; and many workers from NALGO (local government workers) and hospital ancillary workers came out. Firemen and ambulance workers only answered 999 calls, while 1000 dockers took action and a few factories closed.”

This shows that if there had been an alternative leadership to stand up when the union leaders cowered, the miners at Orgreave – who bravely faced police violence day after day – could have got the support they needed from the tens of thousands of angry workers in South Yorkshire. This solidarity and generalisation of the struggle, coupled with disciplined self-defence of the picket lines, could have sent the police running like in 1972 and dealt another blow to the ruling class, setting the miners’ strike on a different course.

Unfortunately this was not the case but the lessons the struggle provided are invaluable, and 30 years on justice can still be won for all those who were savagely beaten that day and then dragged through the courts on trumped up charges by a corrupt and brutal police force.

The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign is organising to bring those police and politicians responsible for this travesty to justice, and on 14 June this year, 30 years almost to the day, thousands of trade unionists, their families and supporters, will descend once again on Orgreave to celebrate those who were on the picket line that day.

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