Scargill recalls union victory but little to cheer now

Sat, Feb 11, 2012, 00:00

While flying pickets defeated the Tories in 1972, union membership has halved since then

LIKE OLD warriors, they gathered in Birmingham yesterday to remember a confrontation 40 years ago where they trounced a Conservative prime minister, but, perhaps, laid the seeds for their destruction.

Forty years ago, Saltley Gate coke-works was the last remaining source of fuel in southern England as Britain prepared for a three-day week brought about by coal shortages left by a miners’ strike. Following an impassioned late-night speech, the National Union of Mineworkers’ Arthur Scargill, who later became the union’s head, persuaded Birmingham engineers to close Saltley.

The closure forced prime minister Ted Heath to concede the miners’ pay demands, but, equally, its lessons formed a key part of the thinking of the Conservatives who broke the union little more than a decade later.

By 1984, Margaret Thatcher had ensured that the coal-fired power stations had record stocks before she challenged the NUM, while legislation curbed so-called secondary picketing by unions.

Near where Saltley’s gates once stood, Scargill, however, yesterday remained defiant as he urged trade unionists to oppose the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition.

Calling on trade unionists to oppose the coalition’s “attacks” on the National Health Service and the education system, Mr Scargill said: “The lesson of Saltley in 1972 was that you will not win by compromise - you will win by fighting back. “The workers who turned out on that day lit a beacon – they showed the way that working people can bring about change,” said the 74-year-old former miners’ leader.

The miners had been on strike for weeks before, seeking a 43 per cent pay increase as inflation ran high, and leaving the coal-fuelled power stations starved of supplies.

Remembering the events, Mr Scargill said: “I said, ‘You have got a choice – you can either stand on the sidewalk and watch what’s happening or you can join us and march into history’.”

Up to 15,000 engineers in Birmingham heeded Scargill’s call, downing tools and heading to blockade Saltley Gate, despite the efforts of the police to stop them.

The strangulation of Saltley’s supplies forced Heath to concede the pay rise, but it equally led other Conservatives to prepare to ban the NUM’s “flying pickets” in the 1984 strike.

Former Yorkshire NUM leader Ken Capstick told the crowd to remember that “the enemy never sleeps”, saying that Britain was today enduring the “the greatest class robbery” of the last 200 years.

“Bankers have wrecked the world’s economy and they made Las Vegas look like a haven of moderation. Working people are not the perpetrators of the economic crisis, they are the victims,” he declared.

Forty years on, however, the world has changed. Saltley Gate has long since disappeared to be replaced by a shopping centre surrounded by car parks.

Meanwhile, union membership in Britain, which hit 13 million in the early 1970s, has today fallen to 7 million – and most of those are public-sector workers. Just one in eight in the private sector is now in a union.