British Miners to End Bitter, 51-Week Strike : Conference Votes to Halt Walkout Without Pact; Thatcher Says She Is Relieved, Bars Amnesty

Times Staff Writer

The longest major strike in British industrial history ended Sunday when coal miners abandoned their crumbling walkout after 51 weeks and decided to go back to work without a settlement.

At an emergency conference of the National Union of Mineworkers, whose leaders called the strike March 12, 1984, over the issue of the government’s right to close money-losing pits in the nationalized industry, delegates voted to return to work Tuesday morning.

The vote, representing all of Britain’s coal miners, was about 98,000 to 91,000 in favor of ending a walkout that economists calculate has cost Britain $3.2 billion.


Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said she felt “overwhelming relief” about the decision. She added that no amnesty will be extended to miners who were fired for picket-line violence.

“It would not be right if there were to be an amnesty for those who have committed terrible crimes,” she said. “We had to stand out against intimidation. We could never give in to blackmail or give in to a strike which makes impossible demands.”

Defiantly, Arthur Scargill, the mineworkers’ Marxist leader, declared that “the dispute continues until our aims are fulfilled,” although he did not indicate what measures, if any, the union will take to try to accomplish its goals.

Scargill assailed Britain’s huge labor federation, the Trades Union Congress, saying that “the trade union movement, with a few notable exceptions, has left this union isolated.”

The strike was marked by violent picket-line clashes, and at its height, bloody fights between police and strikers occurred almost daily. An estimated 1,500 police and hundreds of strikers were hurt during the lengthy dispute, and about 9,500 miners were arrested. A cab driver taking a miner to work was killed by Welsh pickets in November.

Many observers believe that the strike became a personalized contest between Scargill and Thatcher, whose government refused to let the National Coal Board yield to the union’s demands.


The union insisted that no pits should be shut down for economic reasons. The coal board insisted that 20 money-losing mines be closed and that 20,000 jobs be eliminated through attrition.

Dissident strikers have been returning to their jobs almost since the outset, and according to management figures, 96,000 miners--about 52% of the total--were already back on the job by Friday.

As the mineworkers’ leaders gathered here Sunday, Scargill and his chief lieutenants urged the union’s National Executive Committee to retain the status quo--that is, to remain out on strike. But the committee split 11-11 on the issue Sunday morning, authoritative sources said, and therefore was unable to make a recommendation to the meeting of emergency conference delegates representing the entire membership. It was the latter body that put an end to the walkout.

Heath’s Downfall

The outcome, representing a victory for Thatcher’s Tory government, was much different from that of 1974 when a coal miners’ strike was responsible for bringing down the former Conservative administration of Edward Heath.

Although senior government ministers were obviously delighted with Sunday’s outcome, they appeared not to wish to crow about the victory.

“I don’t want to talk about victory or defeat,” Energy Secretary Peter Walker said. “This is the end of a tragic and unnecessary strike.”


When he announced the conference decision, Scargill said the coal board must grant amnesty to about 700 miners fired during the strike for violent acts against colleagues or industrial property. Echoing Thatcher, coal board spokesman Michael Eaton said that the board has no intention of allowing miners involved “in serious crimes” to go back to work.

Besides accusing the Trades Union Congress of not giving the miners enough support, Scargill also heaped scorn on the government, which he said, was “aided and abetted by the judiciary, police and you people in the media” in its opposition to the strike.

As Scargill spoke, some demonstrating miners gathered nearby shouted “Scab!” and “Judas!” when the miners’ leader reported that it was decided to go back to work.

Later, Scargill called the strike “a tremendous achievement” and declared that the miners had “fought to retain pits, jobs and communities.”

The union leader said that the strike had delayed the closure of some pits scheduled to be shut down for economic reasons.

No Membership Vote

The strike action ran into trouble from the outset because Scargill and regional union delegates decided to call the workers out without first putting the issue to a vote of the membership.


Only about two-thirds of the union members actually walked out at all, according to coal board figures. A third of the miners stayed at work, asserting that the action was unconstitutional without a national vote.

Late Sunday, Scargill proclaimed that “we will continue to fight closures of uneconomic pits.”

“If that means we have to take action again, we will do so, “ he said.

It was unclear how Scargill thought he might be able to get the miners to go on strike again, once they have gone back to work Tuesday.

Scargill seemed to be saying that he thought he could negotiate keeping some pits open in spite of the coal board’s insistence that they are not economic and will be closed.