Sarah Collins, ISG member and Unison East Ayrshire Branch Secretary, speaks to Gordon Cossar, Branch Vice Chair and ex-miner.
Gordon, who now works for the National Autistic Society, was twenty-five years old during the miner’s strike thirty years ago.
Gordon tells us what it was like to be a young person during the 1984 strike and how the experience affected his whole life. He describes his political education by ‘dyed in the wool communist’ ‘Big Alec’, being led to the slaughter at Orgreave, living hand to mouth and receiving solidarity from around the world. Gordon discusses the difference between trade unions then and now and relates the lessons which today’s trade unionists can learn from the strike.
Sarah has asked me to give an account of the miner’s strike. I’ll introduce myself – my name’s Gordon Cossar, I live in Cumnock in Ayrshire, I left the school at 16 years of age. The common thing to do at that time when you left school was to go down the mines. My grandfather was down the mines, his brothers were down the mines so it was more or less a family tradition, though to be honest with you, naebody wanted their sons to go down the pit. However, that’s what we did.
When I first started I was sent to work with an old miner – a man who had worked in the pits all his days. You were the boy, you were sent with the older man. This old man, old Alec, was an old communist, a dyed in the wool old communist – Marxist-Leninist. He’d been a delegate or shop steward for years and years. When you’re working with an old man when you’re a young boy you’re influenced by their beliefs, arguments, debates – it was really old Alec that got me interested in the union and politics and radicalisation, though I also learned my trade from him too.
I became a youth delegate. Before the miners’ strike I was a committee member – I attended STUC youth committees and Labour party conferences. For a young laddie I was pretty active. Thatcher was elected in 1979 and then re-elected. Now, the miners had been on strike for a brief period against pit closures in 1981 and at that time the Tories did a u-turn, though they were preparing themselves for a future battle. This emerged in 1983. In the winter of that year the miners decided to have an overtime ban to try to reduce stockpiles of coal – that was very successful and is often overlooked. Things led up to the strike in March 1984 – it’s just been the thirtieth anniversary of the strike – you wonder where all they years have went…
March 1984 – the beginning of the longest strike in the UK since the general strike of 1926 which the miners took an active role in also. In Ayrshire there were close to 4,000 people employed in the mines in 1984, they were spread in a very wide geographical area, which made for 22 strike centres. Oor strike centre was Cumnock where I live and because I was involved as a youth delegate at 24 or 25 year old I got involved with the running of the strike. We were up for it – I became the secretary of the strike centre, which involved a lot of organising – picketing, the food kitchen, cutting logs for the pensioners so they wouldn’t be short of fuel, fundraising and organising meetings. As the strike went on we helped organise the womens’ groups at the behest of the women. So it was really a busy busy time.
The picketing seems to have had a lot of publicity, mainly because of the tactics that were employed by the police. I was at Hunterston for a regular picket and we were arrested on the day – 22 of us and none of us had ever been in trouble with the police before. We were all hard workers and had good characters, but we were all done for breach of the peace and appeared at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court. I always remember the Sheriff there – Sheriff Smith – he was quite infamous in those days. He pulled us up one by one and asked if we had means of supporting ourselves and we didn’t have – especially the single boys who had no money at all. We didn’t have any means of payment, then he went on to fine us £150 each – we had to pay within six months or we’d be facing jail sentences. The union paid those fines – however, following inquiries by politicians it became evident that Sheriff Smith had an agenda against the miners. We appealed and by the tail-end of the strike we’d won our appeals and we got the NUM got the fines back.
The battle of Orgreave
There was also Orgreave – that got a lot of publicity, because really we were like lambs led to the slaughter. Really that was the start of a big battle to teach us a lesson I believe. We went down on the buses in the morning with our packed lunches and flasks of tea – we were waved off by the women and the kids. If my memory serves me right it was in June and we went down there with shorts and trainers or sandals on. As it turned out, the police were over the top, they were attacking us with dogs on extended leads, miners were ran over by horses and baton charged. You can see the old newsreel footage – it was very very frightening. However, we survived, but back home you didn’t have the 24-hour news coverage like we do now and we’d nae mobile phones or computers. We stopped at a public telephone on the way up and called the strike centre and let everyone know we were okay – people were really concerned.
The majority of police were wonderful during the strike – an example was on the picket line in the lead up to Christmas they were waving their pay-lines at us, telling us to keep on striking because they were making a fortune of us! They really did try to rub our noses in it.
The best of times
One of the questions Sarah asked me was what was the best time during the strike. Well, everyday was a good day I thought, but the highlight was at Christmas time. We’d been on strike since March and we’d make a lot of contacts, including with the Northern Ireland trade unions and trades councils. They supplied a turkey for every strike centre in Ayrshire – 22 great big birds, we had actually to halve them to get them in the oven. The first sitting was half a turkey and the second sitting was the other half. Every striking miner also got a chicken from Ireland – you can imagine the lorries coming over with 4,000 chickens for the striking miners! All the kids had a Christmas party with donations from all over the world – tea from Ukraine, food parcels from the old Soviet Union and so on – communities were all sticking together.
The pressure mounts
However, come Christmas, the return to work really escalated. The Coal Board were offering folk £1000 to return to work, so you can imagine the pressure folk were under. I was lucky, I got married in July during the miners’ strike and my wife supported me one hundred percent, but you can imagine what it was like with families falling apart under financial pressure. Maybe Christmas and New Year was the catalyst – the miners weren’t receiving anything from the union, we were relying on hand-outs, on being fed at the strike centre, when we went picketing we got a lump sum of £1 per picket! Six pickets was six quid – as a single guy thirty years ago that made a big difference.
The Tuesday boys
At the end of the strike in Ayrshire, the guys who saw the strike out got known as the ‘Tuesday boys’. That came about because the day we returned to work on the Monday, they had sent the scabs on the pit buses and we all refused to go on the bus with the scabs. The following day they sent the buses just for us. After that we formed a club, with badges like war medals – the Tuesday Club met pretty regular after that.
The Scottish area in particular couldn’t see an end to it – there were disagreements in the union. We believed that we’d lost the strike but we hadn’t lost the battle – the priority was to save the union. There is no doubt in my mind that Thatcher didn’t want to just beat the miners, she wanted to absolutely destroy the miners’ union. In 1974 when the miners brought down the Heath government, Thatcher was the only remaining cabinet minister from that era and was hell-bent on paying us back.
We went back to oor work, we saved the union and our priority was to get the miners who had been sacked back to work. We got some back, some we didnae, but we looked after them. Our first pay after being on strike for a year, we had a lift for the sacked miners and the amount of money we made was unbelievable.
Striking for a scab
We were only back a couple of weeks when we were on strike again. The Coal Board had sacked a man for an accident at work – he’d burst an expensive machine cable. He was a scab and they sacked him, but we managed to convince every one of us to go back on unofficial strike. That took a bit of convincing, but we thought “if that’s what they can dae to a guy who went back to work, what can they dae to us?” In a day that man got his job back and that helped to regrow bonds between workers who saw the strike out and those who went back to work. Thirty years on there’s still folk in Cumnock who I would call scabs – especially a couple who went back to work for £1000 and got involved in convincing others to do the same – that you can never forgive as far as I’m concerned.
Trade unions – then and now
Another question you asked was how does it compare to the unions now. Well, it was totally different thirty years ago – it is amazing how technology has advanced. If we had mobile phones we could possibly have won the strike – we might have stayed ahead of the police and the MI5 and the organisations which were investigating us. Unions now are fast and they are media-oriented and use the internet a lot – I’ve noticed there’s more women involved in the movement and we’ve got LGBT members involved and black sections. However, unions are now restricted heavily by the trade union laws which the Tories introduced following the miners’ strike.
Also we’ve got a lot fewer charismatic leaders. Mick McGahey was a very charismatic leader and he had a lot of respect not just from the miners but the trade union and labour movement as a whole.
I still think there’s an important role for trade unions to play – we’re doing a tough but excellent job at representing members at local level and we’re trying our best at a national level.