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Protest, Women & the Miners Strike – Lessons for Liberation & Solidarity – Kate Flannery

“While ever the establishment attempt to exclude any form of dissent, we have all the more reason to protest.”

Kate Flannery, Orgreave Truth & Justice Campaign

By Kate Flannery, Secretary of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign

The year long National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) Miners’ Strike started in March 1984 to preserve the coal industry and defend jobs and communities. Little did we know then how the Labour and Trade Union Movement and our communities were about to experience the full force of the state and that the women involved would emerge having played a powerful and essential role in protest and sustaining that strike.

The brutal cruelty of the 1980s Thatcher Tory government aimed to destroy the most militant sections of the British working class, create greater workplace management control and transform society into a neoliberal state. Success for the Tories meant punitive anti Trade Union legislation involving severe restrictions on strikes and picketing, developing a militarised police force and creating criminals out of workers fighting for justice and their jobs. Tory policy meant the predictable conflict with workers and the TU movement, and their government would not confront them unprepared. The scene was all set to create the society we have today. The Tories had drawn up a line of attack to conquer any defiance to the Tories from the TUs. With plans to crush the NUM a large movable team of police keen to use aggressive and vicious tactics against pickets was deployed. The Tories were going to use every means possible to ensure picketing would not be effective during any industrial disputes.

The role of women was crucial. In March 1984 a number of women active in local politics and mining communities in Yorkshire organised support and solidarity for the miners, fully understanding the implications of the strike. The National Coal Board and media had tried to use the wives, partners and families of miners to support an anti strike campaign and weaken industrial disputes. However, high unemployment, benefit cuts and job threats to future generations meant many women were supportive of the strike.

Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC) and women’s support groups were formed all over Britain. The women came from a variety of cultures and backgrounds in addition to the many miners’ wives and partners – local government workers, home workers, engineers, students, peace and anti racist campaigners etc – all united in the desire to see a successful conclusion to the strike, a future for communities and the preservation of the coal industry. 

The women fundraised, fed communities, went on pickets, marched, organised events, meetings and rallies and spoke in support of the strike. This was unprecedented and life changing for many of them. The WAPC movement encouraged women to put socialist feminist ideas into practice in an industrial dispute and empowered them to take public and leading roles in a male dominated community. As the strike got longer and hardship bit deeper the women’s resolve became stronger, highlighting the importance of the role of women in industrial struggle. Many women who had previously been non-political and even quite hesitant, emerged as gifted and creative individuals. This experience empowered many women to develop in their future lives.  

Mining towns and villages were occupied by large numbers of police from all over Britain and road blocks were set up on motorways to prevent strikers and supporters travelling to pits and coking plants to be involved in secondary picketing and solidarity action. Picket numbers were severely restricted and the police regularly used riot gear, horses and dogs, vehicle sabotage, physical violence, kettling, provocation and verbal abuse to terrorise strikers and supporters, arresting people on spurious and false charges to intimidate and set examples. Over 11,000 arrests were made. Many miners and women were arrested and after release put under curfew with severe travelling restrictions to ensure they could not organise or show solidarity. Police brutally assaulted people on picket lines leaving strikers and supporters needing urgent medical attention, scarred for life both physically and emotionally.

Orgreave was one of many examples of extreme acts of police violence orchestrated and sanctioned by the state. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign set up in 2012 to get a public inquiry into police brutality used against miners and demonstrators on June 18th 1984. Our campaigning relies on the right to protest and we have organised numerous demonstrations, stunts and events.

Police violence and police violence against women is nothing new. Women have often been at the forefront of political struggle, played key organising roles and have had to endure the violence and sexism meted out by the state. From the Matchwomen to the Chainmakers, Suffragettes to Women’s Liberation protests, Grunwick to Greenham Common, Women Against Pit Closures to Reclaim These Streets, we have seen extreme acts of psychological and physical abuse by the state and police. 

Draconian legislation has continued to ensure that our right to protest is severely curtailed. The covid pandemic protest restrictions along with the recent Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, the Police Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the restrictions on Legal Aid and plans to limit Judicial Reviews against the state are all reasons to promote and defend our right to protest. The success of the recent Shrewsbury 24 Campaign reminds us that the freedom to protest in a democracy is essential to empower us, initiate change, show support and solidarity, encourage unity, influence the agenda and discussion and provide a platform for minority groups and opinions. While ever the establishment attempt to exclude any form of dissent, we have all the more reason to protest.

As Angela Davis said, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

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