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Forgive and forget?
Weekly Worker 523 Thursday March 25 2004


What should the attitude of militants to the strikebreakers of 1984-85? Dave Douglass, branch secretary of Hatfield Main National Union of Mineworkers, looks at the whole range of emotional, tactical, principled and opportunistic responses

Scabs - blacklegs, strikebreakers - occupy a special place in the culture of mining communities. By their nature pit communities are tight, closed and exude collective norms, principles and identity. The union and thereby the common strength of our labour power - our bargaining position - is only as strong as its weakest link. When the pit makes up its collective mind, that is our view: we speak with one voice. Management, owners and government would be forced to recognise that they were dealing with a centralised force, whose negotiators and delegates spoke not for themselves, but for the whole.

To have someone break ranks, defy the stand of their workmates and neighbours and go it alone goes right against the grain of our collective identity and social bonds. On a personal level it is an act of great affront, rejecting past friendships, shared hardships and triumphs and hopes for improvement. To have a member of a family work when their relatives were striking is tantamount to turning their back on the family and its self-respect and self-worth.

So within the solid union pit communities abandoning the strike was seen as much more than just ‘going to work’: pit communities have long memories. The man who blacklegged in 1926, a young teenager at the time, was still ostracised from clubs and welfare facilities within the Hatfield pit community of the 1970s. During the great 84-85 strike communities like Doncaster were fiercely loyal to the union and proud of their reputation for solidarity. They held firm and scab-free until the August of 84, when the state opened up its second front against the miners, and a concerted effort was made to get a handful of scabs in at each pit, to draw our fire away from Nottingham and the wharfs.

When news went round the pit communities based on Hatfield pit, for example, sheer disbelief, followed by all-consuming rage, erupted. Our task, however, was not to simply wreak revenge on whoever it was, but to actually talk them out of their anti-social actions - it needed nipping in the bud. Our union secretary was allowed access to the two scabs, one of which agreed to rejoin the strike and walked through the hostile though silent ranks of the crowds who had gathered. The other withdrew but was only biding his time. The pit lay scab-free for weeks after that, and when the new influx began our strategy was again to discover who they were and persuade them to stop. The officials of the branch were given licence to keep names of scab suspects secret, in order to grant them amnesty and anonymity. Sitting talking to strikebreakers, who had broken ranks for possibly one or two days was a harrowing experience, charged with guilt, potential violence and the threat of mutual retribution.

On a number of occasions we talked men out of their actions and they rejoined the strike. One man came clean, publicly made a self-criticism, rejoined the strike, supported picket lines and worked tirelessly in the wood yard, collecting and preparing logs for distribution to families. He was accepted back into the fold as a man who had made a mistake, but learned his lesson. It was the diehards, the men who refused amnesty, who refused our hand in renewed friendship despite what they had done, who turned their back on us. For these men the hate lives on; for these handful there would be no forgiveness - not here anyway.

As the strike wore on, and poverty set in, internal frictions, jealousies, suspicions started to bite. Why could this family afford a babysitter six months into the strike? That man at the meeting - he isn’t on strike: he’s on the sick; he’s getting money. Or, it’s all right for him - his wife works behind the bar of the club. The label ‘scab’ could be attached to almost anyone, on the slightest of suspicions, and might stick long after it had been disproved. An ex-miner coal merchant, delivering coal on the ‘docket’ system to exempted pensioners or folk with young families, was labelled a scab and driven out of business and out of the community despite his clearance from strike HQ. Anyone who had defended him, drank with him, became protectors of scabs too. A kind of collective intolerance was not far below the surface of genuine resistance.

The term ‘scab’ was marshalled later to mark a line in the sand on other issues. Miners who refused to follow safety rules and dodged safeguards to make money we dubbed ‘safety scabs’. Miners who were kicking the doors in to get redundancy and “shut the fucking pit”, we deemed ‘redundo scabs’. A more cutting term you could not devise and its deployment required caution because of its lasting and damaging effects - although some on the left, markedly the Spartacist League, or Sparts, used it freely, regardless of facts of circumstance. In a word you could demolish a militant’s credentials, shout it, print it: you did not need to prove it. It marked them out as the sort of labour movement diehard, while the accused was less than perfect, possibly even in reality a class enemy. It is a charge the working class takes seriously, and is therefore a dangerous slander to wield.

At the end of the strike it is true to say an ambivalent position towards scabs emerged. On the one hand, we had whole areas which predominantly worked - some throughout the entire duration of the strike. In Yorkshire pits too there were strong minorities who had scabbed for long periods, particularly in some North Yorkshire pits.

At Hatfield we marched back to work, 1,300-strong, to a pit with 23 scabs. At first we refused to work with them, and the pit was on and off strike for weeks. They were still members of the branch, however! I refused to represent them, but the secretary, under protest and in order to allow conciliation to continue and to stop the officials being prosecuted under the law for illegal industrial conduct, agreed to do so. We put them into the internal disciplinary procedure in order to have them expelled from the union. We tabled resolutions to NUM Council calling on all men who had scabbed to be expelled from the union. We were warned by the Yorkshire area leadership and others that we were courting a road to disaster. To expel hundreds, maybe thousands from the NUM, and we were opening the gates to recruitment for the Union of Democratic Mineworkers in Yorkshire. In the north-east the mechanics had done just that - expelled all who had worked. They formed themselves into a rival union of blacklegs, and the Nottingham scabs affiliated to it.

The battle for which type of union would organise the miners was on nationwide. After all, it was vitally important to remember what the big picture was about. Margaret Thatcher’s plan was not so much the liquidation of the coal industry as the defeat and destruction of the NUM in order to sell the coal industry as a profitable and tamed concern to her mates in the City. The weaker we allowed the NUM, as the national organising body of the British miners, to become, the more we were playing her game. Scabs or no scabs, we had to call on all miners to join the NUM. Arthur Scargill made the impassioned plea that there was room for all within the NUM - except Lynk, Prendergast and Greatrex, who were the organisers of the strikebreakers. This meant we appealed to former scabs not to join the UDM, as the breakaway was to become, but stay with the NUM.

At pit level, we agreed to work with them, though not talk to them or fraternise with them. On one occasion I was deployed to a mountainous spillage of coal, together with a scab. His family had disowned him and he was ostracised throughout the village, where his family were well known union stalwarts. For hours we tried choking each other with dust, as we filled the coals into two enormous barrows, wheeled it to a hole in the floor and tipped it onto a belt some 20 feet below. I seriously weighed up the chances of kicking him into the hole as he tipped the barrow, I was restrained from the action not by the chances of my killing him, but the fear he might live.

In the baths they were still attacked, in the car park their cars were still smashed, on the walls down the pit they were vilified in chalk and felt tip. Most were driven out and moved away by the NCB, but in pits with a strong strikebreaker minority it was different. Scabs not only stayed in the union: they stood for branch office, and some were elected!

When the Doncaster NUM panel merged with the former South Yorkshire panel to create a single South Yorkshire alliance of the most militant pits in Britain, we had the shock discovery that one of the South Yorkshire secretaries was a man who had had scabbed along with a large number of his workmates, but been elected as a branch official despite this - maybe even, given the number of men who had done likewise, because of it. Doncaster walked out. In a furious and heated debate in the car park the Doncaster delegates debated that we were perhaps walking away from the main task at hand - preserving and rebuilding the NUM for our futures and the people we represented. This was tactics over principle, or perhaps a stronger principle overriding deep and passionate emotions which would have led us the other way. We agreed to retake our seats within the joint panel - including the Bentley secretary whose two sons were in jail for picketing offences, and Tony Clegg, a miner sacked from Hatfield and blacklisted for making a stand against just such scabs. We had to do it, distasteful though it was.

A little later Hatfield branch responding to the call from the South African NUM for a boycott of South African coal, organised a march and rally to the wharfs where the coal was being landed, as it had right through the strike. The wharfs had been a battleground between scabbing dockers and truck drivers and our efforts to block them and close them down. I was arrested and given a bad time physically during my incarceration during one of our mass sorties to these wharfs. The march was supported by almost every branch in Yorkshire and preceded by a big banner calling for solidarity with the black miners of the South African NUM and shouting slogans against generalised import controls.

The Sparts responded to this magnificent demo with the news that this was a ‘scab, racist march to a scab wharf’. Apparently they had discovered the former scab NUM official leading his branch on the march. The ‘scab wharf’ slag was a bit more problematic: we were not, after all, going there for tea - we were going to protest. That it was a scab wharf was the point! The march was apparently racist since it called for a blockade of black miners’ coal! This despite our protests that this was a march in solidarity with the miners of South Africa who had called for the boycott. Suddenly we were on the wrong side of the ‘scab’ slag.

But it was to get worse. Around 87 a furious unofficial strike swept the coalfield, in protest at the introduction of the NCB’s new disciplinary code. Frickley colliery was at the centre of the storm - the pickets with the wind in their hair were stopping all that moved. Hatfield was undergoing its annual shutdown fortnight: the pit was on holiday. It was on care and maintenance only, with a skeleton crew and no coal produced. Notwithstanding this, the pickets still arrived for the day shift, and a furious argument ensued. The pickets were allowing pits, including their own, to have safety cover. For Hatfield to be picketed out would mean that the strike was being made to bite harder here than any other pits, because more or less the only men who were working were those on essential safety and maintenance work.

A well built Hatfield union official told the men to cross the lines and go to work. No-one did. I was sent for and after arguments in which we asked the pickets to withdraw, given our situation, this was not forthcoming so we accepted that, despite our disagreements, Hatfield miners would not cross picket lines and the men started to walk off home. A hurried pickets’ meeting agreed, since no coal was being turned and on an assurance that no coal would be produced, to withdraw.

Imagine my shock when the headline in the Sparts’ Workers Hammer proclaimed that I had told Hatfield miners to cross picket lines and go to work! That I had encouraged men to scab! Some of the Frickley pickets who only knew me by reputation, and thought that went with a physique to match, had, it seems, mistaken the big union official (actually a branch committee man called Brian Roberts) for my much smaller-framed self.

The committee man was later brought before the branch, and apologised for his actions. The branch reaffirmed its standing policy that we did not under any circumstances cross picket lines. It mattered not what the facts were, however: the ‘scab’ tag would be spread across the world and my reputation as a union militant and communist muddied, as if this were some mild insult you could just bandy about at will. The right wing of the union thought it was hilarious. At a mass meeting at Kellingly they were heard to say, taking the piss: “Dave Douglass is a secret rightwinger”. The Sparts, overhearing this, printed it in the next edition of their paper, as if it was the serious conclusion of the miners’ rank and file.

Slander is quite the forte of this group, as we witnessed again recently. The memorial for two victims of the Great Strike, Davie Jones and Joe Green, saw the Sparts distributing their 20th anniversary leaflets. “Where’s your scabby paper?” they asked me. Scabby paper? “The paper you write for, the Weekly Worker - it supported the scabs’ call for a ballot!” they told everyone who would listen. The leaflet went on to include Workers Power in the charge of joining the other side during the strike. That we had disagreements over the need or not for a ballot is clear, but the facts are that the comrades of The Leninist, forerunner of the Weekly Worker, did not ‘ballot-monger’ us, and did not make this a centre of their propaganda during the strike. And I do not recall Workers Power, with whom I had many disagreements during the strike, ever raising the question. They may have, but it certainly was not a condition for their support, which was unstinting and selfless.

The Sparts’ charge that the Socialist Workers Party actually encouraged and defended scabbing will come as a shock to the rock-solid SWP miners at Markham and Frickley and elsewhere. According to the Sparts, SWP leader Tony Cliff publicly proclaimed they had members scabbing across the country in steel plants and power stations. When I raised this matter with some Newcastle comrades of the SWP at the time, they told me they did not fetishise picket lines - which was odd, because every SWP coalminer I had come across (and there were some) believed, as I do, that picket lines were sacrosanct.

Pickets mark out the class line, but they must hold out at least the potential that we are actually trying to persuade or convince workers not to cross that line, or not to keep crossing it if they have already done so. This means you are actually asking them not simply to join you, but to rejoin you. We cannot really call on scabbing workers to rejoin the strike only to continue treating them as scabs if they do. That seems clear, if difficult.

The situation where scabs refused to rejoin us and scabbed throughout the strike, then rejoin the union afterwards, is a bit harder to swallow, yet that was the imperative which was upon us, as the UDM attempted to undermine and replace us as a union. I, along with others, with the approval of the Notts and Yorkshire area NUM leaderships, made repeated sorties into the scab coalfield at the end of the strike, attempting to win former scabs and current UDM members back into the NUM. They were trips far more scary and far more difficult than when I had journeyed there to call them out, or force them out. I addressed public meetings in halls full of former scabs. I spoke in pub rooms to UDM miners contemplating a mass desertion to the NUM, as the promise of an incoming Labour government seemed to hold out the prospect of total isolation for the UDM and enforced national recognition for the NUM. The incoming Labour government did not materialise, and the mass coming over did not either, but it had surely been worth a shot, despite the occasional slanderous attack that we were collaborating with the UDM, and the real physical danger we faced from revenge attacks. After all in Harworth, for example, I was talking to men whose canteen I had helped to smash up, whose police station we had bricked and whose cars we had turned over.

That was then, this was now. It is not that the tactics were wrong the first time: just that in the new situation we had to change. At Harworth I discovered men who had worked throughout the whole 12 months of the strike and had stayed without question in the NUM, whilst others who had stuck out for 10 or 11 months on strike joined the UDM on their return. “Who are the real scabs here?” I was asked on more than one occasion. I met men who thought they in Nottingham were not scabs, but the men who worked in Yorkshire were - the logic being our ballot had said ‘yes’, while their ballot had said ‘no’. Did this approach to the Nottingham scabs mean I would now embrace the Hatfield scabs? Not on your life: this was a tactical necessity, not some act of universal forgiveness.

The ‘retirement’ of Arthur Scargill, the imposition of a new rule book in Yorkshire, the gerrymandering of NUM conference to get a new set of rules through (using ‘rotten borough’ areas and deceased miners’ votes) and other scandalous bureaucratic devices has cleft the union again. There are those of us on a platform of rank and file democracy versus those in the ‘idealise the bureaucrats and slavishly follow the leaders’ camp. The disputes have raged at their most bitter in Yorkshire, where the struggle for majorities, rules and positions have come down to branch allegiances and on which side the reps will stand. This had meant the struggle at branch level between the two factions has also at times been most bitter.

At one particular pit the pro-bureaucracy delegate was defeated. The new delegate joined the side of those of us campaigning for democracy within the union. As we neared the time for area elections, which had themselves been subject to bureaucratic delay and legal consultations and were 12 months overdue, so the numbers game became most crucial. Suddenly the new delegate was identified as a ‘scab’ and those in our camp as ‘scab lovers’. Through means which may prove to have been out of order and are the subject to ongoing appeals, this man was removed as delegate and replaced with the previous representative by a handful of officials.

The argument about his removal actually revolved around constitutional issues, masking the underlying battle over how one views democracy and the place of the rank and file in the union against that of the leaders past and present. To a certain rabid individual member of the Socialist Labour Party, however, this divide can be characterised as between those who support a striker and those who are now scab-lovers. I have no idea whether the individual concerned crossed the line in 84-85 or not. What I do know is that he has been in the NUM for 20 years since - when he ran for office and was elected, nobody thought him ‘out of order’ or ineligible. When he took his seat in the NUM Council chamber, nobody stood up and walked out, or in my presence accused him of being a blackleg to his face. So the sudden shouting of ‘scab’ at this stage of the game by a deranged individual is, I think, a cynical device to muddy the waters and pose in the guise of militant, while actually standing out against the class issues at hand.

For my part today, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can find no reflective forgiveness for scabs. They broke the strike, they are the chief reason why we lost in 84, whereas we won in 74. Their actions brought this powerful union, this champion of the working class, to its knees and gutted our communities and industry in the process. Had they stood firm with us, all the armies of police and regiments of state agents and press hacks would not have mattered one iota.

Have they learned their lesson now, standing amid the desolation and ruin? I very much doubt it.


Toad, rattlesnake, scab

After god had finished the rattlesnake, the toad and the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which to make a scab. A scab is a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a waterlogged brain and combination backbone made of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumour of rotten principles.

When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the devil shuts the gates of hell to keep him out. Judas Iscariot was a gentleman compared to a scab. For betraying his master he had the character to hang himself - a scab hasn’t.

Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Judas Iscariot sold his saviour for 30 pieces of silver. Benedict Arnold sold his country for a promise of a commission in the British army. The modern strikebreaker sells his birthright, his country, his wife, his children and his fellow men for an unfulfilled promise from his employer, trust or corporation. Esau was a traitor to himself, Judas Iscariot was a traitor to his god, Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country.

A strikebreaker is a traitor to himself, a traitor to his god, a traitor to his country, a traitor to his family, and a traitor to his class. There is nothing lower than a scab.

Jack London


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