Why would a miner strike in 1995?

Steve Kemp came through the 1984-85 miners' strike. He remembers the soup kitchens, the food parcels, the marital breakdowns. Now he is willing to vote with his feet again. Simon Garfield met him

Simon Garfield
Wednesday 28 June 1995 23:02

In the kitchen of a small house in South Hiendley, South Yorkshire,Steve Kemp is brewing up what he calls crap afternoon tea, and talking of trouble to come. He reads from a letter on the table in front of him, shaking his head, pointing at passages already highlighted in red pen. The letter is from RJB Mining, the private company that runs his Stillingfleet colliery and 19 others. It says the company is doing all it can to be ultra-efficient. To compensate for falling revenue, the company is saving money all over. Now, regretfully, the miners must do their part. There is a little slip at the foot of the page asking Steve Kemp to agree to a three-year pay freeze. He says he can't believe anyone would be dumb enough to sign it, especially not his men.

Kemp is 34, the secretary of his colliery's branch of the National Union of Mineworkers, and milder and friendlier to the London media than many in his position. He is married with two young daughters; his wife works in an Italian shoeshop. He says she sells nothing he can afford.

This is a busy time for him, and the phone rings every few minutes - his colleagues just up from the coalface want to know what the hell's happening. The news is not good. At lunchtime, RJB gained a court injunction preventing the union from calling its proposed selective strikes, the one-, two- or three-day-a-week protests that the NUM hopes will halt production until the employers agree to recognise collective bargaining.

The strike may still happen; the injunction was granted on a technicality, and the NUM will again discuss the possibility of strike action at this weekend's annual conference in Blackpool. Eighty-three per cent of members voted for strike action when last balloted, in what was to be the first official strike since 1984-85, the yearlong dispute that heralded mass closures and, ultimately, privatisation. Going on strike again is not an action the miners take lightly.

South Hiendley lies seven miles from Pontefract, seven miles from Barnsley, and seven miles from Wakefield. Mining has all but deserted this area, and as Kemp drives his beaten Cavalier around he sees mostly rust and devastation; he hardly recognises the landscape he remembers from his teens.

You can't mistake his sense of betrayal, and his anger is not confined to the obvious targets. He calls the new Labour Party "bloody abominable", and he says he can't believe how his own union has been isolated. "You look at the problems we've got in this constituency, and Tony's policies don't address that at all. Talking to the City will not help us up here." He believes his honeymoon will end soon, "and then the country will never forgive him".

After leaving school, Kemp tried out as a butcher, didn't like it, and signed on at South Kirkby colliery, three miles away, on his 18th birthday. It was what you did, what most of his local friends did. He did the menial jobs - haulage duties, conveyor shifts - before training as a face worker. Most mornings he was up at 4.45 for a 6 o'clock start. He came up at 1.15pm. For that he got about pounds 100 a week, rising to pounds 140 by the time he left in 1988. He remembers the tea break with some nostalgia, the time when belts just didn't move between 10 and 10.20. "Not like now," he says. It is a phrase he uses a lot.

During the tea breaks they'd talk about the confrontations to come. Kemp believes that even when he joined in 1979 a serious battle with the Government was imminent. It threatened in 1982, with the first talk of mass closures and an overtime ban, but Margaret Thatcher has since revealed she didn't have the stomach for the fight. Kemp says he learnt this from his current bedtime reading: The Downing Street Years.

I noted that at least his local library hadn't closed as well. He took mild offence. "I buy all me books, always have." But Thatcher? "I know I should be reading Leon Trotsky's Greatest Hits, but I like to get all sides. Ted Heath said he used to take the Morning Star."

There were 170 miners in South Hiendley when the strike began in March 1984, about half the men in the village, almost all of them NUM. Kemp remembers the solidarity, the hardships, the soup kitchens and the food parcels, the support and politicisation of the women, the loathing of the scabs, the long walk back. "So many marriages and families split up ... people have still not recovered from the emotional damage." It is hard to imagine how he would be prepared to take his men back to that.

The closure of his South Kirkby mine in 1988 was on the agenda almost as soon as he returned to work. He remembers grim talk in management consultancy meetings, how the colliery was "sound geologically but doomed economically". Words like "viable" and "freelance contracting" began to enter the language. "It soon became a rolling cavalry charge, with no real fight from the men and women any more."

The Barnsley and Doncaster regions were hit exceptionally hard, with up to five closures a month. Kemp was offered work at Grimethorpe and Frickley, but he accurately predicted their imminent closure, too. The only future seemed to lie 45 minutes' drive away at Selby, a newer complex with a more efficient method of extracting supplies. "The sense of guilt and anger I felt when all my local mines closed was unbelievable. I was so sickened by the MP and council people round the Selby area who took the view, 'Well, so long as they don't shut the Selby pits we'll be OK.' Totally selfish."

The Stillingfleet colliery was only about a year old when Kemp joined it in 1988. As with the other four deep mines at Selby, there was no traditional shaft to take coal up, as it now moved underground to surface at another, communal, site. Kemp noticed some immediate improvements: unlike at South Kirkby, where he needed knee pads, at Stillingfleet he could always stand up at the face. But there were some worrying signs, too, particularly the abundance of contract workers who came in to complete specific jobs for a limited time, only about half of whom were in his union.

Kemp spends roughly a third of his time on NUM business. There are now only about 4,500 in the union, compared with 208,000 in 1984. At the start of the 1984 strike, British Coal owned 170 pits; there are now only 27 deep mines, 20 of which are owned by RJB Mining, the private company that took over the Selby complex at the beginning of the year. Selby accounts for almost half of RJB's total output of 37 million tonnes, which the NUM claims makes them about pounds 1m a week.

Kemp opposed privatisation, of course, but noticed no dramatic changes when he returned after Christmas: coal output remained steady, his men seemed happy, he continued his union duties uninterrupted. And then in February came the letter from Richard J Budge, his new employer.

Kemp reads a passage about how, to demonstrate their commitment to the business, the executive board of directors and colliery management will be fixing their salaries until March 1998. "What he fails to tell people," Kemp says, "is that he'd given himself a 23 per cent pay rise in January."

The letter goes on to advertise share options, which leaves Kemp speechless. The NUM's ballot went out at the beginning of May and was returned by the 16th. Under the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, this had to be acted upon within four weeks. Armed with overwhelming support for a strike, Arthur Scargill and the NUM vice-president, Frank Cave, went to see RJB's director of mining, Bill Rowell, reporting back that he had made it clear there would be no wage rises or collective bargaining.

Kemp idolises Scargill, calling him "the greatest trade union leader that ever lived". He has a proviso: that he arrived 10 years too late. "I think his view is right, his outlook is right, but of course he hasn't been 100 per cent right." One of his errors might be his leadership of the current dispute, which was ruled illegal because the selective strikes didn't start within the allocated four weeks. High Court arguments centred on whether midnight was the beginning of the next day, as well as the end of the present one - not an argument you would have heard from NUM solicitors a decade ago.

When RJB won out, the union had no alternative but to discuss repeating the ballot process at the annual conference this weekend, and it is by no means certain that the members will vote the same way again, or with the same force. Kemp believes that RJB has unofficially abandonded its demand for a three-year pay freeze, but the sticking point of collective bargaining remains. RJB's injunction may have made the miners angrier, but it has also given them more time to consider the possible consequences.

One RJB director has claimed a prolonged stoppage could close nine mines, and his employees need no reminding that alternative job prospects are bleak. Two months ago Steve Kemp met a friend he hadn't seen since the closure at South Kirkby. "I asked him what he was doing and he said, 'Oh, I don't work. I am not going to work for pounds 1.50 or pounds 1.70 an hour. I think that's it now for me.' He's about 45. He had a little spell with contracting but nothing since late 1988. I think a lot of people have just thrown the towel in."

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