Tom Woodcock on the Role of the Trade Union

arthur_scargill09:35 Wednesday 5th March 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[A]NDIE HARPER: We’re marking the 30th anniversary of the commencement of the (miners) strike in March 1984. It put the Government and the miners on a collision course, and there have been accusations over the years that there were plans to shut more mines than were revealed. They initially said they wanted to close 20, but recently revealed documents show that they wanted 75 mines to close over three years. A key adviser to the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher denied any cover-up claims, but newly revealed papers, as I say, show that there was a hit list of 70 pits. The Cambridge TUC actively supported the miners in 1984/5 and adopted two of the striking communities in Nottinghamshire, Blidworth and Rainworth, and many lasting friendships were formed. Well its Secretary is Tom Woodcock. It’s currently of course called the Cambridge and District Trades Council. Tom, good morning to you.
TOM WOODCOCK: Good morning Andie.
ANDIE HARPER: Now you’re far too young, aren’t you, to remember the intricacies of the miners strike.
TOM WOODCOCK: You’re too polite.
ANDIE HARPER: But it’s indelibly printed on my mind as if it were yesterday. But it was a seminal moment in British industrial relations, wasn’t it?

TOM WOODCOCK: Indeed. I think I’d like to first of all say that we actively supported here, and still are involved in supporting, raising questions about the miners strike and putting our side across. And we’re going to be running events throughout the year, including a film showing later on in the year, to put the trades unionists’ side. But they’re not just trade unions, because although the Trades Council organised active support, people went up to support pickets and sent food parcels and so on. It wasn’t just trade unionists. There was a massIve community support. I think the report from Nick Jones previously showed that it wasn’t as you said a north/south divide. This was people who not only had sympathies with miners, but understood the economics behind what Thatcher was trying to do, and supported with many donations people who were out without wages for long periods of time, fighting not just for their own community. The fight in the miners strike was having an impact and does have an impact on all of our lives now.
ANDIE HARPER: Tom I must just ask you .. we haven’t got that much time, but Margaret Thatcher the Prime Minister, vilified by those who supported the miners, who were not in favour of her government. But can I put it to you that maybe the miners had the wrong leader. Now Arthur Scargill might well have been right in his figures and his understandings, but he was an abrasive character, and I knew people who were living in mining communities, hugely supportive of the strike, but they weren’t necessarily supportive of Scargill. And what he’s done since, and sort of let’s be honest, built a nice little life for himself, has made these people think we were right about him. A different miners leader might have proved to be beneficial.
TOM WOODCOCK: I don’t think that’s right at all. I think this was not about one person, and Arthur Scargill happened to be the leader of the NUM at the time, and many others in the same situation would have done exactly the same thing. And he was being driven on by thousands and thousands of miners and their families, and the support of many more rank and file trade unionists and activists. And I think there are questions about the leadership of the working class movement at the time, but not with Arthur Scargill, who stood absolutely firm. And I don’t think that your accusation that he’s made a tidy sum out of it is right. The people who made a sum out of it are the people who run the old nationalised industries, oligarchs and so on, who are now making a lot of money out of people’s fuel bills, huge amounts of profit out of the national rail companies. You talked about the nationalised companies at the start. I think Nick Jones is wrong to say they were losing a lot of money. You can’t really judge whether they were or not, because they were serving the people. They were national companies. Losses of the Coal Board were the gains of the people of the country and of other industries. And I think you look at now, at how much we have to subsidise private firms on the rail, how much we have to subsidise the building of new nuclear power stations and so forth to provide the energy that those coal workers were providing for the country at a hugely discounted rate. We should have carried on digging the coal, that’s for sure. This was not a move by the Thatcher government to build a sustainable environmentally sound energy policy for Britain. It was clearly as you said earlier left-overs from the fact that there was some industrial strength there, and it was standing in the way of lower wages and of breaking up the nationalised industries at a loss to everybody.
ANDIE HARPER: But do you think that there were issues with the unions? I’ve had a text here saying ” I can remember power cuts and disputes thirty years ago. The unions had to be crushed in order for us to thrive. France has had to tackle this problem.” So this is a texter straight away thinking that something needed to be done to curtail union power.
TOM WOODCOCK: That’s the narrative that’s been put across by the Murdoch press and the other people who backed Thatcher. In reality, and people know this, when they get their fuel bill through the door, when they look at the size of how much housing costs them, how much their rail tickets are, they know that their disposable income is lower than it would have been in the 1970s. Now two members of a family have to work to survive. If you don’t have two earners in the house, the likelihood is that if you’re on an average wage then you have to rely on the state in other ways, through benefits and so forth. And 75% of the people in this country who are on benefits are in work. And so we have to look at what is the loss to ordinary people. We haven’t gained, as the right wing news media. In fact the popularised story in the rest of the media would like to say that we freed up and broke the unions in order to have a better lifestyle. It’s just not true. In fact the unions I think and union power was holding governments to account, and still is actually. It’s not true that there aren’t enough union members to do that. We can see that the battle that Thatcher started, which was running and has been running all the way through the century, is still going. And I’d like to say that they’re coming back for more. They’re going to try and take the rest of the NHS off us. They’re trying to take education and the welfare state off ordinary people. And it is trade union and trade union strength and people’s ability to organise that’s standing in the way of the Government doing that. That is what they want to do.
ANDIE HARPER: Tom, it’s been really good to talk to you. Thank you very much for joining us. That’s Tom Woodcock, Secretary of the Cambridge and District Trades Council.