Thatcher gone, Scargill looks to the '90s

March 27, 1991

By Steve Painter

Arthur Scargill, the British mineworkers leader who was unofficial public enemy number one for much of the reign of Margaret Thatcher, has politically outlived the prime minister who threw enormous resources into a number of attempts to smear his name and destroy him. While the Iron Lady rusts on the scrap heap of the Westminster back benches, Scargill is set to go on campaigning into the '90s. In Sydney last week, he spoke to Green Left Weekly about the prospects for British trade unionism post-Thatcher.

Embattled last year by a yellow press campaign accusing him of misusing union funds during the historic miners' strike of 1984-85, Scargill has now disproved all the charges except the one he has never denied: that he did not hand all funds over to government sequestrators appointed to seize the union's assets.

But while the accusations of financial wrongdoing were the subject of television documentaries and screaming newspaper headlines, the proof of his innocence has been greeted by near-silence from the media.

Scargill is neither surprised nor disturbed by this. He has little time for the big business media: "If ever you think that you're going to use the media to your advantage, you're living in cloud cuckoo land. If during the attacks on me during 1990, I had waited for Mr Murdoch or Mr Maxwell or the BBC or ITV to give me time on air or room in the newspapers to put my position, I'd have been waiting until hellfire froze over.

"Instead I took the line of the traditional labour pioneers. I went out campaigning in the coalfields from one end to the other. We organised rally after rally, night after night, linking the smear attack upon me to the attack upon workers generally."

Energy policy

Often dismissed as an old-fashioned trade union leader with no place in the modern world, Scargill is in Australia promoting ideas that are anything but old-fashioned.

He had two main messages for the international conference of mineworkers, held recently in Wollongong.

One was that mining unions should campaign for an environmentally sound international energy policy: "one which sees the end for all time of the dangerous, unnecessary and expensive nuclear power programs.

"One that sees an energy program based on coal, oil, gas and wind, wave, tide and geothermal power and solar energy.

"One that begins to take on board the environmental issue in a real way and recognises that we can have a clean coal technology and at the same time we can play our part in developing a worldwide energy policy that will help the Third World." Scargill also told the miners that they needed better international organisation to cope with modern challenges.

"Here we are in 1991 with two international miners' organisations split along ideological lines. We have written to the Miners' International Federation, which for years was the Western-dominated group.

"We have suggested that things have changed. They wouldn't come together in a merger with the International Miners' Organisation because they saw Eastern Europe as a place where the trade unions were not free. That argument can no longer be sustained, and in light of what's taken place, we've asked them to merge.

"We've got 6.5 million members, they've got 2 million members, and it seems logical that all those workers should come together. If there is an attempt to attack miners in Australia, miners in Britain, miners in Germany, miners in the Philippines or Morocco or South Africa, we should all respond. In the same way that the multinationals respond, we should also respond in a united fashion.

"We have to recognise that the multinationals have no scruples about opening or closing mines in different parts of the world and playing off one set of miners against another".

Unionism's future

Having survived at the eye of the storm in British politics through the Thatcher decade, Scargill remains optimistic about the future of trade unionism, though he admits it is presently at a low ebb.

"The state of the trade union movement in Britain is entirely predictable. Many people, including myself, warned that the acceptance of Thatcherite policies, or the refusal to oppose them, would result in the kind of policies that we now have in place in Britain."

In the aftermath of the Thatcher offensive, British unions face an array of anti-union legislation as formidable as any in the world.

Meanwhile, this shackling of the unions has not solved the major problems facing most Britons. The economy is in recession and "we have over 3 million people unemployed, in real terms. That includes those actually on the register and those seeking work but not counted by the Tory government as being unemployed."

Scargill says the British unions are in some ways now worse off than their counterparts in countries like South Africa: "In South Africa the trade union movement have got the right to elect their own officials as they choose and within their rule book. In Britain that is a right that is no longer given to the trade union movement. It has been superseded by Thatcher's anti-union legislation."

Unfortunately, the combination of recession, mass unemployment and the anti-union laws has persuaded many trade unionists, "with a few notable exceptions", that this is not a time to take on the system, to fight back.

"Time and time again the first question trade union leaders ask is: 'Is it lawful to take action, or even to recommend action?'"

'Take it head-on'

Scargill rejects this approach. "My philosophy is that if the Conservative government in Britain, or indeed the government in any country, decides to take draconian measures against you, then you don't vacate your position, you take it head-on, you resist. There is no alternative to resistance."

Scargill is particularly opposed to legislation imposing ballots on unions before they can take strike action. "An employer doesn't need an individual ballot when he wants to sack 1000 workers, he doesn't need an individual ballot before he closes a plant. Why then should trade unions be compelled to take an individual ballot and have an absolute majority before taking action?

"And then they allow people who don't agree with the majority to opt out." On that principle, Scargill says, he and others should have been able to opt out of Britain's role in the Gulf War or paying the poll tax.

Scargill thinks the situation facing the British unions is similar to that facing United States unions in the 1950s. "Massive anti-union legislation resulted in many cases in refusal by the trade union movement to take on the system, to take on individual employers.

"That led many people to form the opinion, rightly or wrongly, that trade unions were no longer capable of defending the interests of workers. Unless the British unions change their approach, the number of people in trade unions will gradually diminish."

Today in the USA, only 17% of the workforce is unionised. Already in Britain, unionisation is declining. It has dropped around 10%, to about 40% of the workforce.

Anti-union laws and mass unemployment are now being used in combination to persuade trade unionists that resistance is impossible. "Tragically", adds Scargill, "there are those in the movement who will say we've got to cooperate.

"They call these people new realists, although their ideas are neither new nor very realistic. They are really collaborationists. They are people who are prepared to work with a system that destroys jobs and destroys living standards and aims to destroy effective trade unionism."

Capitalism is prepared to tolerate the trade union movement "provided it is compliant, provided it is not effective, but once it begins to be effective, once it begins to fight back, then you'll suddenly discover that they'll respond with a viciousness that knows no bounds.

"I'm not surprised at the present position of the British trade union movement, or indeed the international trade union movement, but neither am I pessimistic, because I know from my time in the movement that if leaders refuse to lead, workers themselves will take the leadership, though no-one can set a time scale on such a process."

Arthur Scargill addressed a public meeting of 150 in Brisbane on March 17 and one of 300 in Sydney on March 23; he is speaking in Melbourne

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