BARNSLEY, YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND — When Anne Scargill looks out from her front porch, she sees hamlets of brick houses and a gently sloping, barren green hillock. A newcomer would never know that this was once one of Yorkshire’s many “pits,” or underground coal mines with associated infrastructure, now a grass-covered slag heap. It was one of the spots at the heart of a brutal conflict 28 years ago in which Scargill and her then-husband played a starring role. Many say the mines’ tumultuous history continues to shape Britain’s labor and energy landscapes; it throws a pall over coalfield communities, like this one, that never found new identities or industries to replace what they lost when nearly all of the region’s mines closed in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Though most of the mines have long shuttered, and she has been divorced from legendary former National Union of Mineworkers leader Arthur Scargill for years, for Anne the fight has never stopped. She was one of the founding members of the group Women Against Pit Closures, which most former miners say was the lifeblood of the yearlong strike. The police — who struck out at miners and picketers with shocking brutality — and the government of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher likely never imagined coalfield women would rise up like they did.
“The women were so angry at Maggie Thatcher. Many had voted for her thinking, ‘We finally have a woman in office,’ and then this!” says Scargill, now 71. “This wasn’t about pay; it was about jobs for our children and our grandchildren, about protecting the future of our families. Maggie Thatcher doesn’t understand family values. She thought she could starve the miners back to work, but she didn’t understand how strong the women are.”
While her husband was vilified, physically attacked and largely away from home, Anne Scargill independently organized women to stand up to the government themselves while also raising funds, rallying support, providing food and otherwise making sure that families and miners survived as the strike stretched on.
Dying on the dole
During my visit on a rainy afternoon in September, Scargill was busy reviewing beautiful banners, the type traditionally made by pit communities for commemoration and celebration, and organizing polo shirts, pins and other fundraising materials for Women Against Pit Closures. The conversation flitting between struggles, campaigns and tasks present and past, she chatted exuberantly with labor journalist Pete Lazenby, made plans, told stories and broke out in a cappella verses of the song composed by miners’ wives:
“They talk about statistics, about the price of coal
The price is our communities, dying on the dole
In fighting for our future, we’ve found ways to organize
When women’s liberation failed to move, this strike has mobilized”
Like most community leaders in the coalfields, she is saddened by the way things have played out since the strike. In some families, two and even three generations of men go without work, surviving on government benefits that are likely to be cut in coming months or years. Former miners slide into alcoholism and despair, suffering physical ailments linked to their work. Teens and young adults are tempted to deal and abuse heroin and other drugs; they see few economic opportunities in the small communities where low-wage call centers and shipping warehouses are all that have replaced the mining industry. Scargill volunteers to make breakfast on Sundays for homeless and drug-addicted people, saying these problems are some of the long-range effects of the strike and the government’s attack on the union.
“They were supposed to bring more jobs in, but all we got are call centers from India,” says Scargill, who is still in a union representing clerical and shop workers. She’s been in a union almost her entire life, since starting work at age 16 in a plant making electric motors. “You have miners who’d worked their whole lives underground now collecting shopping trolleys outside stores. We don’t produce anything else in Barnsley.”
The struggle continues
But there is hope. Scargill drove me through a new affordable housing development just down the hill and to the bright, airy new medical center that her daughter, a doctor, helped to found. She seemed to know instinctively that keeping alive the memories and the bonds forged during the strike is key to the area’s current well-being and hopes for regeneration.
Meanwhile, the strike is still seen as a seminal and historic event by labor leaders, leftist activists and regular workers in the United Kingdom and other countries, and Scargill still travels frequently to speak on labor and social justice issues. She reminisced about attending the World Social Forum in Mumbai, where she chided “the intellectuals tapping away at their laptops” for failing to join her out in the streets talking to the homeless and destitute. She was kissed on the cheek by the “so handsome” Fidel Castro.
She described the first time she was arrested early in the strike, when she refused to tell the officers her name until “they told me what I had done, because I hadn’t done anything wrong.” She proudly showed off a framed photograph of herself, with puffy, curly blond hair and flashing blue eyes, being restrained by two uniformed female officers. She remembered the time an officer pulled her across the road by the hair. She noted that, even now, she has flashbacks of being strip-searched whenever she encounters a police officer.
But her early run-ins with the police only made her more fierce and determined.
Many mines were closed in the wake of the strike. Then, in the early and mid-1990s, there was another economically devastating wave of mine closures. In 1993, Scargill and other Women Against Pit Closures organized peace camps outside mines slated for closure. Over the Easter holiday, one mine, Parkside Colliery, was offering tours to the public, presumably to sway public opinion against protesters. On Holy Thursday, Scargill and three other women joined a tour, introducing themselves as teachers. She used her maiden name. Once the underground tour was done they refused to leave.
“We told them, ‘We’re women against pit closures and we’re occupying your pit!’” she remembered. They had consulted with a lawyer ahead of time and told the mine supervisors that “only the police can remove us — if you lay a hand on us we’ll sue you for assault.”
They were left in the mine, so cold that Scargill said she lay down and covered herself with dirt for extra warmth. When a manager kicked her feet to roust her, Scargill said she got up and cried to the other women, “Let’s run amok in this pit!” They ended up staying below ground for five days, gaining international media attention.
“They came across a stone shed — a foreman’s shelter — which they took over and converted into a ‘house,’” remembered the journalist Lazenby. “They used sacking for curtains. A pit electrician put in lighting and a heater, unbeknownst to management, and this was their little ‘home’ for the next five days.”
While she’d spent a decade fighting pit closures, in later years Scargill also fought the opening of new “opencast” strip mines, opposed by unions because they employ fewer workers and are more environmentally destructive than underground operations. In 1997, Scargill was arrested before dawn outside the home of the owner of a company considering opencast mining; another woman said they planned to dig up his garden to show what an opencast mine does to the land.
It is widely reported by the women involved — in addition to the miners, academics and social workers — that the strike and the formation of Women Against Pit Closures forever changed the attitudes and roles of women in the coalfield communities. These small, insular villages were widely described as having a very macho, physically rough culture; men worked hard, and women were expected to be subservient and have a hot meal waiting when their husbands came home from the mines. The strike changed all that, as women found their voices and gained experience organizing, speaking out publicly and traveling on their own.
They supported their men against the pit closures and the “government attacks,” as they were widely described, but in the home things would never be the same again; women would no longer put up with the abuse and condescension they might have previously tolerated. Many marriages and families broke up in the wake of the strike, an outcome of both the economic and social distress that followed the mine closures and women’s elevated expectations and broader horizons.
“Women who might never have set foot out of their pit village found themselves speaking on platforms to gatherings of hundreds and even thousands, in Britain’s town halls and universities,” Lazenby says. “They traveled abroad fundraising. After the strike many went on into further and higher education, studying for and passing degrees.”
Scargill reiterates the significance of women’s greater education after the strike.
“A lot of miners in England were real male chauvinist pigs,” she says, never one to mince words. “Some of these women would never go out without their husbands, they had to have dinner on the table when he came in. But once the men were arrested and couldn’t be on the picket lines, the women were there. Women found strength they didn’t know they had. We organized rallies, pickets, soup kitchens. You can ask any man, if it wasn’t for the women that strike wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did…When the strike was over, men said, ‘I want my wife back,’ they wanted things to go back to like it had been. But she wasn’t subservient to him anymore. If he said, ‘Get me some tea,’ now she would say, ‘Get it yourself.’”