Britain's coal strike fueled by suspicions, anger, bitter memories

A siege atmosphere hangs over the regional strike center here. Striking miners feel they have their backs to the wall. They see the media, the law, and the political establishment out to crush their cause.

Yet no posters or signs identify this operations base, which stays open 24 hours a day, issuing instructions to pickets of striking miners in the area. Only the milkman on his early morning rounds in the rear courtyard of the Junction Inn on the Doncaster Road is able to identify the place.

''Up those stairs,'' he says, pointing up three flights of fire escape stairs to a door on the top floor of the Junction Inn building. Even then, the door with its massive steel frame and no outside handle to open it seems to resist outside callers.

Behind the door, four striking miners wait to pounce on the phone every time it rings. From here they learn who has been arrested on the picket line, how to get legal representation for those arrested, and how to control the picketing.

Yet the telephone seems as much a foe as a friend. The strike committee is convinced the telephone is tapped. So they recently set a trap. Somebody called in to ask about where pickets would be massing. To mislead the police, a committee member offered a particular time and place and then added hurriedly before hanging up: ''I shouldn't be telling you this.''

Either the phone was tapped or the caller had passed along the information: as expected, the police turned out en masse for a picketing that never took place.

Now nine months into the strike, this strike committee shows no signs of yielding. And to listen to these men reciting historic struggles in the coalfields witnessed by their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers is to appreciate how much the past has cast its long shadow on the current dispute - the longest strike in British industrial relations.

Dave McDevitt, a burly man with a ginger beard, walks toward the window and the view of the cemetery below: ''That grave there. Result of an explosion. Thirteen lads were burned.''

He ticks off a number of similar tragedies, such as ''27 kids, all drowned'' at the Silkstone drift mine. He alerts a visitor to the monument on the brow of the hill, 400 yards away, commemorating an explosion in 1866 at the Oaks mine. Hundreds were killed at that now-exhausted mine. Only one person survived.

For Mr. McDevitt, there's a message in all this:

''Every pit has had its tragedy. We are steeped in that history. Every benefit we've got we fought for. Nobody has ever given us anything. That's why people can't understand why the strike has lasted so long.''

Asked what the difference was between the current Conservative government closing down inefficient pits and previous Labour governments which had done precisely the same thing, Mr. McDevitt replies: ''The difference is two words: 'Arthur Scargill.' ''

This South Yorkshire town happens to be the power base of Mr. Scargill, the leader of the striking National Union of Mineworkers. At present about two-thirds of the 180,000 miners remain out on strike.

''Before that we never had the leadership. Scargill should have been here in the 1960s. If we had (had the leadership), we wouldn't have had the inflation in this country if we had had a policy sticking to coal.''

What Mr. McDevitt suggests is that Britain had sufficient fuels of its own without needing to turn to imported oil for power generation; that, in doing so, the enormous energy costs resulting from the oil price hikes in the 1970s caused high inflation.

Today the nub of the problem is the economic or uneconomic cost of producing coal in Britain today.

The miners' strike committee insists that it's all a matter of interpretation. A mine may be closed down, they claim, because it is not cost-efficient. But they can recite cases of mines which, with fewer men and better equipment, have reopened and succeeded.

If the public views the strike as a political rather than an industrial dispute, then the striking miners do, too - but for different reasons. Mr. McDevitt refers to the overwhelmingly critical press, the court actions such as confiscation of union assets, and government condemnation.

''The system is to keep the working class down,'' he says.

''They do it through the police, through the judiciary, and the employers.''

Determined as most strikers are to continue the battle, the struggle is not without its personal costs. Tall, handsome Tommy Delemere, with modern-styled curly hair, hasn't taken a day off - not even weekends - since the strike began last March. The strain shows. He admits that he has shouted at his children when they make financial demands on him.

''I tell them we can't do anything while we are still on strike,'' he says. His wife left him, but then returned. He won't speak to his next door neighbor because he's a policeman.

One of the bitter fruits of the miners' strike is the feeling of alienation between mining communities and the police. Mr. Delemere does draw a distinction between the local Barnsley police who, he says, have acted in a civilized way, and outside police forces that he contends have antagonized people.

The violence caused by striking miners has left much of the British public unmoved by similar charges made by miners against the police.

But independent sources and some police officials have admitted that police have overreacted on occasions. Individual police say it's not surprising that they have overreacted given the degree of violence, which in some cases amounts to calculated ambush of working miners and police.

Mr. Delemere's main contention is against the (London) Metropolitan Police. His charges have been also aired by the National Council for Civil Liberties in its latest report, which also condemns the miners' violence.

Provocative language, including obscenities by police from the south of England hurled against miners and their wives, have so incensed communities that they have reacted violently.

Mr. Delemere said troubles erupted in one village when a policemen from the south was alleged to have insulted the wife of one striking miner, calling her ''scum.''

Some of the friction he blames on regional differences. According to him the Metropolitan Police views ''us as beer-swigging, swearing, scruffy, cloth-capped , underpaid northerners. We're the scum of the earth (to them).''

Senior police officials in areas where there has been substantial friction have made special efforts to ameliorate the situation. But it has proved hard going.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.