A new era begins as Britain's coal miners head back to work

Anyone who thought Britain's year-long coal strike was a straightforward industrial confrontation must have had his mind changed at the sight of the 1,000 men of Mardy Colliery in south Wales moving back to the pits. These stalwarts of the Rhondda Valley ended their strike to the sound of church bells and the music of a brass band, as they marched back to the pits under the colorful banners of their trade union.

``This is not the end of a strike. It's the end of an era,'' one commentator noted.

As the miners' national president, Arthur Scargill, tried to best Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the longest industrial struggle in British history, it had been easy to get the focus wrong.

There was the level of politics, with Mr. Scargill and the National Coal Board maneuvering for advantage. There was the question of economics, as the two sides argued about how many miners were working, how much coal was being hewn, and how much the nation was losing. There was also the spectacle of violence, as pickets and police formed ranks, sometimes like opposing medieval armies, striving for a moral victory or at least news media attention.

But behind the picket lines and away from the television cameras, the coal strike had meant suffering, frustration, and torment for mining families. Although Scargill would not concede it, the battle had been lost not at the picket line but in the homes of striking miners.

For 52 long weeks, families in Wales, Scotland, Kent, and in the rolling Yorkshire Dales were forced to make do without wages. This meant they faced steadily mounting debt, shortage of food, and many desperate financial measures.

In the Rhondda, families began selling their furniture and personal belongings early in the strike. Many stopped their home mortgage payments and either put their family cars into storage or sold them. Children resigned themselves at Christmas to receiving make-shift presents and spartan meals.

It was the same throughout the areas where the strike bit deeply -- and it produced extraordinary measures. Local unions from around the country began collecting money for miners' families and funneling it to special committees, which purchased and distributed food and clothing to needy families.

In many areas, as winter approached and families faced the problem of surviving on a few pounds of welfare money a week, the potato became their staple diet. In Wales, Scotland, and Yorkshire, striking miners would slip into coal-bearing areas at night and scrape up enough fuel to keep a fire burning in their grates.

Those who were caught were sacked. This week, when most miners heeded their union's call and trekked back to work, several hundred could not. Their ``crime'' of stealing coal had become a bitter political issue. Critics accused the Thatcher government of vindictive behavior toward miners whose mistake had been trying to heat their homes with stolen coal during an unusually cold and snowy winter.

Other forms of bitterness began to flourish in miners' families as the strike continued. Some decided they had no option but to return to the pits, and there were cases where one brother decided to go back while another remained on strike.

One highly publicized case in Derbyshire involved a father who broke the strike and was instantly condemned by his son as a ``scab.''

``I will never talk to him again. He is not my father,'' the son said -- and friends said he meant it.

Mining communities are tightly-knit, and for as long as anyone can remember there has been a closeness between most mining villagers and local police. One disturbing outcome of the coal strike has been alienation between police and miners' families.

In one village in south Yorkshire a previously popular constable bemoaned the need to bring in police from other counties and to use horses, batons, and riot shields.

``I am now identified with violent methods, even though I used none. I used to get on well with everybody, but now some of my former friends spit on the ground then they see me,'' he said.

Civil rights groups, monitoring the strike, are calling for commissions of inquiry into methods used by police and precedents seemingly established during the long dispute. In Kent, for example, police turned back miners whom they suspected of traveling to other coal fields to act as ``flying'' pickets -- strikers who picket in areas where they do not themselves work.

This, civil rights spoksmen say, constituted a limitation on freedom of movement. They fear that police will in the future adopt similar methods in trying to prevent, for instance, antinuclear protestors traveling across county borders to United States cruise missile sites.

But although lawyers and social workers can be counted on to publicize their complaints about infringements of freedom, recovery in the coal fields will occur in obscurity, and it promises to take a very long time.

If Scargill and his supporters spoke one overriding truth during this most acrimonious of battles, it is that you cannot close a coal mine without deeply affecting an entire mining community. They might have added that you cannot call and enforce a strike without inviting men, women, and children to accept deep suffering.

``Before the strike began, I used to watch my husband go to work, and I waited for him to come home again. In between, I tried to be a good wife and mother, but as far as coal was concerned, I was a spectator. Not any longer,'' a miner's wife in Mardy declared.

Now, she said, she was ``politically conscious'' and ``part of the struggle to keep pits open.''

``I was involved in the strike, and so were the kids. We stood solid with dad.''

Mardy is far from being a place where strikes are a novelty. But such talk by the women of the Rhondda is something new.

The irony is that in many areas, family solidarity in the face of industrial pressure may have come too late to be of much help.

The thousands of miners' families, faced with mountainous mortgages and unpaid bills, understood that the Coal Board and the government would regard the collapse of the strike as a sign that they could press ahead with plans to streamline and modernize the industry.

Asked if the strike was worthwhile, a housewife in Nottinghamshire said, ``Yes, it was worth it.''

But she hastened to add that it would probably not save her husband's job or the village in which the family lived.

There was pride in the march back to the pits -- but there were also fear and few hopes that the future would be brighter after 364 days of, as Scargill kept on saying, ``defending miners' '' jobs.

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