Ian MacGregor, who died last month, was hailed by the obituary writers as the man who won the 1984-85 miners' strike for Margaret Thatcher and the Tories. They praised him as the hardnosed US manager who lured Arthur Scargill and the miners into a war they were doomed to lose.
But while the ruling class celebrated one of their most vicious fighters, Ian MacGregor's life has important lessons for socialists about the relationship between Labour governments, trade union leaders and big business. The case of Ian MacGregor shows there is nothing new about Tony Blair's open door to big business. It is a time honoured tradition of Labour governments.
MacGregor spent most of his working life in the US, building up a reputation as a vicious union buster. In 1975, after he had broken a bitter two year long strike, he found his services were called upon by the then Labour government in Britain. Eric Varley, industry minister at the time, recalled, 'MacGregor had a record of industrial efficiency and overall performance. He said he was sad about the demise of British industry, manufacturing in particular. He wanted to contribute and believed he could, based on his US experience. That is how he was encouraged.'
The Labour government gave MacGregor a place on the board of British Leyland, the then nationalised car company, and made it plain he was expected to lead a crackdown on the unions. By 1980 with the sacking of 'Red Robbo', the Communist Party convenor of the giant Longbridge car plant, under his belt, Margaret Thatcher made MacGregor head of British Steel where he slashed 80,000 jobs. Then two years later she moved him to British Coal.
His instructions were simple, to extract revenge for the 1972 and 1974 miners' strikes, which had broken Ted Heath's Tory government, and to break Arthur Scargill who had just been elected leader of the miners' union. MacGregor described what happened next as 'setting up the ducks'. But the miners were not sitting targets and the outcome of their fight was not a foregone conclusion. MacGregor initially expected to beat the miners within a few weeks. Then, as the first flying pickets fanned out, his memoirs tell us, 'I came to believe we were probably in for a three to six month long dispute.'
Both MacGregor and Thatcher were devastated by the success of the miners' pickets. The Coal Board boss recalled, 'Between Scargill's executive meeting on 8 March (1984) and Tuesday 13 March, all but 30 of the 171 pits were picketed into submission and only 11 would be left working normally 48 hours later.'
It is now generally assumed that the miners used violence to achieve this success, but the truth is that the real violence in the strike came after MacGregor demanded and Thatcher ordered a massive police crackdown on the pickets.
Even with an unprecedented mobilisation of the police to contain the pickets, MacGregor was ready to throw in the towel early in the dispute when he tried to use the government's anti-union laws against the miners and Thatcher ordered him to back off.
This was the first of several occasions when MacGregor and Thatcher wobbled and could have been beaten. Other decisive moments included the battle for Orgreave in June 1984 which had the potential to bring other workers into action alongside the miners, a two week long dockers' strike in July 1984, and the abortive strike by pit deputies in October 1984 when Thatcher was ready to give in.
The miners were eventually beaten, but not by Thatcher and MacGregor and their massed ranks of police. Defeat was not the result of the NUM's refusal to ballot its members or to stop scabbing in Nottinghamshire either. The strike was eventually broken by the failure of the trade union leaders to deliver the solidarity they had promised. Ned Smith, the Coal Board's director of industrial relations for most of the strike, made this plain as early as February 1985, when he told Channel 4 News that the turning point for the employers and government had been the TUC's refusal to implement its decision to halt the movement of scab coal and oil.
The trade union leaders' failure to deliver the support they had promised was to be expected, but less widely known at the time was the extent to which many union leaders cooperated with MacGregor throughout the strike. His memoirs tell us that 'John Boyd of the engineers' was 'one of my most important confidants on union matters and has always been a sound adviser. Throughout the strike we met...and I always took advantage of these opportunities to chat with him about the state of play. Through him I also had come to know and respect the AUEW president Terry Duffy, for whom I had as much regard. In fact, there were a number of trade union leaders with whom I could communicate and talk frankly including Gavin Laird, Gerry Eastwood, Alan Tuffin of the communications workers and of course, Frank Chapple of the electricians.'
Even more staggering is MacGregor's recollection of long negotiating sessions with the new TUC general secretary Norman Willis in early 1985. With mining families in desperate poverty and the police terrorising pit communities, the leader of British trade unionism was not touring the country drumming up solidarity. Instead he was cosying up to MacGregor, first at the Ritz Hotel and then at MacGregor's private flat in Eaton Square where, says MacGregor, 'I made the tea and poured the whisky.'
We should not forget the lessons of the miners' strike. For all the talk of partnership and moderation, the bosses know there is a constant class struggle taking place which, when necessary, they are prepared to wage with the utmost brutality. The second lesson is that the more serious the confrontation with the bosses and the state, the more spineless and treacherous the trade union leaders become.