John McCormack, who has died in Fallin, Stirlingshire, was foremost among a generation of militants who resisted the onslaught on mining communities by the Thatcher government in the 1980s.
John started work at Polmaise pit, the main workplace in Fallin, after leaving school in 1947. Always a committed member of the National Union of Mineworkers, he was elected pit delegate in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became prime minister.
The coal industry then employed more than 200,000 people. The Tories wanted much more than to implement their pit closure programme (to close 70 pits and put 70,000 miners out of work). They wanted to break the power of the NUM, which had forced the Tories into a humiliating retreat on wages and conditions in 1972, and effectively brought down Edward Heath’s government in 1974.
In 1981, the Tories, began their assault on mining communities, which Thatcher labelled “the enemy within”. Across Scotland, the coal board closed and flooded pits, tore up workplace agreements, locked-out miners and victimised union representatives.
John McCormack went into this fight as a first-class workplace union representative. He took no nonsense from pit officials and the National Coal Board (which before the privatisation of the 1990s owned all pits). He would quarrel for weeks on end about every disciplinary case. He would fight every petty injustice with the rule-book, the law, and his considerable wit and cunning.
But when the big struggle began in the 1980s, John understood that this was different. It was no normal industrial dispute. The rules under which he had defended Polmaise miners’ conditions were being thrown out of the window. John became the most articulate voice in Scotland against the area union’s moderate line, which was no match for the Thatcherite fanatics on the other side.
When John attended the Scottish miners union delegate meetings, or addressed the wider labour movement, he voiced his community’s interests. That was his starting point. He didn’t care which complacent politicians, or moderate union officials, he offended. He didn’t toe any party line.
The thin end of the coal board’s wedge in Scotland was a policy of transferring miners from pits listed for closure to other pits. Managers hoped to divide the workforce: by offering younger men transfers, and older men enhanced redundancy payments. The Polmaise miners refused to cooperate, and in 1983 were punished with a five-week lock-out, and a further 12 weeks’ production standstill. In December 1983 their pit, too, was listed for closure.
The Polmaise miners went on strike in February 1984, three weeks before the great national strike of that year started. And they were among the last to return in March 1985.
After Polmaise pit closed in 1987, John continued his work in the community, supporting former miners with legal cases and on benefits issues. He will long be remembered in Fallin as much more than a union militant: he was a loving family man; a football fan and, when he was younger, player; and MC at the miners’ welfare.
I started writing about Scottish labour issues in 1981, as a journalist for a Trotskyist newspaper. I was soon pointed in John’s direction by miners union officials from all over Scotland. When others hesitated, he called things by their right names. For years afterwards, my comrades and I were welcomed to Fallin, and very often to John’s home, with unfailing courtesy and his fantastic sense of humour. Like many left-wing politicos, we turned up thinking we had something to teach mining communities. We soon discovered that we had far more to learn from them.
The world has changed a fair bit since the 1980s, but we certainly need some modern-day John McCormacks.
⏭ Simon Pirani is a London based political activist and writer.