There are too many candidates, alas, for the title of the moment trade unionism went wrong. The dire years of 1974 and 1978 cast a long shadow, even now. But, as a metaphor for a particular tale of trade unionism, it is hard to improve upon the catastrophic events of 1984. The Vice President of the National Union of Mineworkers, Mick McGahey, put the point with a candour that was so revealing it must have been inadvertent. Pressed to conduct a ballot on strike action but afraid it would draw what he saw as the wrong conclusion, McGahey said “we shall not be constitutionalised out of a defence of our jobs.”
The strike of 1984 is an incident in a familiar and mostly tragic drama. The story unfolds through aggressive and increasingly politicised trade union leadership. It is fronted by men who act as if the best way of communicating an unpopular point is to say it again, this time even louder. It is a story of the decline of once proud single-trade unions, merged into giant conglomerates without any remaining contact either with region or occupation.