This interview with Ian Lavery, president of the National Union of Mineworkers, was conducted at Ellington Colliery shortly after its closure in January 2005. The interview covers his early introduction to the industry and concludes with his perceptive and optimistic view of the future of the industry to which he and so many others have dedicated their lives.
Can you tell me a little about your family history in relation to mining?
My father was a miner all his life, as was my grandfather. My great-grandfather came from Ireland to work in the mines in the North East coalfield, and that's where it started on the Lavery side of the family. On my mother's side, the mining runs back generation after generation. So basically, I come from a family that is of 100 per cent mining stock.
Have these people always been closely involved in the union?
No, not necessarily. My father was a staunch trade unionist without ever taking a position in the union. He was one of the lads that were really well respected at the pit, and you need these guys that aren't on the union to monitor what the union is doing. People like that are important. He was a big strong man, with a lot of influence and, you know, he always supported the union. He would attend all the union meetings while not many did. On my mother's side, the majority of the family working in the industry were officials, on the management side--senior colliery overmen and jobs of that nature.
So where did you start work?
When I left school I went into a youth training scheme, and then went onto the building sites. When they started taking men and boys on at the pits in the January of 1980, I got a start at Lynemouth colliery. Six months after that I got the opportunity of a mining craft apprentice, which was an excellent prospect at the time. You got your face training early, which was a big thing, because in a very short space of time you were making good money at the coalface. After six months I was transferred to Ellington Colliery and went to college and I got my HNC in mining. They wouldn't allow me to go for the HND, but that's another story.
What were your feelings when the strike broke out?
When it started, we had these mass meetings and I thought it was tremendous that people were sticking together, and I hadn't seen it before. Most people had seen this togetherness in the disputes in the strikes in 1972 and 1974, but I hadn't seen any type of industrial action on a scale of that nature. I thought it was tremendous that people stood by each other. I was on the picket lines, which was unusual bearing in mind I was doing a management course at the time. The union agreed that indentured apprentices should go to work with the blessing of the union.
I spoke to my father about this because he and my three brothers worked in the industry as well, and we were all living at home together. When I told him I had the opportunity to go to work, he said it doesn't matter what the union say: if you go to work you'll be classed as a scab. That was one of the best pieces of advice I've ever had, and I was, as far as I am aware, the only apprentice in the North East area that refused to go to work. So that's what happened when the strike began and I was very active from day one. In fact, I think I can claim to be the first man arrested on a picket line in Northumberland. It was at Blyth Power Station in the second week of the strike. I went to the picket line in the car with my father, and by the time he parked the car and got to the picket line, I had been arrested. We were all pushing and this policeman kicked me, so I kicked him back, and was arrested. I think that arrest changed the rest of my life. I was always politically motivated, always had been, but not involved, and then the strike just swept me off my feet. Anyway, I was arrested six or seven times during the strike.
And you managed to get through the strike without being dismissed?
Yes. My arrests were all for minor offences, basically just pushing the police, and not for offences deemed serious by the National Coal Board (NCB). However, I was involved with the police over a number of things shortly after the strike, because of my activity during the strike. On several occasions after the strike they let me know that they were going to get me, and they did. I was arrested for football hooliganism; they said I ran towards 500 Manchester United supporters to try and start a fight. I know I'm a big lad, but I'm not stupid. They arrested me and threw me in the van and assaulted me. I had to have part of my ear stitched because they had tom it in the assault. One of them spat in my face, which is the most humiliating experience of my life. In court, they told lie after lie, and I was fined 1,000 [pounds sterling]. That is why I have absolutely no respect for the police.
When the strike broke out, what were your initial thoughts about it?
Some of the lads at Ellington thought it wouldn't affect us, that we'd have a ballot and get things sorted out. Then we heard that that there were pickets from Durham, Scotland and Yorkshire coming to the pit gates. I wasn't trade union motivated at the time, not like my father, but I knew that if there are pickets you don't cross the line, so I didn't even go to work. I'll be honest with you, I think it took me five or six days to begin to understand that it was about pit closures, communities and jobs, not about wages. At a huge meeting in Ashington, the Area union officials explained the closure of the five pits, and that a ballot would be held, although I personally didn't believe we should have a ballot.
You mentioned the ballot, which was one of the great issues of the strike. Can you explain your feelings about the ballot?
I think ballots are fine, if everyone at the end of the day is going to have to experience the same outcome. I didn't think it would be morally right that miners at Ellington, which at the time had a huge future, should have the right to vote someone else out of a job. That is something that I have never changed my opinion about. We had a ballot in Northumberland and we lost it, 51 per cent to 49 per cent, but the Area officials decided that because the result was so close, it would be better if we went on strike anyway, so we did. The ones that said we should have had a ballot were the ones who were against the strike, and wanted an excuse not to support the...