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The Miners’ strike – a personal story I haven’t told before

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An article I found on the website of Paddy Briggs…

By Paddy Briggs

The Miners’ strike – a personal story I haven’t told before 

I was the Commercial Manager for Shell in Scotland from 1983-1986. In this job I had the overall responsibility for serving the needs of our customers in (inter alia) the Road Transport sector. As the miners’ strike intensified concern was expressed about the future of the huge Ravenscraig steelworks. The furnaces at Ravenscraig required coal to keep them functioning and if the fire in a furnace was extinguished then that furnace was lost – at huge cost. To keep the furnaces operating, even at a low level, required huge quantities of coal. This was normally supplied directly from Scottish mines – mostly by rail. Because of the Miners’ strike this supply source was stopped so British Steel sourced their Coal from overseas and imported it through a Terminal at Hunterston in Ayrshire. The coal then had to be road-bridged by truck from the Terminal to the Steel Plant – a distance of about 50 miles. The Haulage contractor appointed by British Steel for this task was a company called “Yuill and Dodds” of Hamilton run by the well-known Mr James Yuill (known to all as Jimmy). Yuill and Dodds was a Shell customer for the diesel and the lubricants their trucks needed. One day I was asked by one of my staff to visit Jimmy Yuill who was concerned that the supplies of diesel he needed might be interrupted because the Transport and General Workers Union (T&GWU) would order their members working for Shell not to make fuel deliveries to him.

Inter-union cooperation was a key part of the Miners’ strike and the Railway Unions were Full Square behind Arthur Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The position of the T&GWU was more ambivalent and I think quite local in its application. I realised that if Mr Yuill was to be kept in business and more importantly if Ravenscraig was to be kept open then Shell would need the cooperation of the local T&GWU. I arranged a meeting with the Senior T&G shop steward at our depot at Grangemouth alongside the BP refinery. This gentleman was not only the senior Shell Union official but one of the Union’s top men at a National level. He sat on the various negotiating panels that negotiated terms and conditions with the Oil industry. I had met him before and we got on well. He was a shrewd and very fair man – strong in his views but not a militant. Together we reviewed the situation. We agreed that the primary motivation must be to keep Ravenscraig open – it employed huge numbers on site and many more in service industries in the area and across Scotland. On behalf of his members I was given an assurance that there would be no disruption of fuel supplies to Yuill and Dodds.

This story is a complex one in the febrile conditions of the time. My Shop Steward colleague was naturally supportive of the Miners in their strike – as indeed was I (though, given my position, not openly!). On the other hand I had a Shell customer to protect both in the Company’s interests and in that of the wider business community around Ravenscraig and, of course, the huge plant itself (it was a large customer for Shell lubricants). I was largely on my own in seeking this accommodation with the Union via the Shop Steward. I reported the details to my boss in London. He rang me early one morning and asked me point blank (he was like that!) whether I could assure him that I believed what I was doing was the right thing to do (I did) and that no flack would hit Shell as a result of the deal (more difficult!). He backed me 100% and locally we got on with the task. Yuill and Dodds got their fuel. Ravenscraig stayed open and there were few if any reports in the media about Shell’s involvement. (There were plenty of reports about Yuill and Dodds though as secondary pickets tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the coal trucks getting into Ravenscraig!).

I have not told this story before but have been prompted to do so by the report that Margaret Thatcher was prepared to use the Armed Forces to help defeat the miners. Some are saying that this would have been to help the movement of essential supplies. I do not, of course, know the truth of this claim. All I can report is my own experience which was that locally essential supplies were kept going and with the cooperation of a major Union. My guess is that this was replicated across the Country and that there was little need for Mrs Thatcher to use the Army to provide transport. So if the Forces were on standby it was for other reasons.

Paddy Briggs worked for Shell for 37 years during the last fifteen of which he was responsible for Communications and Brand and Reputation management in a number of appointments. He was the winner of the “Shell/Economist” writing prize (internal) in 2001. In October 2009 Paddy was elected by the 33,000 Shell Pensioners in the UK to be one of the two Pensioner elected Trustees of the Shell Contributory Pension Fund. Paddy runs the brand consultancy BrandAware ™ .and writes and speaks on brand and reputation matters. He is active as a director of training courses on brand and reputation management. 

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