1940s >> 1943 >> no-471-november-1943

The Coal Crisis, Conscription and the Future

Between 1920 and 1939 a serious situation existed for the miners; poverty, unemployment, ill-health and fatalities were constant and recurring features of their lives. They marched to London, their leaders addressed meetings of protest demanding that something be done. Nothing was done by the Government except in 1931 when the meagre dole was cut on the grounds of “economy” and “equality of sacrifice” (with the sanction of the majority of the Labour Government) : a marked difference from the feverish activity now shown by the Government and its spokesmen, when faced with a serious coal shortage. There were no newspaper appeals then nor any broadcasts calling men to volunteer for this “honourable and vital work.” There existed no need to entreat or flatter workers—in fact, when miners sought to improve their working conditions or prevent a lowering of these conditions, abuse was the weapon used against them by the mineowners or their apologists. The miners’ leaders have been referred to as “Arrogant, bellicose, stubborn to the verge of stupidity” (page 96. “The Coal Problem,” 1936, by J, Dickie, formerly Liberal National M.P. for Consett).

During the last two years another serious situation has developed, but this time the Government is seeking maximum production for war purposes, as coal production has failed to reach the figures estimated to be necessary. The severe winters of 1940 and 1941 exposed an acute coal shortage, and quickly the Government’s past policy received caustic criticism. The Economist stated : “It was assumed, far too easily, that, for the duration of the war, supply would be in excess of demand. Miners below the age of 30 were recruited into the Forces, and pits were assisted to close down. This is where the failure of foresight occurred.” (11/4/42). The national press demanded the return of skilled miners from the Armed Forces. Some were returned, but insufficient to stem the fall in production. Then in September, 1942, a district bonus scheme was instituted, which it was hoped would stimulate the miner to emulate the Russian Skakhanov. A weekly standard tonnage based on previous output, was fixed for each district and those districts reaching at least 1 per cent. above this, target qualify for bonuses. While this had some initial success, only a few districts have regularly qualified for bonus, and in recent months production has again declined.

It is this latest decline that has led to widespread accusations of indiscipline and absenteeism, and a call for speedier disciplinary action against the “culprits.” The Daily Telegraph, in a series of articles, suggested that the decline arose from “The pervading indiscipline which is at the root of the trouble”; and while the Economist states that this is not the main factor, it calls for “speedier and more direct measures to deal with offenders” (26/6/43). Previously it had pointed out that: “The main reasons for the decline in productivity . . . are probably the increasing age composition of the labour force . . . and the wastage of trained men.” (15/5/43).

We will not deal here with the charges of absenteeism and indiscipline, except to put on record the careful analysis by the Minister of Fuel, Major G. Ll. George, in the House of Commons : —

“Many Members may not know, however, that the number of absences reported each year involving absence for three days or more is between 150,000 and 160,000—that is, on an average, one man in four suffers injury involving absence of three days or more at least once in the year. There are in a year 135,000 cases involving absence for eight days or more. The industry has a very high rate of occupational sickness, while the miner is more prone than people in most other industries to rheumatism.” (House of Commons report, 23/6/43.)

Those who criticise the miners rarely use this information—they are interested only in the “avoidable” absentee figures (4½ per cent.) given by the Minister of Fuel. Analysis and truth, they are not primarily concerned with—abuse is good enough when threatening the “indisciplined” wage-slave of the mine.

One of the chief factors in the crisis is the fact that coal, like all other commodities, is produced not solely for use but for profit, and will not be produced unless the owners consider that there is a reasonable chance of profit. After June 1940 production was curtailed because the markets of France and Italy were closed to Britain. Many of the pits that supplied these markets either worked short time or closed down. The reservation age of the miners was raised, miners went to other industries or faced once more the crisis they had known for 20 years—unemployment. Again there was too much coal in Britain, and as it could not be sold it was not produced. That this curtailment of production in 1940 is the basis of the present crisis in the industry is contended by Mr. D. Grenfell, M.P. (former Parliamentary Secretary for Mines), who in the House of Commons stated recently : —

“We had more than enough men. We had more than enough production. Pits were closing down and our men were standing idle just over three years ago. . . . There was no shortage. … I warned everybody concerned that we would want these idle pits brought into production; that we should not disperse the men who were standing idle.” (House of Commons report, 23/6/43.)

Note the Labour Leader enunciating the expedient of keeping the unemployed in reserve until production can start again. Another factor is that some coal-owners are concentrating on the poorer seams and are leaving the better seams until the end of the war, or until more favourable selling conditions prevail. This has been denied, but the statement of Mr. T. Fraser, Labour M.P. for Hamilton, indicated that this practice does exist : —

“Men and materials are being directed to this mine but in such small quantity as to ensure the coal will not be in production for some time to come, but will probably be in time for a competitive market after the war. We have two other cases of mine-driving that we allege have been deliberately impeded for years so that good quality, good selling seams may be reached at another time.” (Forward, 31/7/43.)

Even in war the interests of particular groups of capitalists will cut across the interest of the capitalists as a class. Profit is the motive of capitalism—patriotism is for the miners only.

With the recognition that little increase can be expected from the present labour force, the Government have made proposals to attract others to the industry. Mr. Bevin at the Miners’ Federation Conference (20/7/43) and Major LI. George in Parliament (29/7/43) suggested conscripting lads of 16—18 for the mines. This has been met with some opposition, and it has not yet been proceeded with. Few of those who opposed the proposed measure realised that the 30,000 lads between the ages of 14—18 who worked in the mines in pre-war days (1938) were also conscripts, hunger-conscripts. Their property-less position, their poverty and the social conditions around them forced them into the mines. To-day they are able to find work less dangerous and arduous than coal-hewing, so Mr. Bevin is preparing to drive them back to the mine.

Recently a campaign for 30,000 volunteers has been launched; Mr. Bevin has spoken on the radio extolling the industry, and Trade Union leaders promised their help in boosting this campaign. But a blow has been struck that may sever the miners’ leaders from the intended “boost.” The decision of the National Tribunal on miners’ wages to award young miners wages considerably below those demanded was received by Mr. W. Lawther, President of the Miners’ Federation, with “angry amazement.” Mr. Lawther decided, in view of this decision, to cancel his intended broadcast in support of the campaign (Daily Herald, 7/9/43).

May we ask Mr. Lawther the question, “Upon what premises or promises did you lend your aid to this campaign ?” The miners have had lock-outs, wage-cuts and broken promises for 20 years, and this latest “award” is by no means the “unkindest cut.” The events of the past did not prevent labour leaders from co-operating with the ruling class in its handling of labour problems, did not prevent them from popularising the Essential Work Order; in other words, despite the lessons of the past, the labour leaders gave unstinted support to the ruling class to enable them to conscript and regiment members of the working class in the defence of capitalist interests. Where is the difference in principle that precludes co-operation now? Three years ago ample opportunity existed to force concessions from the capitalists; instead, sacrifices were asked from the workers on the plea of “national unity.” We would suggest that it is a little late to bemoan a “disgraceful award.”

Like all other capitalist industry, mining has no joyous and hopeful future for its workers. Mr. Grenfell in the Daily Herald (3/5/43) says, “there should be co-operation between managements and workers. . . . The miner must be allowed to take part in the day-to-day production of the pits. Our pits can be made to work better. . . .” His intention is to secure for the miners “better living and working onditions.” How the proposals will improve conditions is not shown. Apparently it is believed that increased production is the key to improved conditions. A glance at some production figures related to the average wages earned will explode the idea that working-class prosperity is dependent upon output.

Year Coal produced per man. Average wage
1920 (10 day’s stoppage) 187 tons £4 6s 11

1922 217 tons £2 8s 1d
1932 255 tons £2 2s 1d

— (Appendices IV. and VI., “The Coal Problem.” Dickie.)

In an article on the “Coal Question,” the Economist took a similar view to Mr. Grenfell, stressing the need for more men now, and arguing that in the first stage after the war 850.000—900,000 may be needed to supply Europe with coal. But in the second stage :—

“Europe’s coalfields will return to full work again ; . . . . Then the British coal industry operating with a contracted labour force (say of 600,000) will have to stand on its own feet in competition with other coal-producing countries, and rely on productivity rather than on abundant labour.” (7/8/43.)

What will happen to the 300,000 excluded from the “contracted” labour force? On this the Economist remains silent. Their simple solution to the coal problem is more mechanisation, improved efficiency and unified national control. The Secretary of a South Wales Miners’ Federation lodge showed what mechanisation means to the miner : “Mechanisation employed from a profit motive has made mining into an inferno of dust—the horror of dust sweeping into your lunps until they are solid lumps and you die slowly and painfully.” (Reynolds News, 5/9/43.) More mechanisation—more silicosis.

We can see that the future that capitalism offers to the miners is poverty, high incidence of silicosis, nystagmus (the eye disease prevalent in the mines) fatal accidents at the rate of 1,000 a year, and increasing unemployment. The perpetuation of capitalism means the perpetuation of these evils. The reforms advocated would leave capitalism intact, while nationalisation and public ownership are only different forms of capitalist ownership. The miner’s problem cannot be solved in isolation—it can be solved only when the workers unite for Socialism. Common ownership of the means of wealth production is the only solution of the workers problems. Our message to the miners and all other workers is to study the Socialist case and organise politically for the capture of the political machinery in order to establish Socialism. That alone will ensure the workers’ future.

L. T.

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