Workers v. State Capitalism

On October 13 thousands of Yorkshire miners went on strike in support of their union’s demand for a 40-hour week, inclusive of mealtimes, for all surface workers which the state capitalist National Coal Board had just rejected. At its height the two-week strike, which spread to other parts of the country, involved 125,000 men and closed about 140 of the 307 pits owned by the NCB.

Like most strikes these days it was “unofficial” in that it had not been called in accordance with the constitution of the National Union of Mineworkers. All the same, it was supported by many union members especially in Yorkshire, Scotland and Wales though many in other parts of the country like Durham and Northumberland were opposed to it and refused to take part despite the pleas of pickets from pits on strike. Most newspapers recognised that the strike had widespread support, though the Economist (25 October) kept up its vicious anti-union record by talking nonsense about “the minute but effectively destructive minority of extremists in the union”.

The NUM had put in a claim to the NCB for an increase in the minimum wage for working five full shifts from £13 12 6 on the surface and £14 12 6 underground to £15 and £16 respectively. Earlier the union had also demanded the 40-hour week, inclusive of mealtimes. This the NCB had already rejected offering a 40-hour week, but exclusive of mealtimes, a difference of only twenty minutes.

The Board replied that they would grant the wage claim in full, but would stand firm on hours of work. The union’s negotiating team decided to recommend that this offer be accepted, a decision which was endorsed by the full executive the day after the Yorkshire strike began. A special delegate conference, however, turned down the executive’s recommendation and now the matter has gone to an individual ballot of union members.

Whatever else this shows, it is that opinion amongst NUM members is fairly evenly divided. The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always recognised that the people best qualified to run their union affairs are the union members so we are not getting involved in the arguments about the best course for the miners to take on this issue. Are the executive right in saying that the NCB will not move on hours whatever happens? Or, are their critics right in refusing to regard wages and hours as a “package deal” and demanding that the issues be voted on separately? These are questions to be settled, as we said, by the workers who are the members of the union including any who might also be members of the Socialist Party.

The British coal industry is state-owned and at one time people used to look on nationalisation as a form of Socialism. But now even Lord Robens admits that the NCB is a state capitalist body (Times, 1 April 1968). Producing coal for sale with a view to profit, the NCB is forced to behave like other capitalist employers. It must resist demands it cannot afford. It must close pits and workshops that are not profitable. Its workers, on the other hand, have to organise in trade unions and strike just like workers in individual—and corporation-owned—industries in order to protect their wages and working conditions.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain supports workers in their struggles over wages and working conditions and we wish the miners every success in getting 40 hours inclusive, but we do not see it as our task to give detailed advice on how to conduct these struggles. That is something for those involved to work out themselves. We would merely urge workers to recognise that they have a fundamental conflict of interest with their employers (whether private or state); to subordinate sectional demands to the interests of the working class as a whole; and to decide democratically on what action to take, whatever it might be.

Trade union action, whether official or unofficial, has its limits. It defends wages and working conditions, but it leaves the places of work in the hands of their owners. As long as this class ownership lasts, workers will have to —and should—take such defensive action but they should also realise its limits and the need to organise on the political field too in order to capture the machinery of government and make the means of production the common property of society as a whole