The Miners’ Strike

The National Coal Board was set up in 1947 to run the collieries the post-war Labour government bought from the old owners. Miners up and down the country celebrated vesting day, 1 January 1947, as the dawn of a new era; traditional Labour songs were sung and placards displayed claiming that the mines now belonged to the people. Few miners realised that nationalisation was merely an administrative change aimed at making the provision of coal for British capitalist industry more efficient (even if it did at the same time provide a framework within which real improvements in miners’ working conditions could be, and were, made).

The NCB’s task of supplying coal as cheaply as possible inevitably brought it into conflict with the miners whose wages were a large part of the costs of mining coal. Collective bargaining, strikes and even the prosecution of strikers continued. Lord Robens, who was NCB Chairman until last August, used to describe the Coal Board as “state capitalism”. He chose the right term. Despite nationalisation the collieries continued to be used to exploit the wage-labour of the miners. That the NCB does not make profits (does not extract surplus value from its employees) is a myth. It does, and always has done, even if this hasn’t always showed up in its own accounts.

The profits from the unpaid labour of the miners still found its way into the pockets of the capitalist class. First, coal was for many years sold to industry below its value so allowing private capitalist firms to make bigger profits. Second, the NCB has had to pay interest on the bonds given the old owners as compensation (for years of mercilessly exploiting the miners) or purchased by new investors. Since 1956 the NCB has borrowed money direct from the government so its interest payments—the fruits of course of the miners’ toil—now go directly into the pockets of the capitalists who own the National Debt.

Anticipating nationalisation the miners’ unions decided in 1945 to reorganise themselves to face the new employer. The Miners Federation of Great Britain, and its constituent unions, became the National Union of Mineworkers, and its “Areas”. Despite the name not all these Areas are geographical; some are trade or occupational catering for some craftsmen, clerks, foremen, etc. The NUM is supposed to be a national industrial union but still retains many of the features of a federation. The Areas, which until the Industrial Relations Act were registered trade unions in their own right, enjoy considerable autonomy. In fact the miner’s first loyalty is to his Area, not the national union, which often hinders the effectiveness of the NUM as a national industrial union. Militant and moderate Areas alike are equally guilty of sectionalism here.

1967 was a turning point in the mining industry. It saw the adoption of the Labour government’s fuel policy; the introduction of the National Power Loading Agreement (NPLA); and the beginning of moves to force the union’s national executive to take a more militant line on wages.

The Labour Party, including the NUM, had long called for a National Fuel Plan. When it came it can hardly have been what the miners expected for it provided for a drastic cut in coal production and a massive pit closure programme. Actually, as has now become evident—and this well shows that capitalist production can not in fact be planned—this policy was based on the temporarily low price of oil at the time it was drawn up. Since then oil prices have risen making coal more competitive so that the pit closure programme has been stopped or, as will probably be the case, delayed.

In the four years from April 1965 to April 1969 (all years of Labour government) 204 pits were closed. This caused considerable suffering and unrest in the coalfields and has helped prepare the ordinary miner for the present strike.

The NPLA was introduced to take account of the replacement of hand hewing by machine cutting. Previously colliers had been paid on a piecework system. Under the NPLA they switched to timework. Undoubtedly this meant reductions in pits where geological conditions were easier, even though the union’s leaders had a point when they said it was unfair that those in the older, and so harder-to-mine, coalfields should be penalised because of conditions beyond their control.

Up until 1967 the annual wages settlement with the NCB was put for approval to a vote of the Areas (with block voting in accordance with the Areas’ numerical size). But in 1968 the moderate majority on the union’s executive felt than an Area vote might turn down the settlement. So they by-passed Areas and put it straight to an individual vote, which accepted the settlement since the mass of any union’s membership—as the executive’s moderate majority well knew—tend to be moderate in the sense of thinking that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

In 1969 such was the pressure from militants, both in the Areas and on the executive, that the executive had to refer the settlement first to a special conference. The conference (with a voting system similar to an Area vote) did in fact reject the settlement, but an individual ballot again voted for a bird in the hand.
Not to be outmanoeuvred a third time the militant South Wales Area put down a resolution for the 1970 conference at the Isle of Man calling for a £5 a week increase for all grades and adding that a strike should be called if this was not conceded by the Coal Board. South Wales refused to allow their resolution to be “composited” (i.e. emasculated by a moderate-dominated business committee) and, despite the opposition of the executive, it was carried by a narrow majority.

There are three main grades in mining: the men doing ordinary jobs on the surface; the men doing ordinary jobs underground away from the coal face; and the men working at the face with machines, or “power-loaders”. After the 1970 conference the NUM was committed to calling a strike ballot if the Board did not offer to increase the wages of these three grades to £20, £22 and £30 respectively. The Board offered increases of £2.50. The resulting strike ballot gave 55½ percent in favour, well below the then required two-thirds. So the executive had no constitutional authority (nor, most of them, any desire) to call a strike. The Coal Board offered another 50p which was accepted by a majority of the executive and by another individual ballot.

At the 1971 conference the two-thirds rule was replaced by a 55 per cent rule and a resolution (a composite one at that!) calling for £26, £28 and £35 and a strike ballot “in the event of an unsatisfactory response” was carried unanimously. Not surprisingly the Coal Board’s offer of a mere £1.75 for most grades was unsatisfactory, not to say insulting. A special conference unanimously called for the strike ballot and an immediate ban on overtime. This time 59 per cent voted for the strike. A month’s notice to strike ( to comply with the Industrial Relations Act, and to get over the Christmas holiday period) from midnight on 8 January was given. The Board offered an extra 15p (yes, 15p!) a week—an offer so derisory as to suggest that the Board either wanted a strike or thought one inevitable (they may, for instance, believe that one big strike now will end the unofficial strikes which have become an annual event since 1968. Or they may want an excuse to resume the pit closure programme). Later they offered a few more pennies for some grades.

The strike ballot revealed that the largest Area, Yorkshire, with a 75 per cent strike vote, is now making the running in the NUM (the strike vote in South Wales and Scotland slumped drastically, but this was because under the NPLA powerloaders there were due for an increase from 31 December of £2.77½ a week—on top of the £1.90 the Board had offered, and so a very attractive bird in the hand). Yorkshire in fact supplied the figures of £26, £28 and £35 for what the union thinks the basic wage for the three grades should be.

A comment on these figures is in order since the Board has made such play of them. Since the three grades are now paid £18, £19 and £30 they represent increases of 44, 47 and 17 per cent respectively, or an increase of over 40 per cent on the Coal Board’s wages bill. But the miners are not really striking for an increase of this order. Their executive would have considered (and will consider) settling for much less. The strike is to get the Coal Board to offer more than the £1.90 they have—which to a power-loader is only 6.3 per cent, far less than the rise in the cost of living between November 1970 and November 1971.

Of course the figures are unrealistic in the sense that the union has no chance of obtaining them given its present bargaining position, but they are by no means unreasonable. After all, most people would demand a lot more than £28 a week before they would agree to go and work down a dirty, dusty, dangerous hole in the ground. Besides, the following statistics speak for themselves:

April 1967 April 1971 Percentage
Mining £22.60 £28.10 24
Manufacturing £21.13 £30.20 43
All Industries £20.58 £28.80 40

During the same period the cost of living (the index of retail prices) increased 27 per cent (These figures can all be checked in the official Department of Employment Gazette).

Over the past four years, in other words, the standard of living of the average miner had actually declined. It has been estimated that in order to restore the miners to the position they enjoyed in the wages league in 1967 (what might perhaps be called their relative standard of living) an increase in basic wages of at least £5 a week would be needed. The miners will be lucky to get half that, even by striking.

The whole sad episode of the miners’ wages illustrates the limitations of trade union action, including strikes. Trade unions can only work with labour market trends. Miners have slipped down the wages league for the simple reason that coal-mining is a relatively unprofitable and so declining industry, a fact their union cannot alter (indeed, some would argue that this strike is an expression of the miners frustration at this fact-of-capitalist-life). This does not mean that trade unions are useless. Far from it. Without their union, for all its previous moderation, the miners would have fared even more badly.

So the miners are striking to maintain and re-establish their standard of living. They should have the support of all other workers, despite the inconvenience the strike will cause some of them. Strikes inevitably cause inconvenience, not least to the strikers (and, remember, thanks to recent government legislation, the miners and the families will be existing below the official poverty line for the duration of the strike), because they are battles in the continuous class war between all workers and all capitalists over the control of the means of production. Resentment should not be directed against the strikers, or their union, or their union’s leaders, or even against the members of the Coal Board, but against the system which compels human beings to have to struggle like this just to get the basic necessities of life.

B. K.

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