The Miners’ last stand
A coalface worker from Scotland writes about the strike.
The present struggle of the miners has been a long and complicated one eventually forcing them to strike work. It began as far back as the end of the second world war, when in Britain, as elsewhere in the world, there was a shortage of fuel. There had been no large investments into plant and machinery; coal was still being hewn and drawn by hand. Vast amounts of capital were required to modernise coalmining by introducing mechanisation. Higher coal output was essential to the capitalist class as a whole, but the coalmines were owned by independent capitalists, who were not prepared to invest large amounts into an industry which did not have a secure future. This was the main reason the Labour government nationalised the industry, the usual procedure when the interests of the capitalist class as a whole are being jeopardised commercially by a group which owns a key industry.
From the time of nationalisation, the NUM pursued a policy of moderation, being under the false illusion that nationalisation and the Labour government were in the workers’ interests and would lead to vast improvements eventually. This enabled the NCB to provide coal at prices below those prevailing on the world markets. The miners were just getting over these illusions when in 1956 came the crunch.
Coal, the miners were told, is finished; it cannot compete with other fuels. Governments showed that oil, natural gas, and nuclear power, were cheaper and more efficient than coal, and started to run down coal production. The number of collieries fell from 840 in 1956 to 299 in 1970. The labour force declined from 697,400 in 1956 to 295,650 in 1970. The chairman of the NCB, year after year, asked for productivity, and because of fear of redundancies, the miners responded. Output per man shift in 1956 was 24.8 cwts; in 1970 it was 43.4 cwts. and in 1971 was 46.9 cwts. Earnings, however, did not rise in conjunction with productivity. In 1956 the miner was top of an earnings table of 17 industries, in 1970 he was 13th in the table, 4th from the bottom.
Yet still the industry declined; the mining communities were broken up; villages deserted, many families moving home as many as three or four times. The unemployment rate for miners is over 8 per cent. The miners were treated as capitalism always treats its unwanted, in a callous and degrading manner.
In the collieries that remained, mechanisation took over almost completely. 240 HP machines cutting coal into fine power and spewing it out at over 3 tons per minute, creating a permanent cloud of dust at the coalface. This will give miners pneumoconiosis, the dreaded lung disease, and conjunctivitis, the eye disease, much earlier than ever.
In the late 60’s, however, things began to change again. In 1966 the National Power Loading Agreement, was signed. This agreement meant that over the next five years up to 1971, the lower-paid areas, Scotland, South Wales, etc., would be brought up to the same wage level as the higher-paid areas of Notts and Kent. In reality this agreement has meant that the wages in the high-paid areas have practically stood still to allow the low-paid areas to catch up. This has led previously unmilitant areas like Notts to become as militant as the more traditional militant areas of Scotland and South Wales.
Government policies here and abroad in the years 1968-69, of running down coal production, have proved to have been very shortsighted, and have led to the present world-wide shortage of coking coal. This is seen in Britain, by millions of tons of coal being imported from Australia at up to £35 per ton. The N.C.B. are trying to reopen mines, and are surveying for new deposits. In America and Russia vast coalfields are being opened up, but will not be in operation till 1975-76.
The miner sees himself in a better position for bargaining than he has been in for many years. He is not going to let the chance pass as he did in the 1950s. For the first time in their history all the coalfields arc on the same wage level; they are united going for the same thing, £26 surface, £28 under ground, and £35 coalface, with corresponding increases for craftsmen. They are more militant than ever before, as has been seen by the unofficial strikes in 1968-69-70. In a national ballot in October 1970, 55 per cent voted to strike, after rejecting an offer from Lord Robens of £2.50, the highest ever offered in their history. Union rules prevented a strike then by demanding a 66 per cent vote to call a strike. Even so 100,000 miners struck work unofficially, and the offer was increased.
In November 1971, an overtime ban was put into operation, and a national ballot gave the executive the majority to call a strike. The NCB offer of £1.75 to £1.80, was well below the £5 to £9 asked for, the £9 being to bring the lowest paid underground man from £19 to £28. After weeks of talks and no increase in the offer, a strike was called to start on 8 January. After more talks the offer was increased by 10p per week, with some vague talk about extra holidays provided there was extra production. This brought the offer up from a 7.1 per cent increase to 7.8 per cent, keeping it under the government’s ceiling of 8 per cent. This too was rejected.
The miners believe that a lot of other demands they will soon be making depend on the outcome of this strike: A better pension (at present the miner gets £1.50 per week after 50 years service); usually he has some disablement from working over the years in arduous conditions; the re-introduction of the six-hour day, which the miner had after the first war, but lost in the lockouts of the 1920s; three weeks holidays which many industries already have.
The NUM have the backing of the railway unions, the Transport and General Workers Union, and the seamen’s and dockers unions, who refuse to go through miners’ picket lines. This has meant that they have been successful in picketing power stations, and to a lesser degree the docks.
There has been some confusion, however, and unwelcomed publicity about the picketing of coalboard offices. The staff of these offices belong to different unions, the Colliery Officials and Staffs Association, which is affiliated to the NUM and, mainly in the area offices, the Clerical and Administrative Workers Union. The NUM have instructed these unions that there will have to be staff working during the strike, to allow payment of income tax rebates to strikers, sick pay to miners on compensation, and pensions to widows and retired miners. COSA called all its members out saying, “one out, all out”, and the others nearly all worked on. This led to some offices working and some not, and the NCB saying that tax rebates may not be payed out. The NUM made it clear that they would not picket offices, but some misinformed NUM members and striking COSA members picketed some area offices in an angry and vile manner. The TV and press have made great play of this. The NUM have cleared this up, however, by making their pickets go to places that will benefit the strike more.
Despite what the NCB say, in Scotland the NUM have covered safety for personnel underground; they supply winding enginemen, boiler firemen, engineers, blacksmiths and electricians to stand by as long as officials are going underground. They are not, however, in most cases going to supply men to save machinery and equipment, which is more of a worry to the NCB as every day the strike lasts the more this equipment is crushed at the coal face. The price of this electronic and hydraulic face equipment is very expensive and will cost the NCB millions of pounds to replace.
All this is taking place in a country where one coalmine was in operation where only a handful of men went underground, and no one worked at the coalface while the machines were in operation; production was all controlled from the surface. This, however, proved unprofitable due to the high cost and maintenance of the machinery, as coal like every other commodity under capitalism is produced for a profit on the market, and not for social use. Men’s health and lives are available at a cheaper rate than machines.
The miners are struggling to maintain their standard of living under capitalism, and while we support workers in this struggle, we see that at the end of the day workers will still be in the same position; they will still be wage slaves subject to the anarchistic and wasteful economic laws of capitalism.
We, therefore, urge workers to join with us in the political field, to abolish capitalism and set up a worldwide, classless, wageless society, where the wealth of the world is produced for the common use of mankind, and not for profit. Then people like miners will not have to survive from week to week, on the pittance they get for spending a great deal of their time, crawling on their bellies, filling their lungs with dust, at some gas-filled, wet and treacherous coalface.