1980s >> 1984 >> no-957-may-1984

Nationalisation changes nothing

At the time of writing, after months of an overtime ban designed to force the Coal Board to increase their offer of a 5.2 per cent increase of pay, most areas of the industry are on strike against pit closures, with the NUM President and Executive trying by mass picketing to force the areas which voted against the strike to join in. If the members of unions are to maintain democratic control of their own affairs in their own hands, it is essential that there should be a ballot before a strike begins and a ballot on acceptance or rejection of the terms negotiated by their leaders for calling off the strike. In the present dispute the NUM President and Executive have consistently refused to take a national ballot, one of the results of which has been conflict between miners wanting to continue working and miners trying to prevent them.

At the same time the courts became involved. Under the law as amended by the Thatcher government it is illegal for pickets to operate elsewhere than at their own place of work. The National Coal Board were awarded a court injunction forbidding the Yorkshire Miners Association to send pickets to other areas but delayed taking the further step of going to the court with a request that the Yorkshire Association be fined for its continued breach of the injunction. The NUM obtained promises of support from unions in road and rail transport and in steel, designed to prevent the movement of coal or its import but unions in the electricity power industry refused to help and gave instructions to their members to cross picket lines and continue working.

The background of the dispute is a complex one. It involves great changes in the techniques of coal cutting; the price at which the NCB can market its coal in competition both with imported coal and with the cost of power generated by oil and gas and atomic energy; and what will be the future demand for coal if North Sea Oil goes into decline. While modernised pits can produce at highly competitive prices and make a profit, there are others which make huge losses. In the former the miners can look to continued employment but in the latter the prospect is that the jobs will disappear as the NCB closes them down. In localities where the Coal Board is the chief or even the only big employer this spells disaster for the whole population.

The government’s attitude is that the NCB as a whole shall pay its way and cease to be dependent on subsidies, thus increasing the pressure to close down the loss-making pits. The Coal Board holds record stocks of coal it cannot sell. The NUM’s aim is that no pit shall be closed, however big its losses, until all the coal has been extracted. Also that there shall be no reduction in the total manpower employed, that no coal should be imported and that government policy shall encourage the use of coal against other sources of energy. They take the long-term view that there will come a time when coal production will have to be expanded again to meet demand.

The media have for the most part been hostile to the NUM’s claims and actions, seizing on the refusal to take a national ballot as evidence that most miners are against the strike. This, they say, is undemocratic, but more of them insist that the NUM, also in the interest of democracy, should not settle the strike until after the workers have, by ballot, agreed.

The effect of the new techniques of mining on the industry and the NUM can be seen in the recently opened Selby coalfield. When it reaches full production in four years time it is expected to produce ten million tons a year, a twelfth of the Coal Board’s present total output, with just 4,000 men (Financial Times, 26 October 1983). But before Selby produced a single ton of coal over £1,000 million had been spent developing the mine and installing the costly equipment. What it means in economic terms is that more and more of the labour required to produce coal is that of workers not employed in the pits.

The mineworkers have been hit by the ceaseless change and development of industry under capitalism. In their search for profit, companies and nationalised industries take up inventions which promise cheaper production and increase profits, no matter what effect it has on the livelihood of the workers whose jobs disappear. Even if they get other work the change makes their old skills useless. In the past it was the handloom weavers driven into starvation by the application of steam power to new weaving machines; the coach drivers and farm horsemen whose jobs were destroyed by the railways and motor vehicles; the railway men in turn hit by motor transport and air transport; the morse telegraphist hit by machines and the development of telephones; and now the numerous office jobs that are becoming obsolete. Trade unions always do what they can to prevent or at least to delay the change but in the long run it is a losing battle. At present there are something under 200,000 miners, threatened by the loss of 20,000 jobs if loss-making pit closures planned for this year take place. At the beginning of this century they numbered over a million, reduced to 736,000 by the time the mines were nationalised in 1947 and to 490,000 in 1964. The NUM cannot put the clock back.

One of the tragedies of the NUM, as of other unions, is their long-held belief that nationalisation would solve their problems. The TUC began its claim for nationalisation of the mines before 1900 and the Labour Party adopted it soon afterwards. In 1919 the Miners Federation of Great Britain (as the NUM was then named) conducted a big campaign for nationalisation, got it approved by a ballot of its members and gave evidence to the Coal Commission set up to study the problems of the industry. The claim for nationalisation was combined with a claim for a 30 per cent increase of pay and a reduction of hours from 8 to 6 a day. The MFGB also argued that these claims could be met and still the price of coal could be reduced. They forgot all about capitalism. Within a couple of years selling prices for coal had fallen drastically, bankrupt companies were closing pits, and the union had to face demands for lower pay and longer hours, culminating in the General Strike of 1926 and the miners being forced back to work after a five months strike.

In the present dispute Arthur Scargill made a speech calling on the miners to unite against “the enemy, the Coal Board”. What is this Coal Board? It is the board of directors of the nationalised industry. It was set up under the Labour Government’s Nationalisation Act of 1947. The Miners Union had got what they had been campaigning for. Their MPs in the House of Commons voted for it, including its requirement that the industry should pay its way. There was nothing in the Act about maintaining the number of miners at 736,000. The Attlee Labour Government would not have dreamed of including such an impossible condition. What then did coal nationalisation bring for the miners? It was described by an earlier NUM Secretary Will Paynter in his book British Trade Unions and the Problem of Change:

  I remember the morning of January 1st, 1947—the first day of operations with nationalised mines — standing on the top of a tram of coal at one of the collieries I served as a Union Agent, making an enthusiastic speech about “the dawn of a new era”, of the significance of the day being one where the “workers were moving forward to the control of their own destinies” and that we were at the beginning of the process where capitalism would be replaced by Socialism. This was obviously a naive and immature judgement of the change taking place, as we soon realised from experience. The relationship between management and workers remained the same; the union still had to fight hard to get improvements in wages and conditions and little in the daily lives of the men reflected the change that had taken place.

Paynter went on however, to say that there had been some improvements. Discussion between the management and the unions “became less acrimonious”, and it now became possible, as it had not been before nationalisation “for workmen to influence management policy”. In the present scene he would have to abandon that also. The miners have yet to learn that nationalisation is state capitalism and alters nothing in the class relationships of capitalism.

Edgar Hardcastle