From International Socialism, No.23, Winter 1965/66, p.5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Nicholas Howard writes: The British coal-miner looks as though he is about to win a victory, without leadership, without organisation, and certainly without the National Union of Mineworkers. Lord Robens, enthroned for another five years at a cool £14,000 per year, has informally hinted at his willingness to concede a four- or even three-day week, if it can be arranged by spreading the work force over at least six producing days per week. Sidney Ford, the office clerk who railroaded to NUM power on the premature death of the nationally elected president in 1960, is waiting for the National Coal Board to take the initiative on the four-day week, a reform which could, with the engineers’ similarly won four-shift week, set precedents for the whole of industry, National Plan or no National Plan. The bitter truth for the miners, however, is that this is a victory for mass absenteeism on Mondays and Fridays, paid for by a voluntary reduction in the pay and standard of living of the miners. In 1947, coal miners were the highest paid members of the British working class. Today they lag behind motor vehicle workers, printers, steel workers and refinery workers. Surface workers almost qualify for membership of the submerged tenth. The competitive benefits of the Welfare State make absenteeism easier to bear, and the spread of motorways through Yorkshire is bound to stimulate the drift away from the mines there. Such victories by accident can hardly be seen as blows at the power of the nationalised industry’s bureaucratic empire. Nor can they be hailed as advances in working-class organisation. For the plain facts are that each miner acted solely as an individual without heeding the needs in team production of his brother miner. And the National Coal Board is not an autonomous bureaucracy but an organised business with tremendously competitive tensions running through it. In terms of sheer capitalist efficiency in management and forecasting, training and supervision, mechanisation and streamlining, it surpasses the vast majority of private enterprises. While the economy still relies on coal for two-thirds of its fuel requirements, the NCB has to be so; it has also to have the most strictly regulated of industrial laws, the Mines and Quarries Act, to ensure that efficiency does not run ahead of the needs of the miners. But such State safeguards are no protection against dust and the speed-up of the machine cutters and haulers that are replacing the old colliers and pit-men. Robens’ present propaganda about producing 200 million tons per year, regardless of its saleability, is aimed at restoring the confidence of the miner in a job he dislikes in an industry that is losing out to rival fuels. Last year, voluntary wastage exceeded recruitment, and, with retirements, deaths and redundancies, the loss in manpower was nearly thirty thousand. This year it will be around fifty thousand and the President of the British Association of Colliery Managers forecasts a decline to 300,000 men by 1970, which is 100,000 less than the National Plan requires. At the same time, output per man-shift is rising more rapidly than was expected, and by 1970 output will be totally mechanised, regardless of economic cost.
In fact it probably suits the NCB to see the miners pre-empting the need to do a Beeching-style pruning operation on the industry. Miners are showing that monetary rewards are not sufficient recompense for the dust-ridden disadvantages of the job. Mechanisation is however reducing the frequency and the length of strikes. Geared to a piecework day-wage system, it enables the face worker to live on three days pay, be comfortable on four, and live it up occasionally on five. However, the tensions are rising with fitters and craftsmen whose non-piecework day rates represent too high a differential when compared with face workers. Though face workers are taking their own way out of the struggle, there are dark hints from some craftsmen of a breakaway movement from the tired leadership of the NUM.
Last updated on 8.10.2007