From International Socialism, No.68, April 1974, pp.9-15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
AFTER THE National Union of Mineworkers conference at Inverness last July the left in the union found itself in a position of considerable power. Leading Communist Party member Michael McGahey inflicted a crushing defeat on right-winger Len Clarke in the election for a new national vice-president.
There were five other Communist Party members on the executive together with half a dozen firmly ‘left Labour’ members. Leading Yorkshire militant Arthur Scargill had just been elected president of his area with an overwhelming majority. Later in the year Owen Briscoe, another left-winger, won the election for the secretaryship of the same area.
The wages resolution passed unanimously at the conference was uncompromisingly militant. The demands had come from the Scottish area and meant, if they were to be taken seriously, an all-out fight against the Tory government’s wages policy. It is worth quoting the resolution in full in order to appreciate the extent to which, as events turned out, all the demands were fully realisable, and to compare them with what actually happened:
‘This Conference of the National Union of Mineworkers rejects the Tory government’s claim that inflation is caused by high wage increases and emphatically rejects its wages policy.
‘Conference instructs the National Executive Committee to secure increases in wages/salaries of all members of the union in order to establish minimum wages of £35 per week for surface workers, £40 per week for underground workers and £45 per week under the National Power Loading Agreement [for faceworkers].
‘Appropriate differentials to be established for craftsmen, weekly paid Industrial Staff and other grades. These improvements to take place so as to revert to the pre-Wilberforce negotiating period.
‘The national executive committee to consult the membership in accordance with rule and precedent for their decision on any negotiated settlement or forms of industrial action.’
The Wilberforce settlement which ended the 1972 strike had contained several clauses aimed at restricting the power of the miners to fight effectively. The particular clause which caused the most dissatisfaction among the rank and file was that which extended the length of the agreement by four months, to the end of February 1973. It was pointed out time and again that the best time for an agreement to end was at the beginning of winter when the increased demand for coal at the power stations increases the miners’ bargaining power, not at the end of winter when the demand for electricity is on the decline.
The effect of this particular clause had been felt earlier in 1973. The right wing, led by NUM president Joe Gormley, had managed to stall the claim from the 1972 conference until March and then settle for £2.29 under Phase Two. Many militants felt bitter about this and by the end of the summer the Communist Party-Left Labour alliance held undisputed power in the three most important coalfields of Yorkshire, Scotland and South Wales. The possibility of mobilising the rank and file against another betrayal by the right wing was tremendously strong.
From the day that this resolution was passed in July last year the ruling class was worried. Several articles in The Economist and other employers’ journals discussed the possibility of the miners spearheading a general strike in the winter.
In the event they could have saved their finger nails a lot of wear and tear. Both the NUM executive and the TUC bureaucracy, including such stalwarts of the left as Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, made it clear as the pressure on them grew that as far as they were concerned the miners’ fight was independent of the issues facing the rest of the working class.
FOLLOWING on the fiasco of the 1972-3 claim the union moved according to the correct timetable initially. The NUM negotiators met the Coal Board on 12 September to outline the claim in full. In addition to the demands of the main resolution from conference they also asked for an improvement in the enhanced shift payment, a third week’s annual holiday – which had already been promised – and the National Power Loading Agreement rate for holiday pay.
The left, despite its strength and support, allowed the right wing on the executive to take the initiative almost from the start. Time after time their position was undercut by the shrewd manouevring of Joe Gormley and his friends. After the first negotiations with the National Coal Board (NCB) had broken down in the face of the government’s pay restrictions, the national executive committee called a special delegate conference at the end of October. The resolution before that conference came from the right-wing and called for a complete overtime ban, including a ban on weekend maintenance and safety work – an unprecedented step. At the executive meeting before the conference the left had been completely bewildered by Gormley’s enthusiasm for such a ban. They were accustomed to him making desperate efforts to sabotage militancy wherever he saw it arising, so what on earth was he up to?
Gormley’s tactics soon became clear. He wanted the overtime ban as a substitute for strike action instead of a prelude to it. When the executive decided on 8 November to implement the ban as from the first production shift on 12 November Gormley declared that the industry would ‘grind to a halt within a few weeks’. The Coal Board, when questioned officially doubted this, but they kept quiet, knowing that Joe Gormley was the best ally they had and that if anybody could prevent a strike then Joe was the man.
The left, having recovered from their amazement, swallowed the story and fell into line with Gormley’s prediction that ‘if properly applied there will be few pits working after the first week of the ban’. General secretary Lawrence Daly, speaking at a rally in Musselburgh on 10 November, forecast that ‘coal supplies can be hit within a few days of the miners’ overtime ban’ and he was backed up by Michael McGahey who repeated Gormley’s phrase that ‘the overtime ban will grind the industry to a halt’.
The previous day Daly had been even more confident. Writing in the Morning Star he said,
‘Coal production will not slowly grind to a halt. Supplies will drop speedily’. Pointing out that the ban was helped by the oil crisis, he predicted: ‘These combined factors, plus the man hours lost, will quickly cut and halt the supplies of coal, both domestic and industrial.’
The eagerness of the rank and file for action was shown by the fact that at three Yorkshire pits – Grimethorpe, Houghton Main and Allerton Bywater – more than 4,500 men started the overtime ban on 9 November, three days early. This rank and file initiative was condemned by Arthur Scargill for its lack of ‘organisation and discipline’.
The left committed a grave error of judgment by falling in completely behind Gormley and repeating almost parrot fashion his prognostications. They should have exercised more care because the effect of what they and Gormley were saying was to lull the rank and file into a false sense of security. After all, the militants who are accustomed to treating Gormley with a healthy distrust actually believed what he said when it also came from the lips of Messrs Daly, McGahey and Scargill. Dai Davies, South Wales area secretary, talked proudly about the overtime ban at a rally in Cardiff on 1 December: ‘We are forging a new weapon that will bring victory.’
By the end of November the number of militants who believed that the overtime ban itself would not win the claim was small indeed. This was exactly what Gormley had wanted-to defuse the situation at a rank and file level. His tactics were aimed completely at disarming the rank and file. But the ‘left’ ignored their effect in terms of involvement at this level and concentrated instead on trying to contain the right wing on the executive.
In December the right wing made another move. Sid Fox, a Staffordshire NUM official, declared on 12 December,
‘The time has come for all men to stand up and be counted. The coal industry and the nation face a desperate situation. Miners are still patriotic and fair-minded. They are not bloody-minded. The time has come for a ballot.’
Having ensured that the membership was not prepared for a strike, Gormley raised the question of a strike ballot on the executive. He was soundly defeated, but he achieved his object at a rank and file level. Any militant who raised the idea of a strike in the New Year was treated as an unwitting accomplice of Gormley. There was widespread confusion, and whereas the usual effect of an overtime ban is to allow the militants to be heard, this time it totally denied them a voice. With a bit of luck, Gormley must have reasoned, the overtime ban would drag on to the spring, by which time there would be so much demoralisation that the prospect of a summer strike would drive the men back to full-time working. Fortunately, Gormley’s plans went astray, though no thanks to the Communist Party-Labour left during the crucial months of November and December.
While the left was dithering the Tories were acting. The day after the overtime ban was introduced they declared a state of emergency – the fifth in just over three years. The overtime ban was actually cutting production by up to a third, though the industry showed no signs of ‘grinding to a halt’, and the government decided just before Christmas to implement a three day week in industry so that coal stocks might be assured until spring. This was a heaven sent opportunity for the ‘left’ to point out that the overtime ban could not win the claim by itself under these conditions. But it seemed that they had been repeating Gormley’s words so often by now that they actually believed them.
At the beginning of January the government encouraged the miners to believe that coal stocks at the power stations were running low, but by the middle of the month nobody could hide from the true facts. According to power station shop stewards most stations had enough coal to last at least two to three months and were likely to be able to keep going, despite the overtime ban, until the middle of summer at least. At many stations the bunkers were so full that fresh supplies were having to be turned away.
Anger among the rank and file was mounting. In Leicestershire, the most right-wing area, Frank Smith, area secretary for 28 years and a member of the national executive, proposed the overtime ban be called off. Men walked out of the pits in the area and demanded his resignation. The first mass meeting on the coal-field since the General Strike was called at which Smith was forced to apologise.
Meanwhile calls were being made at a pit and area level for the action to be stepped up. Eventually, at the national executive committee meeting on 24 January it was decided to ballot the membership with a recommendation for strike action. The ballot was held a week later and the result was a massive 81 per cent in favour – as against 58 per cent in 1972. What made the result even more remarkable was that the membership had been so badly prepared for a strike. Up until two weeks before the decision to ballot the rank and file had been encouraged by both left and right wing members of the executive to believe that the overtime ban was winning.
The massive majority showed two things: firstly it indicated the determination of the rank and file to fight and win, and secondly it showed the importance of decisive leadership. After this experience no trade union official should ever be able to blame his unwillingness to fight on the reluctance of his members. The ballot showed that the rank and file will respond to clear leadership, no matter how late it may be in coming.
In the meantime the Tories had been increasing the pressure still further. When the miners had first banned overtime back in November they were greeted with a barrage of abuse from the Tories and the press, who painted them as wreckers and traitors. The first three building workers were jailed at Shrewsbury in December and made it very clear that they understood that the vicious sentences were not just aimed at themselves, but were intended to intimidate miners and scare them away from the mass-picketing tactics which had won the 1972 strike.
As January wore on a series of vicious attacks were made by MPs and the press on Michael McGahey and other Communist Party members on the executive. On 29 January a motion signed by more than 40 Tory MPs called for the setting up of a force of ‘volunteers’ to organise blacklegging if a strike took place. By 5 February 111 Labour MPs had signed a motion tabled by Harold Wilson attacking McGahey. Included among these were seven NUM sponsored MPs.
The government played its trump card on 7 February. It called a general election, hoping that the miners would postpone the strike until the election was over, by which time the warmer weather would be arriving and the chances of the miners winning would be reduced. The response of the rank and file was contempt for any such design. Joe Gormley was now desperate. He no longer had anything to hide behind and he had to make an open attempt to wreck the fight. He announced on 8 February that he was in favour of calling the strike off, but between his statement and the special NEC meeting the following day telegrams from the branches poured into the NUM headquarters in London demanding that the strike go ahead. Several of the telegrams called for Gormley’s resignation. After the executive’s meeting Gormley was forced to admit that if the executive called it off ‘the members might walk all over us’.
Gormley had failed to get the strike postponed, but he was still determined to ensure that the rank and file were kept as quiet as possible. ‘We are determined to keep picketing under control’, he said, as though the state did not keep a police force and an army to do exactly that for him. This was accepted by the ‘left’, despite the fact that only a few days previously Scargill, McGahey and others had been proclaiming that there would be ‘a hundred Saltleys’.
Why did they bow to the wishes of the right wing? The argument that violence on the picket lines would harm the Labour Party in the election was strong, but equally strong were the attacks from both the Labour and Tory Parties on McGahey and the other Communists on the executive. The Communist Party was stung by these attacks, especially when they came from the Labour Party.
Because they were now in an election and because the policy of the Communist Party is to form an alliance one day between Communist MPs and left-wing Labour MPs they fell over themselves to prove how ‘responsible’ they were. Gone were the brave words of a few weeks before that the miners owed allegiance only to themselves and their class. Gone were McGahey’s words about solidarity with other workers on the miners’ picket lines.
Instead Bill McLean, his right hand man and Communist Party secretary of the Scottish miners, was uttering dire threats and imprecations about what would happen to any ‘outsiders’ found on the miners’ picket lines. McGahey himself made clear the way in which he wished to defeat the Tories and bring socialism. ‘I am for the ending of the government as quickly as possible,’ he said on 4 February. ‘But we’ll do it in our old traditional way, through the ballot box.’
During the strike itself almost all rank and file initiatives were squashed. Pickets dwindled from six to four, to two, and finally in many cases to none at all. Strike funds were exhausted after two weeks. They were limited under the Industrial Relations Act to £100,000 and when the strike began were at a level of less than £50,000. The union was opposed to the Industrial Relations Act, yet none of the ‘left’ on the executive were heard to advocate defiance of it in this case. On 28 January Michael McGahey had warned,
‘I have said it before and I will repeat it again: they cannot do a Shrewsbury with the miners. If they try they will have to find another way of producing coal without men.’
With pickets limited to six the Tories did not need to do a Shrewsbury, and with the pickets starved of expenses they did not need to use the Industrial Relations Act either.
At many places there was little for those miners who were picketing to do, since the degree to which other workers co-operated with the miners was even higher than it had been in 1972. But because the pickets were fewer there were numerous instances of supplies getting into power stations and steel-works and out of depots. At Saltley, the focal point of the 1972 strike, dozens of lorries were queueing to get in and out, making deliveries all over the country, whereas before the strike began there were only a few a day. According to the Sunday Times an official at the union headquarters in London admitted that after a week of the strike there were fewer than 2,000 men picketing – as opposed to well over 8,000 in 1972. He told the reporter,
‘We realise it’s going to be more difficult to keep morale up with small numbers of pickets, but we are desperately trying to reduce the points of conflict, such as arose in 1972.’
The Transport and General Workers’ Union which had issued instructions to its members not to cross the picket lines then made it clear that drivers were allowed to take ‘normal quantities’ of oil into power stations and steelworks. Nothing was done at an official level in the NUM to check this, and when efforts were made at a rank and file level to stop all movement of oil stern rebukes were forthcoming.
THE TORIES were defeated at the election and a Labour government, albeit a minority government, came to power. On the face of it few groups of workers can have ever been in such a strong negotiating position. The NUM executive could have demanded everything bar the socialist revolution and they could have got it. In the event the settlement reached with the new Employment Secretary Michael Foot on 6 March fell a long way short of the full claim. Face-workers received the full amount of £45. But the surfacemen ended up with just £32 – £3 short of what they were asking for. And underground workers were given £36 – £4 short of the claim. The agreement was dated from 1 March instead of November last year.
The third week’s holiday, despite the fact that it had already been promised, was postponed to 1974, although there will be a £30 payment in lieu this year. On top of that an allowance of 19p per shift between the hours of 8pm and 6am was granted. The offer was not put to a ballot, but was taken to branch meetings.
It is often the case that both sides in wage negotiations take it for granted that there is going to be a compromise at the end of the day. At the NUM conference last July a resolution calling simply for ‘substantial’ increases was turned down in favour of a resolution which ‘instructed’ the executive to ‘secure’ specified amounts. Was this wishful thinking or realism? listening to all the speeches one certainly gained the impression that it was realism – and after all was not the left powerful in the union and had not 1972 shown that once the rank and file felt their own power such demands were within their grasp?
Curiously, despite the fact that they had been given a clear instruction by conference to negotiate an agreement to begin in November 1973, the executive never seriously demanded it. After the defeat of the Tories Lawrence Daly briefly resurrected the point on 1 March when he proclaimed:
‘The miners have defeated Heath, and as far as I am concerned, whoever we negotiate with, I believe the miners are entitled to their full claim, paid back to November 1st last year.’
Five days later the executive agreed a settlement to be operative from March 1st 1974.
Emlyn Williams, president of the South Wales NUM had declared on 22 February, at the time of the Pay Board revelation that the miners had been ‘relatively’ underpaid for some years:
‘I believe the NUM should negotiate with the NCB for a substantial retrospective settlement back to 1970.’
Bill McLean did not go quite so far; his comment was that in view of this the settlement should be backdated to November 1973. Neither Emlyn Williams nor Bill McLean spoke out against the final settlement.
Writing in the Morning Star on 31 January Lawrence Daly stated:
‘We think that the nature of our job justifies our claim in full ...’
On 14 February he told the Pay Board:
‘Our union conference policy is to achieve a weekly wage of £45 for the miner at the coalface, £40 for other underground workers and £35 for those on the surface. But that claim was formulated 12 months ago, and in view of the increase in the cost of living since then, and the energy crisis, the Pay Board may well consider these objectives too modest.’
On 47 February he returned to this theme:
‘There is a case for giving miners a higher wage than they have been seeking in negotiations with the National Coal Board and the government.’
On 1 March he introduced another idea:
‘In fact, I think that, whatever the government is, the miners should be paid for the period they were on national strike.’
As far back as 16 January Peter Tait, a member of the Communist Party and an NEC member from Yorkshire, told a meeting at Rawmarsh near Rotherham that, ‘The miners’ wage claim is already outdated because of rising prices, and should be higher.’ Peter Tait voted for the final settlement, which was lower than the claim.
Michael McGahey was equally as outspoken in his demands. On 4 February he said, ‘We want hard cash now, we don’t want these policies of jam tomorrow.’ On 2 March, after the election, he was quite categoric:
‘The present demands will have to be met and a guarantee given to the miners that there will be future wage advances and acceptance of a new miners’ charter conceding shorter hours, earlier retirement, increased pensions and so on.’
On 5 March:
‘With the atmosphere of free collective bargaining the Coal Board have the opportunity now to demonstrate their sincerity by meeting the original claim in full.’
When the settlement was reached the following day he began to talk about an ‘interim’ agreement and the ‘jam tomorrow’ of the new miners’ charter, despite the fact that back on 15 January he had stressed that the charter was not up for discussion until the present demands had been met.
Emlyn Williams, the outspoken President of the South Wales miners, told a rally in Cardiff on 1 December last year,
‘Let there be no divisive tactics from our national negotiators. The basic wage first, everything else is secondary ... As a member of the Labour Party I say to the national President: “We no longer have loyalty to any government, Tory or Labour”.’
On 31 January he said, ‘We want our claim in full.’ Speaking at another rally in Cardiff on 26 February he stated, ‘We will not go back until we have achieved all we came out for.’ At that same rally, with 5,000 miners present, George Rees, South Wales vice-president, put a resolution declaring that the miners would accept nothing less than the full claim backdated to November. It was passed unanimously.
On 3 March Emlyn Williams proclaimed:
‘Nothing other than meeting our full claim would be acceptable to call off the strike. We as leaders have only one loyalty, and that is to our members.’
Uncompromising talk indeed! But suddenly the tone changed. On 7 March he explained that it was only an ‘interim’ agreement. Seven pit delegates in South Wales were mandated to vote against accepting the offer, but Emlyn Williams and Communist Party NEC member for South Wales, Dai Francis, pleaded for ‘unity’ and all but the Cwm Lodge delegate fell in line. Williams explained:
‘We now expect an inquiry to start as soon as possible after the resumption of work into the union demand for additional fringe benefits.’
Was he under the mis-apprehension that the £3 missing from the surface workers’ claim and the £4 from the underground men’s claim were ‘fringe benefits’?
THE STRUGGLES in the mining industry over the past two years points boldly to one lesson in particular for all other workers: in order to become a ‘special case’ workers have to unite in struggle against the government and, providing they are strong enough and cause the employers sufficient discomfort, the government will duly recognise their claim. There is one major drawback in using the argument however. For by using it one group of workers set themselves apart from all the others in other industries.
After the success of the miners in 1972, Socialist Worker carried the headline, ‘We Are All a Special Case’, but, as I have suggested, it is one thing to call yourself a special case; it is another thing altogether to get the state to agree with you. Weaker sections of the working class, such as hospital workers and ambulancemen, had just as much right, if not more, to be called ‘special cases’. It is not difficult to make out a reasoned argument which points out that such workers are socially worth much more than the miserable wages they receive. Unfortunately, however, it is not reason that counts, but muscle and the ability to hit profits. In comparison with the miners such workers have very little muscle on their own.
In their introduction on behalf of the NUM to the book A Special Case? Messrs Gormley, Schofield and Daly argued that it was their carefully reasoned logic before the Wilberforce tribunal which won them recognition as a special case and a ‘more reasoned approach both to our case and to the “special cases”of the future’. 
Lawrence Daly certainly handled the NUM case with great proficiency at the Wilberforce Inquiry, but surely we are not expected to believe that this is what forced Heath to concede a substantial proportion of the miners’ demands. The 1972 strike, like every other successful strike was won on the picket lines – not in the negotiating room. It was the determined action of the rank and file that brought Heath to his knees, not the rhetoric and statistical dexterity of the NUM national officials. Heath only set up the Wilberforce Inquiry after he had realised that he could not win, and he did it in an attempt to save a little face, not out of a charitable desire to let the union put its case forward.
In 1973 most of the sections of the class who fought were defeated, either because their leaders retreated or because they simply were not strong enough on their own. The notable exception was the case of the Glasgow firemen, and they only won because their strike threatened property, unlike the hospital workers and the ambulancemen. As the year wore on these workers and many others looked towards two tremendously powerful sections of the class whose muscle they could use – the miners and the engineers.
At a rank and file level militants in these two industries became increasingly aware of their common interests posed by their respective pay claims. Joint meetings and demonstrations were organised at a local or rank and file level in some areas to prepare for the struggle. Left-wing leaders in the NUM implied that there could be a joint fight. In Scotland Michael McGahey encouraged talks between NUM representatives and AUEW district committees, and Lawrence Daly was continually stressing that the miners were not a special case.
On 2 December, however, Hugh Scanlon said that he was not having any of it. He told a meeting of engineering workers at Luton that there was no question of any approach being made at a national level between the miners and the engineers with a view to joint action. In the New Year the AUEW leadership, prompted by the ‘left’ decided that they needed an overtime ban to pursue their own claim. There was one drawback to this, however. Heath had plunged the engineering industry into a two day lock-out as part of his strategy for beating the miners. Under such circumstances an overtime ban was pure nonsense. The AUEW leadership decided to postpone any action at all until after the miners’ strike.
Scanlon argued that it would be wrong to go for a strike because the membership were not prepared. If this was the case then only Hugh Scanlon was to blame – he had not mounted a campaign among his own members for the claim. Besides, during all the weeks that engineering workers were on a three-day week and the Tories were trying to blame the miners for it, the engineering workers’ support for the miners was impressively solid. But the chances of any joint action were squandered as the AUEW bureaucracy stonewalled and the ‘left’ leaders in the MUM did nothing to bridge the gap to the rank and file and the chances of any joint action were squandered.
Meanwhile Daly’s contention that the miners were not a special case was being buried by the TUC. On 10 January TUC general secretary Len Murray showed that he was a fitting successor to Baron Feather by crawling abjectly to the government. In a letter to Heath he wrote:
‘If the government are prepared to give an assurance that they will make possible a settlement between the miners and the National Coal Board, other unions will not use that as an argument for their own settlements.’
Daly was quite clearly being contradicted by his own ‘chief of staff’, but his answer was to pretend that it was not happening. He said:
‘The TUC economic committee has not used the term “special case” when speaking of the miners’ claim, but has said that settlement of the miners’ claim would not be used as an argument by other unions to increase their wages.’
Daly said there was not a ‘special case’, but the TUC letter spoke of ‘a distinctive and exceptional situation in the mining industry’.
On the same day Hugh Scanlon reappeared on the stage, announcing on the BBC’s World At One:
‘All we want for ourselves is a settlement between us and the engineering employers without referring to the miners.’
And, as if that were not enough, he hastened three days later on ITV’s Week-End World to assure the government and employers that all he was after was to ‘get an offer to the limit of Phase Three, not to break it’. This was serious news indeed – he was not only determined to leave the miners on their own, but also to sell his own members out as well. On the same programme Jack Jones of the transport workers backed him up: ‘Industrialists and trade unionists would both agree that the miners’ case can be settled exceptionally without repercussions elsewhere.’
On 14 January Michael McGahey declared where he stood. The miners, he declared, were not going ‘to crawl to prosperity at the expense of other workers’. Two days later the TUC held a special meeting for the general secretaries and presidents of all affiliated unions. Only two unions, the Journalists and the Foundry section of the AUEW, voted against the economic committee’s line. None of the leaders of the major unions – the Transport and General Workers, the engineering section of the AUEW, the General and Municipal Workers or the Electricians and Plumbers – even bothered to contribute to the discussion. Afterwards NUM president Joe Gormley thanked the other unions for their support and the TUC’s economic committee for its ‘initiative’ in assuring the governmsnt that other unions would not use an ‘exceptional’ settlement in the case of the miners as an argument for higher wages themselves.
Two days later NUM executive member for Kent Jack Collins was bitterly critical of the TUC. Speaking to the Ealing Trades Council, he said:
‘The government is acting from a weak position and instead of running to it, the TUC should be organising the working class to smash Phase Three and to get the release of the Shrewsbury lads from jail.’
After the strike had begun and the Tories had called a general election they realised that even if they won the election with a massive majority they would still have to pay the miners. They seized on the Pay Board’s relativities report as the instrument for getting themselves off the hook, rather in the way that they had seized on ex-Conservative candidate Wilberforce in February 1972 and the anonymous official solicitor later in the same year when they were forced to release the Pentonville Five. The similarity between the incidents struck many people and several journalists at the Pay Board inquiry began to refer to the chairman Sir Frank Figgures as ‘Lord Wilberfiggures’.
The premise from which the relativities inquiry started was that there is a certain amount which workers in total are allowed to receive. What had to be determined was what percentage of this the miners should receive, what they were worth in relation to other workers – not their worth in comparison with a merchant banker or a property speculator.
The NUM was obviously in a difficult position. If it refused to participate in the inquiry the Tories would almost certainly win the election. The executive decided on 12 February to attend the inquiry. Reliable sources indicate that it was Michael McGahey himself, despite all his brave talk about not crawling to prosperity at the expense of other workers, who proposed attendance.
Because of the nature of the inquiry, the NUM had to prove why miners should be allowed more. Lawrence Daly began to slide.
‘I have never argued that the miners are the only special case,’ he said on 14 February, ‘and will contend that, in view of the oil situation and the need for an expansion of the coal industry, miners must have better pay and conditions to ensure that we attract the necessary manpower.’
Three days later he went further:
‘Those who deny the miners are a special case have to be reminded in terms of death and permanent disability from accidents, occupational chest diseases, sickness and stress ...’
From Wilberforce to ‘Wilberfiggures’ events had come full circle and Daly was once again arguing for a ‘special case’.
THE QUESTION still remains – why were the surface men sent to the wall? The answer is partly to be found by looking at the Pay Board. The inquiry conducted by ‘Wilberfiggures’ was an exercise in buying the miners off. Not only the NUM and the NCB gave evidence to the inquiry. Many other
organisations turned up to offer their advice – the Confederation of British Industry, the Electricity Council, British Rail, the British Gas Corporation and the Engineering Employers’ Federation, to name but a few. All these bodies expressed an uncanny degree of solidarity. They all said increase the differential between the faceworker and other grades and for Christ’s sake don’t let the surface men have too much. The Gas Corporation put it in a nutshell, saying that,
‘If additional payments were made to surface workers in jobs which had easy comparability in industry generally then this could have implications for us.’
In other words when all the members of the NUM executive apart from Jack Collins and Arthur Scargill voted for acceptance of the final offer they voted for the face-worker to ‘crawl to prosperity at the expense of other workers’, to quote Michael McGahey’s memorable phrase. They voted to give the Labour government a chance to hold wages back in other industries, while letting the miners through as a special case.
After the 1972 strike sections of the ruling class began to realise that the miners’ newly rediscovered sense of self-importance in the economic life of the country would lead almost inevitably to further massive confrontations.
During the 1960s the Labour government had presided over the carving up of the mining industry. The co-operation of the union in the decimation of the industry was assured by the fact that the union leaders had the responsibility of policing productivity deals such as the National Power Loading Agreement. The effect of such deals meant that most pit-level negotiating rights were scrapped, the number of workmen on the face team was strictly limited, the ratio of officials to men was vastly increased and wage rates were actually cut in some areas and held tightly back everywhere. The value of the productivity deal in disarming the rank and file, while concentrating more power in the hands of the full-time union officials and making them responsible for policing agreements, demonstrated by the Wilson government of 1964-70, was not lost on the Tories.
One of the results of the Wilberforce settlement in 1972 was a commitment on the part of the NUM to the negotiation of a fresh productivity deal. Two years later this has still to be concluded, but the willingness of the trade union leaderships, both ‘left’ and right to co-operate with the new Labour government surely increases the chances of a productivity deal being pushed through.
Certainly, if The Economist is to be believed, the ruling class is almost hysterical in its clamour for the power of the miners to be curbed, and it sees increased productivity as the central weapon in any such campaign. Pointing out that present level of coal production of 144 million tons a year is considerably higher than the National Institute’s energy forecast needs of between just 106 and 111 million tons by 1980, The Economist complained at the end of 1972:
‘... no-one connected with the industry has ever spelled out how productivity gains of the proper magnitude – 20-30 per cent – can be achieved... it is obvious that miners will continue to agitate for higher wages until they are again among the most highly paid industrial workers. Unless big gains can be made in productivity, the NCB’s costs are going to rise swiftly, perhaps as swiftly as the price of oil.’ (16 December 1972)
As a result of the ‘oil crisis’ the projected coal demand by the end of the decade may now be slightly more than 111 million tons, but we have to realise that by 1980 North Sea oil will be flowing ashore at a considerable rate. Besides, in the same article quoted above The Economist spelled out the businessman’s attitude to ‘Productivity gains of the proper magnitude’, while maintaining the present level of output:
‘If productivity is to increase at a pace that gives miners higher wages without crippling the industry again, maintaining the present level of output could still mean dispensing with 100,000 of today’s 280,000 miners by the end of the decade, and the drop will be concentrated in the less prosperous regions.’
It is a pity that more workers do not read The Economist. The way business journals talk about ‘dispensing’ with the men who provide them with their bread and butter would do a lot, I am sure, to improve class relations in Britain! Some nine months later The Economist returned to the attack:
‘In not too many years Britain’s coal industry could become a money-spinner, provided it can be made to operate efficiently. But it will never operate efficiently so long as the NCB’s grossly unprofitable pits continue.
‘Their quick demise should be part of the negotiations now going on between the NCB, the National Union of Mineworkers and the government.’ (23 September 1973)
Above all else the 1974 miners’ strike proves the necessity of building a strong rank and file movement in the NUM that is capable of forging the vital grass-roots links with other workers in struggle, capable of taking up such issues as the jailing of the Shrewsbury pickets and capable of taking action independently of the official leadership whenever they show themselves to be acting against the interests of their membership.
After the 1972 strike a number of rank and file militants came together to start the rank and file paper; The Collier. Since then the Collier has grown in strength and influence – both as a paper and as an organisation of the rank and file. In the years ahead it will undoubtedly begin to challenge the right-wing and the bureaucracy in the union, not just by contesting elections but by building a movement within the union that is capable of acting independently when leadership is lacking from above. Fighting leadership in the union is not a matter of personalities; it can only be guaranteed when those elected are held directly accountable for their actions to the membership. Lawrence Daly was elected as general secretary of the NUM on a militant programme that included campaigning for guerrilla strikes on the coal field. Yet Daly played a vital role in breaking the unofficial strike of 1970. His deeds did not match his rhetoric because he had no base within the union to which he was accountable and no movement to discipline him.
In the years ahead strong and principled leadership will be needed, for the future of the coal industry is not as secure as NCB Chairman Derek Ezra and energy minister Eric Varley like to pretend. Within the next few years we can expect a harsh attack on the miners in an attempt to break their strength.
This strength is drawn from the determination and solidarity of the rank and file in struggle, and only to the extent that the rank and file are organised will they be able to defeat such attacks.
1. A Special Case?, edited by John Hughes and Roy Moore, Penguin 1972, page 8.
Last updated on 6.3.2008