Chapter 06; ...1974 strike...a conversation with miners...Labour government... ...Benn helps divide miners...


Chapter 6:
1973 – 1980
...1974 strike...a conversation with miners...Labour government...
...Benn helps divide miners...Tory plan for defeating working class...

In October 1973 the Yom Kippur war erupted in the Middle East and soon Arab nations massively increased oil prices, which were approximately quadrupled (many revolutionaries put this oil price hike down to a direct and conscious attack on the autonomous working class movements in Europe, a way of deliberately using and intensifying a crisis as a way of reinforcing the market and its authority). Inflation rose, real wages fell and trouble was again brewing in the coalfields.

Mick McGahey spoke of "defeating the government", though he stressed he meant by parliamentary means. "Phase 3" – the statutory regulation of wage increases to 7% - was brought in by the Heath government, though this government left itself the loophole of allowing extra in the case of workers working unsocial hours. The NUM executive officially "rejected" the wage offer, although Gormley was anxious to avoid a strike because "there might be an election and the Tories might win it." (he was later proved wrong – the government's part in crisis management was later taken over by the Labour Party under Wilson, and then Callaghan). An overtime ban was declared by the union on Nov.12th '73 and the Heath government declared a state of emergency the next day!!! Clearly the government created the crisis in order to mobilise the country and other sections of the working class against the miners. A national co-ordinating centre was established by the police. The TUC, the Government and the NUM tried to avoid an immediate strike: the TUC promised that if the miners got more than 7% the TUC would oppose any strike by other workers for more than this figure – the TUC would abide by Phase 3. In Jan. '74, as coal stocks dwindled, a 3-day week was declared for industry, the temperature of heating was limited, there were more power cuts and - horror shock! - television broadcasting stopped at 10.30 p.m. More than a million industrial workers were temporarily laid off. A general election was called 2 days after a union ballot went in favour of a strike, with Heath posing the simple question to the voters – "Who governs the country?" . Heath had hoped the electorate would say he did, but in fact neither the Labour Party nor the Tories got a clear mandate, though Labour got more MPs than the Tories. The miners strike had little of the autonomous aspects of the '72 strike (though there was an independent form of solidarity with the strike which became very common: in response to the government "SOS" campaign to "Switch Off Something" thousands of stickers were produced with "Switch On Something" and millions supported the miners by burning too much electricity).The NUM executive, with Scargill now part of it, co-ordinated picketting nationally; pickets were limited to 6 people. After Labour won the election, the NCB increased its offer under pressure from the government, and the NUM called off the strike, though Scargill wanted to continue it.

We reproduce a part of an article by Joe Jacobs published in the libertarian socialist journal Solidarity , January 26th 1974:

One man who had been invalided out showed me his hands. They were red and torn. Parts of fingers were missing and bones had been broken which had not healed anything like a normal hand. The man was on social security, having had to give up work because of a chest condition. His hands, apparently, were not considered as being a good reason for not being able to work. He told me his story was by no means unusual.

The interesting thing was that this miner was receiving payments which were not much less than the take-home pay of those of his mates now working a basic five-shifts week.

Everyone was eager to stress that they were doing a full week’s work without overtime. They denied they were ‘holding the country to ransom’. They felt very bitter about the way the Government and the media were presenting the position.

The basic week’s work resulted ingross earnings of £23 - £25. After stoppages, men with two or more children were taking home about £21. These reduced wages were beginning to bite; there was not sufficient to meet the rapidly rising cost of living, after payment of rent and other essential expenses

A young man, employed at a local light engineering firm, presented a sharp contrast to the miners’ position. He was working 3 days and drawing 5 days’ unemployment pay; gross pay £31 per week, take-home pay £29. When he worked a full week he grossed £37, and took home £31. He said ‘I don’t mind working a three-day week for only £2 less than full pay’. I wondered how widespread this was, although I don’t want to imply that there is no suffering as a result of the imposition of the three-day week.

1 felt the bitterness of some miners, living alongside men who were so much better off. They also felt bitter about the profiteering encouraged by the Government, while they were expected to work massive overtime in order to satisfy their modest needs. Everyone said ‘we are not on strike - we are working a normal basic week, for basic rates, which is not enough to live on’.

One younger man who had only recently returned to the mine said ‘I have five children. I’m not working for those rates when I can take home more cash if I go on Social Security’. Others said ‘There is something wrong with a society which pays more for not working while people employed in one of the worst jobs imaginable are paid so poorly.’

When I asked how they felt about the need for more coal, the reply came from almost all present, in chorus. ‘If they want coal, let them come and. get it. We won’t stop them’. When I asked who they meant by ‘they’, I was told ‘all those who say the nation can’t pay the miners more’.

We talked about the possibility of a general election if the miners didn’t return to ‘normal’ (i.e.. overtime) working. Attitudes were mixed, and in my view very confused. Some said ‘It would make no difference who formed a government, they would still have to settle the question of the miners’ pay’. Others thought they would be better off under a Labour Government. Some had faith in their trade union leaders. Others were suspicious of them. One man said ‘They can’t settle on the basis of some productivity deal. We cannot work any harder’. He also said ‘I am not a Communist, but what we want is a revolution’.

Most of the older men said they couldn’t care less about what happened to the coal industry. There was nothing in it for them. ‘Jam tomorrow’ was always being offered, but it never came.

My overall impression was that these men, treated so disgracefully all their lives, had little or no faith in any solution other than their own efforts, namely withholding their labour in order to get more pay. When I asked how more pay would solve their problems, in the face of rising prices and other means of controlling their living standards, I met a rather fatalistic response. It was simply ‘we will have to go on fighting for more. If we don’t get more, there won’t be enough miners left to produce the coal’.

The people I spoke to had not yet really begun to ask themselves questions about a real alternative to the present set-up. There was a feeling of impotence, expressed when they referred to the position they found themselves in. They felt despondent because of all the lies about coal stocks, earnings, etc. They felt they were being made scapegoats. They were aware of the power of governments and their agents. ‘What can we do?’

It was difficult to present the idea that the solution lay in their own hands, that we all had to reject the idea that political parties, trade union leaders or anyone else could do things for us. It is still very difficult for most people to develop confidence in themselves, to rely on their own efforts now, where they live and work. It is also difficult to develop a view of the possible alternatives to this society.

What the miners didn’t seem to see was that in practice they were challenging the values of the society we live in, that they were forcing the powers that be to resort to measures which will in the long run expose the nature of this society. When the miners and other working people realise the power they have, real changes will become possible.

* * *

By the end of July '74, the Labour Party had abolished the Tory-made structures of statutory wage regulation, but not before the TUC, in return for "free collective bargaining", had recognised that "the scope for real increases in consumption is limited" , and put forward as a maximal demand the maintenance of the "standard of living" (read: the standard of survival, the standard of boredom, the standard of submission). In July, the left of the NUM bureaucracy won the day by getting a resolution passed which verbally opposed incomes policy. By September, however, the NUM was giving support to the new realism of the TUC in its social contract with the Government. A wage offer by the NCB at the end of the year was supported by the right-wing of the union on the grounds that it was within the spirit of the social contract, and by Scargill and the Left on the grounds that it had broken the social contract. No independent movement of miners challenged this.

For the rest of the lifetime of the Labour government (up till May 1979) it was the right-wing of the NUM which possessed the power over the top levels of the union, whilst the Left was building up a base over lower tiers and in areas such as South Yorkshire (Scargill was Yorkshire area president). By 1977, the Labour government's attempts to reduce real wages was being resisted through strikes whose origin was wildcat whether or not they were later made official. In some collieries in Yorkshire, there was a wildcat over early retirement, and a union ballot was the method used to defeat it, the same method used to isolate and defeat any rumblings for a strike from 1974 onwards. The centre and the right wing of the NUM saw the solution to the problem of restructuring exploitation and placating the miners' anger to be a productivity scheme. The left represented the real movement by stressing (rightly, even if with hierarchical intentions and methods) that reliance on bonus schemes was detrimental to safety-standards and to guarantees against injuries. The productivity scheme pushed for by the NCB would give miners in areas such as Nottingham and South Derby the chance of earning bonuses through a larger amount of overtime working than was possible for their fellow miners in other areas. The basis of the productivity deal was that the bosses and the union would agree to quotas pit by pit . Such schemes are designed not only to increase profitability through productivity, but also through dividing the miners and preventing strikes by means of converying to a section of miners at a pit who are on strike by themselves that their action harms the bonuses of their workmates.The NUM executive and the NUM conference had rejected the deal, as had a national ballot amongst all miners. Gormley and the right-wing got the bonus scheme in through the back door with the support of Tony Benn, Minister of Energy and darling of the Left, by means of regional ballots which achieved a "Yes" vote in areas where miners would benefit and a "No" vote in areas where they wouldn't. This later had the devastating divisive effect it was intended to have, in the 1984 strike. But then Tony Benn, product of Leftism's moronic personality cult, was always a great champion of the miners: whilst devising the Notts-Yorkshire divisive plan, he could honestly claim that his blazing living room open fire was symbolic of his sympathy with the miners. As always, the symbol is a substitute for reality.

The Tories, of course, didn't bother to play such a nauseating patronising role. They acted more in conformity with their objectives - their explicit plan to crush the working class (or ''management's right to manage'', as Thatcher said). In 1978, the final report of the Conservative Party's policy group on the nationalised industries proposed:
1. In the face of industrial disputes, the eventual battle should be on ground chosen by the Tories in a field they think they could win - railways, British Leyland, the civil service or steel. As many know, it was eventually steel that was selected.
2. Every precaution should be taken to avoid a challenge in electricity or gas. Anyway, redundancies in those industries were considered unlikely to be required. They believed that the most likely battleground would eventually be the coal industry. For this end, they wanted a Thatcher government to:
i. build up maximum coal stocks, particularly at the power stations.
ii. make contingtency plans for the import of coal.
iii. encourage the recruitment of non-union lorry drivers by haulage companies to help move coal where necessary.
iv. introduce dual coal/oil firing in all power stations as quickly as possible.

3. The policy group believed that the greatest deterrent to any strike would be '' to cut off the money supply to the strikers and make the union finance them''.
4.There should be a large mobile squad of police equipped and prepared to uphold the law against violent picketting. '''Good non-union drivers'' should be recruited to cross picket lines with police protection.

As part of this strategy, the NCB and the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) bought grounds in Rotterdam port to build up large stocks out of reach.

When the Tories under Thatcher were elected in 1979, they put forward their plan of increased grants for modernisation of the pits, with the medium-term objective of further reductions in total production and further redundancies. It became obvious to almost everyone that there would eventually be an all-out miners strike. The policies of the Union and the government since then revolved around the issue of when they would prefer this unavoidable event to happen, and how they could control it. For the NUM this meant achieving more investment in coal and escaping being surpassed by autonomous class struggle. For the government this meant attacking the miners' will through inflicting a devastating and humiliating defeat on them (the more humiliating the better – not just for the miners – but as an example for the rest of the working class) in the cause of the general profitability of British capital and to provide some ideological and practical consolidation for their monetarist, intensified market-oriented policies.

During 1980, the use of coal by British industry fell by 15% and consumption in homes fell by 20%. Thirdly, use by commerce and public bodies fell by more than 10%. In particular, the restructuration of the steel industry (the closure of some older plants and a greater reliance on imported coke) slashed the demand for coking coal, which affected the South Wales pits most of all. It became obvious that the government's monetarist plans for a self-sufficient coal industry by 1983-4 implied dozens of pit closures.
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Red Marriott
Jul 4 2009 09:36

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1926-1985: So Near - So Far - a selective history of the British miners

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GerryK
Mar 14 2014 15:22