John Maclean Justice August 1914

The Scottish Coal Crisis

Source: Justice, 6 August, 1914, p. 2;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Probably by the time this article is read the Fife and Kinross miners will have given their fourteen days’ notice to their masters, and the miners in other districts will be out on strike; for be it understood that the conference of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain held at Southport on Tuesday and Wednesday, July 21 and 22, in no way averted a conflict between the miners and the mineowners.

Coal Competition in Scotland.

Readers may wish to know why trouble is imminent in Scotland whilst seeming calm prevails in England and Wales. At any rate, that was my frame of mind until I chanced to meet Mr. Robert Smillie; who, as usual (and to our delight), is the butt of all the Press puppets who are anxious to curry favour with the capitalist class in general and the mining masters in particular. I say “to our delight” advisedly, because we know that just to the extent that Smillie hits hard for his brave men will he be abused in the manner sycophants usually make peculiarly their own. Bob, as he is familiarly known, was only too delighted to assist me out of my perplexity. He assured me that the Scottish coal trade was noted for the quick rises and falls in prices of the various classes of coal, and equally quick rises and falls in wages. The keen competition of Scottish coalowners is responsible for the fluctuations in prices, and as wages are adjusted according to the ups and downs of prices, wages necessarily oscillate in harmony with prices. If my memory does not fail me. (you can verify by looking up the files of “Justice”), wages rose after the summer of 1912 from about 6s. 3d. to 7s. 9d., and since last winter they have fallen to 7s.

How Wages are Regulated.

The men have access to the books of the masters through the agency of a chartered accountant, and if they find that prices have risen they can put forward, a demand for 3d. a day on every increase of 4d. on the ton of coal. This has just been made clear to me by our good comrades Sam Hynds and Robert Robertson, miners’ officials in Fifeshire, as I made it my business whilst in Dunfermline to interview them and others. Representatives of the men and of the masters meet and discuss the demand. If they do not agree, and they hardly ever do, then the question is settled by an “independent” arbiter, generally Lord Balfour of Burleigh. By this means the men have had two breaks of 3d. a day this year, and now, as already stated, the average stands at 7s. a day. The masters have a notice in for a 25 per cent. reduction on the 1888 basis. As that basis is 4s. a day, the masters really wish the average to be reduced to 6s. a day.

The Four Days a Week Demand.

In anticipation of this outcome the Scottish Federation Executive Committee determined to get the miners to work four days a week in the hope that by restricting the coal output prices and wages would be kept from falling any lower. The Committee relied on support from the British Miners’ Federation, which, at its conference last year at Scarborough, pledged itself to support any district resisting a reduction below 7s. a day.

The officials of each county union sent circulars to the various branches urging the support of the four days’ policy. In many cases officials went to the branches and explained the purport of this move. In most areas the men were willing to fall into line in spite of threats of a lock-out, threats used by the mineowners on the pretext that contracts already entered into could not be fulfilled should the men only work eight days a fortnight instead of ten or eleven. In this connection, curiously enough, notices were regularly appearing in the Press prior to the suggestion of the leaders’ move that many mines were working two or three days a week, and others, again, had been closed down. As soon as the men’s policy was mooted these notices disappeared, and have not since re-appeared.

The Tactics of the Coalowners.

It should here be noted that the masters not only worked the Press to favour their side, but they used the lock-out to make extra profits. On July 15 last, at the Conciliation Board meeting, when Mr. Charles Carlow, chairman of the Fife Coal Company, was wishing to force the men’s wages down to 6s. (the second and last meeting on this issue took place Thursday week), Mr. R. Smillie met him with a circular by Carlow stating: “That on and after the morning of July 13 the price of round coal will be advanced by 2s. per ton, and small coal by 1s. per ton.” Handsome extra profits are going to be realised out of the public, and, strangely enough, to the prejudice of the men’s, not the masters’, case. Some poor noodles who do not know of or believe in the class war will use this to show how futile is the fight of the miners. These we pity, and tell the miners to fight on.

As already stated, the men in most areas were favourable. Perhaps the proposal received greatest opposition in Fife, and that mostly in and around Cowdenbeath. However, in an interview most willingly granted at the miners’ offices in Dunfermline, Mr. Michael Lee and Mr. James Robertson, who addressed meetings in the neighbourhood of Kelty and Cowdenbeath assured me that most of the very men who opposed the four day policy were its most ardent supporters on an explanation being given by one or other of these union officials. Others, again, declared that they would like to wait till the masters lowered their wage below 7s., and then they would willingly strike.

Some Misrepresentation.

This tedious piece of detail is all-important when I mention that the Rev. John Wood, Cowdenbeath, wrote a letter to the local Press in criticism of the leaders; that this letter re-appeared in full in the “Glasgow Herald” and that it has been used as the basis of leading articles trying to split the men from the leaders as the best means of gaining the victory for the masters.

The miners’ leaders throughout acted constitutionally, and, from the point of view of speed, did the best thing in the circumstances, irrespective of the merits or otherwise of their policy, to regulate the law of supply and demand.

After the branches voted, a delegate meeting of 66 from all over Scotland met and decided to start the restricted week on Monday, July 27. As support had to come from the British Miners’ Federation, a conference was necessary, and this took place at Southport.

The Four-Day Policy Abandoned.

As a result of this conference the four-day policy has been abandoned. It is stated that joy prevails in Scotland as a consequence of this decision. That joy had better be restrained, as it is likely to be short-lived, unless the masters for once come to their senses and refrain from pressing for the reduction below 7s. If they persist a strike will immediately take place throughout Scotland, to be followed a fortnight later by the “Kingdom” of Fife. The masters will be to blame for any suffering and starvation ensuing from the conflict.

If a Strike Takes Place.

Once the strike begins England and Wales will be balloted to see if the miners in these parts will cease work in loyalty to their northern comrades. The likelihood is that they will back up our men. At any rate, I hope so. I appeal to my Welsh comrades to back our good fellows, as I appealed through “Justice” to my Scottish comrades in 1911 over the abnormal place difficulty in Wales. If the miners come out, I can see no escape for the railwaymen and the transport workers, who are practically pledged to support one another.

Men had better stop work to fight for their rights than be stopped by the masters on account of dull trade. The trade tide seems to have turned, but I think it is not so low as to prevent the men winning yet, and, at the same time, staving off the inevitable period of dull trade and unemployment, whose black shadow is even now being cast before.

A National Miners’ Union in Scotland.

One hopeful and significant sign is the tremendous vote in favour of a National Union of Miners in Scotland. The vote for amalgamating the county unions into one is 64,876; and against, 8,614. This shows a majority of 56,262. If this vote for unity is at all indicative of the growing spirit of solidarity amongst the miners everywhere, we may rightly assume that the impending conflict with the masters will be more tremendous than the one of 1912.

In conclusion, I should like to advise the miners to revise their method of “adjusting wages.” Their business is not to accept a wage reduction because prices have fallen. The profits from coal are such that in seven or eight years the average mining company can get in profits a sum equal to the nominal capital invested. Some of them, like the Fife Coal Company (one of the largest), realise their capital as profit in three or four years. The business of a union is to force wage up and up, irrespective of prices or profits. If the aim of working-class organisations is the ending of “robbery,” or, the refined Mr. Lloyd George has called it, “unearned income,” their business is to refuse to accept a fall in profits as a justification for a reduction of wages. Absolutely no argument justifies wage-reduction, since the productive capacity of workers is growing and the mass of available commodities per head is on the rapid increase. If the capitalists cannot afford more, the only argument the workers can rightly use is the handing of the industry over to the State.

State Control.

The State control of mines and railways, may not very greatly assist the workers immediately; but a capitalist State cannot come clash up against its employees without the inevitable result of awakening the class consciousness of these workers in the political direction. And I am more convinced than ever, now that trade unionism or industrial unionism is on its trial with the decline in trade, that only with the development of class feeling and thinking along political lines can we hope for that social ownership of the land and the capital through which alone the workers can be freed from slavery and robbery.