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John Charlton

COAL – a special inquiry

Yorkshire – ghost town threat

(June 1968)

From Socialist Worker, No. 84, June 1968, p. 7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“I hardly need say I’ve been a labour man all my life, but I feel betrayed. They are more Tory than the Tories. At the next election I’ll be staying at home (if I’ve got one to stay in) and I can tell you that goes for most of my mates.”A Doncaster miner

ANGER AND BITTERNESS towards the Labour government, the majority of miners’ MPs. the NCB, and many NUM officials is rising as the effects of the government’s policy towards the industry works itself out. And nowhere is this felt more than South Yorkshire, until recently an area less troubled by the industry’s contraction than many others.

Redundancy and closure are the main sources of concern, but miners are also angry about speed up, increasing numbers of accidents, harsher work disciplines and the steady disintegration of conciliation procedures.

Last month the NCB announced that during the current financial year, 70 pits would be closed, bringing the total for April 67–March 69 to 121, with 70,000 men affected out of a total labour force of less than 390,000. They blandly announced that it would be no longer possible to re-employ all redundant miners in the industry, and regrettably, of course, 30,000 would be sacked. By 1971 redundancies will be running at an average of 35,000 per year.

Then Chairman Brass of the Yorkshire Division revealed in the annual report that the divisional manpower total must be halved from 88.000 to 45,000 by 1975. In the same report, the Bevercotes “experiment” with its token workforce is described as “the saviour of the industry.” Whose industry? miners might well ask.

Having cynically created ghost towns in Scotland, Cumberland, the North East and South Wales, the Coal Board are now planning to bring the disease to Yorkshire, with the difference that the new ghost towns will be peopled by abandoned miners and their families who have nowhere to go.

From the frenzied drive of the management towards increased productivity. there is an upward trend in accidents. The majority of accidents appear to derive from speed up as they are concerned with machinery. Since 1952. accidents have risen from about 120 per 100.000 man shifts to about 200 – despite alleged improvements in safely conditions.

A miner at Hatfield Colliery said: “If you observed the safety regulations on my job, the whole pit would come to a stop in 10 minutes Two men are doing three men’s work.”

A miner at another South Yorkshire pit said that there had been a breakdown in relationships because the manager had arbitrarily ordered a shift back down the shaft when, after working in wet conditions, they had exercised their customary right to come to the top 10 minutes early. The manager told the men that, as they had nothing in writing, there was nothing to negotiate about. Conciliation was ignored.

In a situation of rapid contraction, the management seem to hold most of the cards. With the assistance of the press they have succeeded in getting the idea accepted that the solution to the workers’ problems is the solution to the nation’s problems, namely increased productivity, and that the pursuit of this objective justifies any inroad into the workers’ rights.

The union leadership, for so long almost indistinguishable from the management, plays the role of NCO to the Coal Board, confining its public utterances to attacking absenteeism.

It is clear that miners must fight against the inroads being made into their conditions, with or without their union leaders. Some of the traditional weapons will have to be put aside. Clearly they can no longer place any faith in parliamentary representation, or very much faith in the established negotiating procedure. The treatment of the new pay claim will no doubt give proof of that if the last derisory 12s. 6d. has not done so already.

They must build or rebuild strong rank and file organisations at the pit level. The struggle over conditions could still be won, for in South Yorkshire in the near future redundancies will still be mainly of the selective kind, and therefore easier to fight.

In an area where coal is going to be mined for as long as anyone can see, strong organisation could still resist redundancies, or at least control the phasing, and obtain the best agreements.

But to fight the threat of closure, to provide long-term solutions, not only for the Yorkshire miner, but for all miners, requires a wider political organisation, centred on demands made of the state, like “work or full maintenance.”

In the now emerging political situation, masses of workers everywhere will be faced by the same problem, and no other form of fight has any meaning.

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Last updated: 10 October 2020