John Charlton Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

John Charlton

The Miners Since Nationalisation

(March 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.56, March 1973, pp.11-14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The miners are facing a crisis. After the key battle they fought last year – a battle that forced a complete reversal in government policies and made possible the major victories of other groups of workers in 1972 – the union leadership is attempting to prevent a second equally decisive fight this year. John Charlton documents the background to the militancy of the miners in this article. Next month, he analyses the present crisis and indicates the way forward.


Vesting day was 1 January 1947. Miners took a holiday against the wishes of the government. The red flag was run up over many pits and the clubs rang to choruses of the Red Flag and the Internationale. A branch secretary at a pit in the Barnsley area remembers it well:

It was our lifelong dream coming true. It was a utopia. We were for it 100 per cent. What celebrations there were! The industry which had broken generations of miners was ours at last.

The euphoria hardly lasted out the first winter. 1947 was the worst winter on record. Soon the miners were being subjected to a barrage of propaganda from Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the Minister of Fuel and Power, Emmanuel Shinwell, Labour MPs, miners’ union leaders like Jim Bowman, Will Lawther and Sam Watson; and, surprisingly, from members of the Communist Party executive; not to mention the Tory press. The message was simple: ‘There is a fuel crisis. Your party (Labour) is the government. Your industry is central to the recovery. You therefore have a duty to work hard, to make sacrifices. The nation looks to you.’ This was a recurring theme during the lifetime of the Labour government. Sometimes the authorities used the pleading moral tone; at others they hysterically attacked the miners’ alleged lack of gratitude.

The first problem the employers and government tackled was absenteeism. They were ably assisted by the leaders of the NUM. In 1948 union and coal board (NCB) reached an agreement on action which would ‘subject to disciplinary action men whose attendance does not improve’. The union leaders also took part in a massive campaign to encourage the workers to do an extra shift per week – on Saturdays.

A second, equally serious problem for the board was the rising strike rate. Tory newspapers stridently denounced miners who took strike action ‘at the drop of a hat’ as they described it.

The leader of the union. Sir William Lawther, speaking at the annual conference in 1949, bluntly argued that:

The developing tendency to ignore the economic facts is perilous. We either produce what we need to maintain the standards of life we now enjoy or we shall have to accept lesser standards. At the moment we are living on credit.

The board and the government had cause to worry. Mineworkers were enjoying their new-found power. There was a desperate shortage of labour (NCB-NUM teams roamed Europe to recruit Belgians, Italians and Yugoslavs). The number of strikes was remarkable. In Yorkshire in 1952 over 630 stoppages were recorded; 28 of them in one pit! In the same year there were 779 strikes in Scotland. The board were prepared to take very stern action. In 1950, a Lancashire miner called Horrocks was sent to jail for breach of contract in leading a strike at Sutton colliery. Sympathy strikes spread rapidly and he was released two days later. Committal orders on another 50 miners were dropped.

The truth is that the board and the government could not control the developing pit-level strength of the miners. Bribes, persuasion, exhortation, threats and even jail did not work. Perhaps the overriding characteristic of the late 1940s and the 1950s was the development of rank-and-file control at the pit. It certainly had its effect on wage rates and conditions. In the fifties the miners rose from a pre-war position of 84th to near the top in the league table of industrial workers’ wages. By 1960 faceworkers in the Barnsley area could take home more than 25 pounds per week – or nearly twice the national average wage. Just how remarkable this was is emphasised by the fact that throughout the fifties the NUM leadership never lodged a national pay claim for more than 25s, in some years lodged no pay claim at all, and when they did, made it patently clear that there would be no fight.

The counter-attack

However, successive governments – Tory and Labour_ – eventually found the answer. They gave the oil companies a virtual licence to print money. This generosity was later extended to the exploiters of natural gas. From 1955 the closure programme began. Between that year and 1970 the labour force fell from 700,000 to 270,000 and the number of pits from over 600 to 300. In the early stages of this rationalisation programme the majority of displaced miners could still find work quite easily, inside or outside the industry. As the rate of closures accelerated in the early sixties, however, a growing number found themselves unemployed for long periods and even permanently, particularly in areas of high unemployment such as Scotland, parts of South Wales and Northumberland and Durham.

The NUM leadership retreated in the face of this assault to the point where management could treat them with complete disdain. This applied as much to Will Paynter, general secretary and member of the Communist Party, as it did to the most extreme right-winger. In his recent book, Ten Year Stint, Lord Robens expresses his gratitude to Paynter in fulsome terms. He describes a speech Paynter made during the 1964 pay negotiations:

Only a man of deep conviction and complete integrity could have made that speech. His purpose was to lead men away from damaging the industry and away from the destructive influences that were challenging the official leadership. Paynter was still a communist, which made his speech all the more remarkable, but his devotion to the union and the men whose wellbeing was his responsibility, as always, came before his party affiliations. ... He told his hearers that he accepted that the board’s offer of 9/6 per week on the minimum was the most the industry could afford ... Paynter ... saved the day ... Harold Wilson was on the platform that day and congratulated Will Paynter on his courage.

The union membership, having lost its job security and, lacking vigorous leadership, lapsed into apathy and disillusionment.

But this was not the case everywhere. In some areas, which maintained the traditions built up in the post-war period, miners could still turn the piece-work system against the management. In areas where the threat of closure was less immediate – South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and even coastal Durham – strong organisation at pit level forced earnings up.

The productivity deal

Chiefly because of this factor, in the mid-sixties, the NCB undertook a sudden conversion from the piece-work system, a move they had hitherto resisted. The aim of the national power loading agreement (NPLA) was to end local bargaining on money and break pit-bottom organisation so that the process of mechanisation and automation could proceed with a minimum of obstruction.

The NCB’s progress in this direction was facilitated by the caution and apathy of the rank and file, who feared redundancy and the ‘scrap heap’. The union leaders, both left and right, acquiesced, their vanity flattered by what they described as ‘the destruction of the vicious piece-work system’. They offered the board full co-operation. Management felt they could look forward to a period of stability.

This is precisely what they got for a period of three or four years. The strike figures tell their own story:

Days lost on strike for
every 1,000 employees







The effect of the NPLA on pay was dramatic. In 1966, the year the agreement came into operation, a face worker at Houghton Main, in the Barnsley area was getting up to 120s per shift. In 1970, under the NPLA, he got the national rate of 89s.10d. The deal was reaching its objectives with a vengeance. Mining must surely be the only British industry in the post-war period to have actually suffered a money wage cut! The union leadership said precisely nothing. One of the arguments used by the authors of the NPLA was that restraint among face workers would benefit lower-paid workers away from the coal face. When this suggestion was put to him in 1970, a Doncaster miner commented:

They must be kidding! My pay is £15 per week. It has risen by exactly £2 17s. 6d since 1965. In the previous five years before NPLA it rose by over £3.

Falls in earnings are easy to measure. More difficult to gauge, but in the long term much more dangerous to the worker’s life, are the other changes brought about by the productivity deal. Predominant in the NCB’s strategy was the question of control at pit level. The NPLA stated the position quite clearly:

The number of men who shall comprise a power loading team will be assessed by method study ... the union may have an observer ... the number of men will be assessed by management ... Power loading men are expected to work diligently and to co-operate in securing maximum utilisation of the machines.

This meant that in the vital areas of manning, flexibility and work intensity, all control was to be taken away from the men on the job. Before the NPLA the checker (‘chargeman’ in some areas) was a man elected by his mates to haggle over job prices with the deputy. With the bargaining job removed, the management were nevertheless anxious to maintain the checker, but as the lowest grade of supervisor, to be appointed by themselves. Other effects of the NPLA were also dangerous for the worker: speed-up of machines; fatigue and rising accident rates; an increase in anti-social three- or four-shift systems; and a rise in the incidence of chest diseases caused by inadequate dust control.

These effects of the productivity bargain were increasingly recognised after the first two or three years had passed. There was a gradual build-up of frustration among the rank and file. Acquiescence began to turn into anger as in a multitude of little ways management tried to assert their control. Typical was the comment of a Hatfield (South Yorkshire) miner to a Socialist Worker reporter in 1968:

There has been a breakdown of relationships because a manager arbitrarily ordered a shift back down the shaft when after working in wet conditions, they 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.

The destruction of the labour force, the successive relative cuts in wages – now in conditions of rising inflation – and the total collapse of any serious opposition from the leadership of the NUM or the Communist Party, all amounted to a massive betrayal. Whole communities were being destroyed, without even nominal protest.

The 1970 strike

The groundswell of anger erupted into open defiance in the autumn of 1969. The union was involved in negotiations with the NCB for a claim of 27s. 6d., and a reduction in working hours. South Yorkshire miners castigated the leadership for the modesty of the claim, especially in the light of the recent victory of the dustmen, who had won £2 10s. Miners at Cadeby colliery, near Doncaster, came out; 10 days later every pit in Yorkshire stopped, followed by some pits in Scotland and South Wales. The strike lasted two weeks, despite the acceptance by the NCB of the union’s pay demand on the second day of the stoppage.

The national leadership, without exception, attempted to sabotage the strike, aided by press, television, MPs, and of course Lord Robens. The ‘left’ leaders argued that the time was not ripe and that preparations had to be made for the ‘real struggle’ in 1970. The militants, saw the attitude of Lawrence Daly as being particularly bad; it was only months since his election as general secretary, and he had campaigned on a very militant programme, including ‘guerrilla strikes’.

However the vigorous action of autumn 1969 was not lost on the members. The executive committee was defeated at conference on a crucial pay motion, and a claim was lodged in August 1970 for a £5 increase. On 15 September the NCB replied. The previous year’s militancy had not been lost on the board either. The offer of £2 10s was the highest they had ever made. Of course, in view of the rises achieved by other workers, of rapidly rising prices and of the treatment of the miners since the NPLA, it was a derisory offer. The union leaders were forced to do something. They decided to hold a secret ballot – which would require a two thirds majority for strike action.

Lawrence Daly was in no doubt as to the action that was necessary. At a rally called by militants following the executive meeting at which the result of the ballot was announced, he said:

... nothing but strike action can be called for ... we are now not only confronting the NCB. More important we are now confronting the Tory government:

In the crucial week of the ballot Daly spoke to mass meetings on every coalfield. At Doncaster he spoke of ‘the most critical struggle in the history of the union.’ He strongly advocated strike action and went oh to say that weakness shown at this time would have disastrous effects on the future of all negotiations with the NCB.

The Right, the press and television, aided by many demoralised miners, argued that there was no case for strike action and that the necessary majority would not be achieved. After all, there had been no official strike since 1926. Yet, after all the years of defeat, humiliation and disillusionment, 55 per cent of the miners voted for strike action.

The Lefts were paralysed by a constitution designed specifically to obstruct them. The union agreed to meet the NCB again. Lord Robens raised the offer by 10 shillings. The EC recommended acceptance by a narrow majority and called for a further secret ballot.

But the rank and file would wait for the leaders no longer. By the end of the week in which the executive made this decision, 3,000 miners in Scotland, Yorkshire and South Wales were on strike. The most militant area in the coalfield during the fifties and sixties was the Doncaster area. The rank-and-file delegate body, the Doncaster Panel, representing some of the strongest pits, met on Friday 30 September, and called all pits in the area out from Monday. Scotland and South Wales seemed likely to follow suit over the weekend. Yet Lawrence Daly, speaking after the executive meeting said:

In the interests of unity, and having achieved some success, we appeal to those branches on strike to return to normal working. (Financial Times, 29 October 1970)

This appeal was ignored. The Yorkshire council, a delegate body representing every pit in Yorkshire, met on Monday and ended in uproar when Sam Bullough refused to accept a strike motion. The meeting was disbanded, though it was reported that only nine branches out of 70-odd were in favour of accepting the board’s offer.

All the pits in the Doncaster area were closed on Monday, and it was from Doncaster that the tactic emerged which was reasonably successful in 1970, and was actually to win the 1972 strike. Roving pickets were part of the mineworkers’ tradition – they were used in Yorkshire at least as early as the great strike of 1893, but in the 1970 strike, with the availability of motor transport, the tactic took on new and exciting dimensions.

The pickets would meet at a central point early every morning and agree on pits to be visited. Tradition had taught them that each area has key pits which it is necessary to bring out. after which the rest of the area usually follows. On the first two days there were no problems since no resistance was offered. The first sign of trouble came at Glasshoughton, Castleford, one of the key pits. The secretary there, Bill O’Brien, a notorious right-winger, tried to disperse the pickets and eventually called on the police to assist him. His own members defied him; the following day the whole of the Pontefract and Castleford area came out. By the end of the first week some 50,000 out of 70,000 Yorkshire miners were out. The whole of South Wales decided to join in at the start of the second week. Stoppages were taking place in Scotland, Kent and Durham, and work-to-rules were imposed in Derbyshire, Durham and Lancashire.

That first weekend was crucial. What was vitally needed at that point was for the spontaneous outburst of militancy to be channelled and co-ordinated. This demanded the emergence of an authoritative national leadership. This could have brought about a total stoppage in Yorkshire and released the flying pickets for work on other coalfields. It could have toppled the Lancashire work-to-rule over into a strike; likewise those in Durham and Derbyshire. The only people capable of providing that leadership were the left-wing minority on the executive committee, in conjunction with prominent left-wingers in the coalfields.

Lawrence Daly had a special responsibility, in view of his background, his record and his position of authority. He had said in the previous month: ‘If the members themselves take action ... there would be no room for condemnation.’ This rhetoric was laid aside and replaced by: ‘We appeal to those branches on strike to return to normal working.’ The Communist Party members on the executive did no better. Three of them actually voted for acceptance of the board’s revised offer. With the exception of Dai Francis, of South Wales, no nationally-known member of the Communist Party played any kind of role in supporting the strike. The great indictment of the party was that each of their leading members was free to make up his own mind about his course of action. So a leadership did not emerge, and the success of the strike was placed in jeopardy.

Failure and lessons

The failure of a recognised militant leadership to emerge carried two severe handicaps for the militants. First the absence of clearly-understood and co-ordinated tactics opened the way for the right-wing leadership to retrieve the initiative. Second, it meant that no propaganda offensive could be mounted. This was to prove of great significance. From the start of the strike a press and television campaign was launched to isolate the militants. In the first week, the Yorkshire Post carried an editorial in which it drew the conclusion that ‘the first people likely to suffer are those who need heating most – old age pensioners or those on fixed incomes.’ In the same paper the front-page banner headline was calculated to send shivers down the spine: COAL FAMINE DESPERATE IF WILDCAT PIT STRIKES GO ON. The same day the Doncaster Evening Post warned its readers:

Evidence is emerging of the part being played by outside extremists in fostering the spread of the unofficial pit strikes in Yorkshire ... it is not of course the first time that such elements have made use of industrial strife to further their sinister political aims... there is already, it is claimed, a splinter group within the NUM dedicated to the spread of militancy, without regard for the consequences ... the rank and file should beware of the insidious and unscrupulous propaganda now being aimed their way.

This was the beginning of a campaign which was to last throughout the strike. Tory MP John Osborne said in Parliament that Yorkshire was being ‘invaded by mobile guerrilla movements’. Of course, he received widespread publicity, as did Robens when he told readers of the Yorkshire Post that ‘BRITAIN FACES TAKEOVER BY MOB LAW.

The Yorkshire Post carried the statement that those ‘interfering’ from the outside:

... call themselves International Socialists. They are a Trotskyite organisation and some people believe they have received financial assistance from Communist China. However absurd and hysterical the allegations of the press and television witchhunt were, they were effective in frightening off the less committed of the strikers, sapping the confidence of the militants, and strenthening the hands of the blacklegs. Perhaps most important was their success in shifting discussion away from the actual case of the strikers. This campaign was a foretaste of the even more successful action mounted a year later against the power workers.

At the beginning of the third week of the strike, an emergency meeting of the Yorkshire council was held. The four Yorkshire area panels had already met; all had voted for strike action, and it was therefore widely assumed that the council’s vote in favour was merely a formality. A small and good-humoured demonstration took place outside the council meeting. However, a number of delegates, under pressure from Sydney Schofield, the area secretary, reneged on their earlier decisions, and the vote for an all-out strike was only 43 to 33. After the vote Schofield advised the 33 delegates who had opposed further strike action to break the majority decision. This was the real turning point of the strike. Militants were forced to spend the following days attempting to reactivate pickets at Yorkshire pits instead of carrying out their plans to ‘invade’ the Midlands and Durham.

Two days later, the NEC refused to accept a call from Yorkshire and Scotland for a special conference. Instead they organised a national ballot. The strike, contracting daily, staggered through two more weeks till the result of the ballot was declared. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of a return to work.

It must be emphasised that to organise an unofficial strike in over 300 individual workplaces against the firm opposition of the employers, government, union leadership and mass media was a most formidable task. It is remarkable that so much was achieved, that at its peak over 100,000 men in 140 pits were involved, and that, but for the undemocratic action of Schofield at the Yorkshire council, the strike could have spread to the Midlands and perhaps resulted in victory. But if the strike’s future hung on one man’s treachery, it was an essentially fragile achievement. The fragility can be seen in another feature of that council meeting. There were over 50,000 Yorkshire miners on strike that day. Only 300 turned up for the picket of the meeting, despite the fact that there had been a whole weekend to organise pickets.

A major reason for the militants’ weakness lay in the tactics they employed. The Yorkshire miners, particularly, had developed tremendous pit-level strength in the post-war era, especially in the struggles over piece rates and conditions. The organisation was very simple. The branch committee would make a decision and communicate it to the whole labour force in a matter of hours. This worked very well as a solution to local issues. It was useless as a means of organising a national unofficial strike.

First of all it was assumed that every miner was well informed of the issues at stake. This was not the case. The power and influence of the mass media were totally ignored. In most cases, at the mass meetings to decide strike action, no discussion took place after the committee made its recommendation.

A number of these meetings were very poorly attended. No attempt was made to communicate with members who were absent. At many pits in Yorkshire the only other mass meeting during the strike was over the first weekend, where the only information given concerned social security rights. At no time during the strike was there any discussion of tactics outside the closed panel meetings. No leaflets were published by the strike committees, and no meetings were called.

Meanwhile Lord Robens had access to every miner’s home through the television, and national and local papers. The overwhelming majority of miners spent the entire strike at home, or in the club, ignored by the militants.

Then there was no attempt at an on-going national link-up between the coalfields. This was especially important for the militants in areas like Lancashire, the Midlands and Durham, whose voices are so often drowned. Of course no machinery existed for making such contacts – but no attempt was made to forge it.

The unofficial strike of 1970 was an event of great significance for the mineworkers. It helped to revitalise the confidence in struggle that had lain dormant for so long. It tested out the important flying picket tactic. It laid the foundation for 1972.

John Charlton   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 29.6.2008