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Following the success of the 1972 strike, Britainï¿½s miners were in no mood to see their living standards eroded through the incomes policy of the Tory Government. In the autumn of 1973, the NUM introduced an overtime ban in pursuit of a wage claim.
The Governmentï¿½s swift response contrasted sharply with its approach in 1971 and 1972. On November 13, the day after the overtime ban commenced, a state of emergency was declared, aimed at limiting industry to a three-day week! Shops and offices were severely restricted in their use of electricity for heating or lighting, and television channels were to close down not later than 10.30pm.
Meanwhile, the Coal Board would not negotiate on the Unionï¿½s claim. The Union proceeded to ballot the membership on taking strike action. The result astounded even the most militant NUM members: 81 per cent voted in favour of action.
Then, in early February 1974, as the NUM National Executive Committee was making plans for the strike, Prime Minister Edward Heath announced that Parliament was to be dissolved, and a General Election would be held at the end of the month, on February 28.
The Prime Minister wrote to the NUM President Joe Gormley, asking that the National Executive Committee suspend the strike during the election campaign period and that Union members be asked not to take action.
Joe Gormley sympathised with Edward Heathï¿½s point of view, and recommended a positive response to his request. But the NEC disagreed; by twenty votes to six, it decided to continue with the strike which was after all about minersï¿½ wages.
The Governmentï¿½s tactics in calling the election were clear. The issue before the British people, said the Tories, was: ï¿½Who governs Britain?ï¿½ By blaming the miners for the Governmentï¿½s crisis, they hoped both to win the election and strengthen their hand in the ongoing struggle with the NUM.
The strike went ahead. Other trade unions rallied to support the miners as they had done in 1972. As in 1972, the NUM did not put the situation in the hands of the TUC; the betrayal of 1926 was not forgotten, and miners were not going to be put in that position again.
The strike was highly effective; the large-scale ï¿½flying pickersï¿½ which featured so prominently in 1972 were not seen on the same scale this time; there was simply no need of them. Other trade unions, including the NUR, ASLEF and the T&GWU, stopped the flow of coal and oil to power stations and industry.
Ironically, just before the strike began, the Government had at last made a move, referring the issue of minersï¿½ wages to a Relativities Pay Board. The NUM agreed to give evidence to this Board, but refused to be bound by its finding. When the strike was only one week old, General Secretary Lawrence Daly presented the evidence on the Unionï¿½s behalf as he had done to the Wilberforce Inquiry in 1972.
The Pay Board ended its deliberations on February 22, but agreed not to report its findings until after the General Election and the formation of a new Government.
The Tories lost the election, and a Labour Government came to power, with Michael Foot as the new Secretary of State for Employment, responsible for dealing with the minersï¿½ strike.
The Pay Boardï¿½s report recommended that miners should be given ï¿½exceptional increasesï¿½; a substantial rise in wages, payments for unsocial hours, holiday pay and other benefits proposed were accepted by a Union Delegate Conference. The miners marched back to work victorious for the second time in just over two years on Monday March 11, 1974
As a direct consequence of the strike, the Labour Government invited the Coal Board and Union to join in tripartite discussions. From these talks there eventually emerged the ï¿½Plan for Coalï¿½ which set both shorter-term (150 million tonnes per year) and longer-term (200 million tonnes per year) production targets for the industry.
For the first time since nationalisation, there was a real plan; it seemed that ahead lay expansion and development, as opposed to contraction and butchery.
During the 1970s new coalfields such as Selby in Yorkshire were opened up, along with drift mines in various parts of Britain. For the first time in two decades, investment poured into the industry, while over ï¿½200 million was put into a pneumoconiosis scheme for the victims of that disease.
But the Labour Government, instead of implementing true socialist policies, sought to make capitalism work more effectively and efficiently than the Tories had. This inevitably brought Labour into conflict with the trade union movement, culminating in a bitter dispute with the public service unions in what became known as the ï¿½winter of discontentï¿½.
The policies pursued by the Labour Government elected in 1974 led to its defeat in 1979.
The incoming Tory regime led by Margaret Thatcher was determined to have revenge on the miners, whom it saw as having brought down its predecessor in 1974, and it set about that revenge ruthlessly.
After pledging to honour the ï¿½Plan for Coalï¿½ the Government in 1981 authorised the Coal Board to implement a closure programme involving 23 pits. The minersï¿½ response was swift. Within days, over half the British coalfield was on strike, including areas such as Nottingham and the Midlands, traditionally known as ï¿½moderateï¿½ It is interesting to note that this strike action took place without a ballot or even a conference decision.
The Government, following a meeting with the NUM National Executive Committee, agreed in the face of the action to withdraw the closure proposals and put them through the industryï¿½s normal review procedures! Many hailed this as a ï¿½U-turnï¿½ by the Tories and a victory for the Union.
But there were others such as National Vice President Michael McGahey, who saw it merely as a ï¿½body swerveï¿½. comparable to the infamous ï¿½Red Fridayï¿½ of 1925. Within a short space of time, this view was to be fully vindicated; the Government had merely gained breathing space while it continued to prepare a major assault on the mining industry.
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