Nationalisation had taken place within the context of a development programme for coal, with the Labour Government and NCB planning an annual output of 250 million tons. Nevertheless, the 1947 total of 950 collieries had dropped by 1957 to 822. Then, towards the end of the 1950s, the Tory Government and NCB began to implement a systematic pit closure programme.
The argument was that Britainï¿½s energy needs should be met by ï¿½cheap oilï¿½ from the Middle East instead of ï¿½expensive coalï¿½ produced at home. At the same time, the Government was pumping funds into the new nuclear power programme, which Labour as well as the Tories strongly supported.
Between the years 1957 and 1963, no less than 264 collieries were closed, while the number of miners fell by nearly 30 per cent. During this six-year period, Scotland lost 39 per cent of its pits, while 30 per cent of those in South Wales, Northumberland and Durham were wiped out.
Throughout the 1060s, with a Labour Government in office from 1964, the pit closure programme accelerated; it decimated the industry. During this period, nearly 300 more pits were closed, and the total workforce slumped from over 750,000 in the late 1950s down to 320,000 by 1968. In many parts of Britain, miners now became known as ï¿½industrial gypsiesï¿½ as pit closures forced them to move from coalfield to coalfield in search of secure jobs.
They were victims of madhouse economics. Britainï¿½s dependence on oil imports from the Middle East (and on coal imports as well!) would have severe adverse effects on the nationï¿½s balance of payments.
Meanwhile, as pits described as ï¿½uneconomicï¿½ were being butchered, the Government continued to pump funds into the grossly uneconomic and deplorably unsafe nuclear power industry. Central Government seem determined to smash Britainï¿½s coal industry. Other European governments were decimating their coal industries as well.
Throughout this period, the National Union of Mineworkers conducted lobbies and campaigns, but took little or no industrial action. When the closure programme began, British coal met between 75-80 per cent of the nationï¿½s needs, and an NUM strategy involving industrial action could not only have halted the closure programme but helped set the energy agenda for the future.
However, the Union during this period refrained from taking up the challenge and fighting back. There were honourable exceptions; both Arthur Horner and Will Paynter, successive NUM General Secretaries, warned of the economic madness of depending upon imported energy from the Middle East. Their warnings, though, had no effect on a Government determined to accelerate a so-called ï¿½coal rationalisation programmeï¿½.
Throughout the 1960s the NUM appeared as a body immobilised., as though paralysed by some fear, and despite intense provocation of pit closures, as well as low wages and poor conditions, the Union took no real action to defend its members and the mining industry itself.
By now, the NCB was in the process of implementing key changes, based on a report prepared by the Chairman of ICI, who had recommended complete restructuring as a prelude to an inevitable mechanisation programme.
The Industry had by now seen the introduction of a national structure which paid all surface and underground workers other than those at the coal face a common rate on a ï¿½day wageï¿½ basis. By the mid-1960s, however, coal face workers still laboured under a piecework arrangement that was divisive, unsafe and not in the interests of workers or the industry.
Will Paynter and many coalfield leaders like Jock Kane of Yorkshire had always advocated the introduction of a common wage agreement so that all miners would receive the same wage for the same job irrespective of which coalfield they worked.
In 1966 the Coal Board, for reasons completely different from those advanced by the NUM, did introduce the National Power Loading Agreement which set a standard shift rate for face workers and which would by stages reach parity for all miners in all areas by 1971.
In this process, levelling-up and levelling-down of wage rates were involved, but the important principle of achieving standard rates for all was welcomed by everyone who wanted to see real unity within the NUM.
Disagreement with management over piecework earnings had been a key factor in a spate of local area strikes during the 1950s and 1960s. There had not been any national action since 1926; to some it seemed unlikely that such action would ever occur again. In the late 1960s, however, young miners in particular were becoming increasingly frustrated with conditions and Coal Board tactics.
A demand for the eight-hour day for surface workers sparked an unofficial strike that changed the Union and the industry dramatically.
It began in Yorkshire, and within days over 130,000 miners were on strike all over the British coalfield. So serious was it that the TUC became involved, holding meetings with the strike committee in Yorkshire. Following telephone conversations between TUC General Secretary Vic Feather and NCB Chairman Lord Robens, the NCB agreed that if striking miners returned to work, the Board would, within a few months, introduce an eight-hour day for surface workers!
It was a major victory; suddenly around the coalfield miners began to be aware of a power which for so long had been dormant.
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