HISTORY OF THE NUM : 7 - INTO THE THIRTIES

The courage displayed by mining communities during the 1926 struggle had been fired by worry and fear of what would happen should they submit to the coal owners� demands. In the period that followed the long strike, their worries and fears were confirmed.

On the one hand, there was economic �slump�, which under capitalism meant unemployment and intensified hardship. But for the miners in particular there was now lower pay, longer hours and the mine owners� demands for higher productivity.

Unemployment in the coalfields, poor pay and conditions, victimisation by the owners and the existence of a breakaway organisation, all took their toll on the MFGB, whose membership by 1930 was down to little more than half its 1920 peak.

Entire mining regions suffered. Medical studies in the coalfields revealed that malnutrition affected a total of one million men, women and children in these communities. So terrible were conditions that a special Miners� National Distress Fund was set up.

Public sympathy for the miners� suffering forced the Government (now a Labour administration) to partially reverse implementation of the 1926 Samuel Commission findings. Mineworkers� shifts were thus reduced to seven-and-a-half hours� length. half an hour longer than the pre-1926 shift!

By 1931, unemployment in mining districts was up to 41 per cent, with most of those miners employed earning no more than six shillings and ten pence per day (half the wage, for example, of dockers).

The 1930s were the years of the hunger marches, in which legendary MFGB leaders and activists (including future NUM General Secretaries Arthur Horner and Will Paynter, and Nye Bevan, then a miners' agent in Wales) all played prominent roles.

The most famous of the marches, from Jarrow in County Durham, focused the nation�s attention on the plight of Britain�s unemployed. Among the workers on the march, miners were in the vanguard.

The steadily worsening conditions in the coal industry were glaringly exposed in the terrible Gresford Colliery disaster of September 22, 1934. The Denbighshire pit suffered an explosion which took the lives of 265 men and boys. In its aftermath, numerous breaches of law, evidence of speed-up and victimisation of MFGB members were all revealed. Ultimately, however, the pit�s manager and its owners were fined only �140 each.

In the wake of the Gresford disaster, a Royal Commission on mines safety was established; but it was to be another twenty years before the lessons of that tragedy yielded fresh legislation in the form of the 1954 Mines and Quarries Act.

In the period prior to 1926, the coal industry�s death rate had actually fallen, but ten years later, annual fatality figures of 134 per 100,000 reappeared, statistics which had not been seen since the turn of the century. These years of attrition and suffering led (slowly but steadily) to a national MFGB campaign for a fight back, culminating in November 1935 in a ballot that produced the largest majority vote for strike action in the Federation�s history, forcing the State to oversee some concessions on pay. These concessions could not disguise the fact that in the period leading up to the outbreak of World War Two, miners were placed eighty-first in the wages league table!

As events in Europe caused grave concern to all British trade unionists, the miners were witnessing a blow-up in Nottinghamshire, where wages had fallen even lower than those in other coalfields.

The breakaway �Spencer Union�, based in Notts but with tentacles wrapped around other parts of the British coalfield, had continued inevitably to weaken effective trade unionism in the industry and to attack the strength of the MFGB.

Such a role had been intended by those who had founded the breakaway and by those such as the coal owners who supported it. But rank-and-file hatred of the �Spencer Union� was so great that the breakaway could only be maintained in an area like Notts by the virtual outlawing of the MFGB. Even though the owners refused to recognise the Federation, nearly one in five (20 per cent) of Notts miners had held fast to the Union, and throughout the decade after 1926 continued a long, heroic campaign against �company unionism�.

This campaign came to a head in 1936 at Harworth Colliery, where the Notts Miners� Association/MFGB members came out on strike for trade union recognition. Their strike lasted six months, during which time they and their families endured arrest, police harassment, evictions and owners� intimidation.

When it was over, the union�s branch president, Mick Kane, having been charged with �riot�, was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. Of the seventeen charged with him, eleven miners and one woman who was a miner�s wife were given sentences ranging from four to fifteen months jail with hard labour; the remaining five people were bound over.

The ferocity of these sentences showed how important the dispute was; while the strikers aroused the support of the labour movement, the strike itself heralded the increasing isolation of the Spencer breakaway, which was growing steadily weaker in terms of members and influence.

With miners� wages in Notts even lower than in other coalfields, it was obvious that miners there were in need of trade union protection.

Against this background, talks on the possibilities of reconciliation between MFGB leaders and those of the Spencer breakaway had opened by the end of 1936.

Mineworkers� hatred for Spencerism was so great that when the MFGB put the question of a ballot vote, the Union�s membership overwhelmingly rejected it!

Despite this rejection, the Federation�s leadership proceeded to negotiate a merger, agreeing to terms that allowed George Spencer to become President of the Nottinghamshire Miners within the MFGB.

So, in May 1937, the breakaway returned to the Union, bringing with it both the perspective and apparatus which had engineered disastrous division in 1926. The nature of Spencerism thus re-entered the body politic of the MFGB, where it would remain in later years as part of the National Union of Mineworkers.

By now, the Spanish Civil Was had begun, and British miners gave wholehearted support to the Spanish workers� fight against fascism. A large number enlisted in the International Brigade, including leaders like Will Paynter of South Wales and Tommy Degnan of Yorkshire; they went off to Spain to fight for democracy alongside their Spanish brothers and sisters, while the MFGB campaigned at home against the embargo of arms for the Spanish Republic imposed by the British Government.

Miners, like other workers, saw this war as an historical turning point. With the tragic fall of the Spanish Republic, MFGB members (like their colleagues throughout the trade union movement) knew that before long another world-wide was inevitable.

UK Coal Secure 4m Loan
UK Coal Secure £4m Loan UK Coal has confirmed funding for the managed closure of its deep mining business. They say the deal includes a commercial loan of £4m from government as well as support from other partners which will allow the company to safely close Kellingley Colliery in Yorks

[ MORE ]
Hatfield
INVEST IN COAL NOW The National Union of Mineworkers Yorkshire Area Trust, with the agreement of the NUM National Executive Committee, Yorkshire Area Council and Yorkshire Area Trust Trustees and after taking legal and financial advice have agreed to invest £4 million in the Hatfield Colliery

[ MORE ]
Value For Money
Value for money? With regard to supporting the coal industry Vince Cable says that they have “taken the view that it wouldn't be good value for money". Wind farms take £1.2billion a year in subsidies paid for by a supplement on consumer electricity bills. Royal Bank of Scotland is 80

[ MORE ]
Ukraine Solidarity Campaign (UK)
Statement by the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign (UK) STOP THE RUSSO-UKRAINE WAR Pro-Russian para-militaries are surrounded in the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk but peace in Ukraine is far from certain, the remaining inhabitants are in a perilous position. Since April more than 1,543 military and civi

[ MORE ]