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 ownersï¿½ demands. In the period that followed the long strike, their worries and fears were confirmed.
On the one hand, there was economic ï¿½slumpï¿½, which under capitalism meant unemployment and intensified hardship. But for the miners in particular there was now lower pay, longer hours and the mine ownersï¿½ 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 Minersï¿½ National Distress Fund was set up.
Public sympathy for the minersï¿½ suffering forced the Government (now a Labour administration) to partially reverse implementation of the 1926 Samuel Commission findings. Mineworkersï¿½ shifts were thus reduced to seven-and-a-half hoursï¿½ 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 nationï¿½s attention on the plight of Britainï¿½s 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 pitï¿½s manager and its owners were fined only ï¿½140 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 industryï¿½s 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 Federationï¿½s 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 ï¿½Spencer Unionï¿½, 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 ï¿½Spencer Unionï¿½ 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 ï¿½company unionismï¿½.
This campaign came to a head in 1936 at Harworth Colliery, where the Notts Minersï¿½ 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 ownersï¿½ intimidation.
When it was over, the unionï¿½s branch president, Mick Kane, having been charged with ï¿½riotï¿½, was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. Of the seventeen charged with him, eleven miners and one woman who was a minerï¿½s 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 minersï¿½ 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.
Mineworkersï¿½ hatred for Spencerism was so great that when the MFGB put the question of a ballot vote, the Unionï¿½s membership overwhelmingly rejected it!
Despite this rejection, the Federationï¿½s 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 workersï¿½ 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.
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