Warfare at the British Coal Mines
Nine months after it began, the conflict between Arthur Scargill's beleaguered National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Thatcher government seems to be no nearer a solution, or at least not a peaceful solution. At the core of this increasingly ugly dispute is the National Coal Board's determination to close 20 uneconomical coal mines at the cost of some 20,000 jobs. The NUM has vowed not to let this happen. The threat of unemployment in Britain, where some 3.5 million people are without work, is cleverly exploited by Scargill to conduct his industrial war with Britain's parliament.
This strike has plenty of bizarre features, including the fact that it was called by the NUM leadership without a ballot of all the members. When a few coal miners won a judgment from the British High Court that the strike was illegal, Scargill defied the Court. He justified his contempt of court by charging that the judge's ruling was "politically biased" and that to acknowledge the jurisdiction of a Tory court over union matters would be to "betray my class."
Scargill did not help his case when it was discovered that the union's chief executive, Roger Windsor, had travelled to Libya to ask Colonel Muammar Gadaffi for help. This is the same terrorist-dictator who totally controls Libyan unions and has outlawed strikes and wage negotiations. In 1977 a number of port workers were executed for striking, and in 1979 Gadaffi said that strikers are traitors. According to a report on the meeting from the Libyan official news agency, Col. Gadaffi "expressed sympathy with the striking workers who suffer from abuse and exploitation at the hand of the exploiting ruling class in Britain."
Another unlikely ally of the oppressed working class in Britain is the Soviet Union, which promised an $800,000 Christmas gift from labour groups in that country. This was announced after an NUM official met with Soviet embassy officials in London.
Spurred on by the offer of a return-to-work bonus of up to $2,000, a total of some 55,000 miners have braved the often violent picket lines, still leaving some 125,000 workers out on strike. The union disputes these figures and claims that there are fewer than 40,000 working miners on the payroll.
The violence surrounding the workers who daily brave the taunts and attacks from strikers includes the use of gasoline bombs and even the appearance of razor blades in letters. Two suicides have been traced to the trauma of the strike. A 32-year old miner who had returned to work despite death threats, obscene phone calls and hate mail had his house destroyed by fire. A taxi driver who was driving a miner to work was killed when a large chunk of concrete was dropped onto his car from an overpass. And so the violence continues. Many mining communities have the appearance of armed camps and large numbers of police are required to maintain a semblance of order.
Meanwhile, the propaganda warfare in the media and political gatherings continues. The militant Left wing of the British Labour Party, much to the embarrassment of the moderates, stubbornly refuses to utter a word of criticism about the violent and illegal conduct of the striking miners. Only a few brave trade unionists have denounced the violence and illegal tactics of the NUM. But the Trades Union Congress is cowed into silence on the lawless behaviour of the striking mineworkers. Scargill's control over the miners' pension fund is cited as a major reason for his control over the union (see Edward Pearce, "Scargill' s Way," Encounter, November 1984, pp. 34-36).
So far the production of coal has been sufficient to cover immediate needs, but pressure will mount as cold weather increases demand. As long as the stateowned coal board keeps supplies moving safely and coal consumption is minimized (for example, by means of shifting from coal to oil in power stations) a serious coal shortage may be avoided.
After the Fall of Arthur Scargill
The dispute in this case is not about the jobs of present coal miners. The National Coal Board has made a generous offer to miners, including the insurance that no one presently employed will be laid off. Behind the coal strike lies the conviction, of British political and industrial leaders, that drastic changes must be made for the sake of future economic health. It's a ready-made battlefield for Marxists like Arthur Scargill, who would like to see nothing better than the destruction of the "oppressive capitalist system." But in the long term, Britain must accomplish much more than the solution to the miners' dispute. As the Economist pointed out on October 6, 1984, Prime Minister Thatcher will have to convince the public that she understands the limitations as well as the strengths of the law as applied to industrial relations. The Economist continued: "A post-Scargill industrial relations strategy should therefore be one of consultation and reconciliation . . . Such an approach will require political skills from Mrs. Thatcher very different from the ones she has displayed since she came to power. They may not be those of consensus, which she so despises, but they are those of national leadership, of consent and the search for agreement, proper skills of mature statesmanship."
One can only hope that in addition to having the determination and courage to defeat Arthur Scargill and his band of wreckers, the British government will also have the wisdom to apply the "skills of mature statesmanship" which are so desperately needed in Britain today.