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The Fourth Statistical Account of East Lothian

The Breaking of Consensus Between Labour and Capital

The problems that the NUM faced in trying to achieve unity within their Union cannot be laid solely at the door of the Productivity Bonus Scheme and the opportunity it provided for high earnings in high productivity areas. Consideration must also be given to the dogmatic ideology of the Conservative Government, and the battle to re-establish management's 'right to manage' throughout all industries. These were inextricably linked to the problems facing the NUM, given that Government judged their main hindrance to be that of organised labour and their trades unions. To limit this, the Government introduced the 1980 and 1982 Employment Acts, which outlined the definition of a dispute, and how ballots were to be carried out. Further, it was their readiness to use all the instruments of the State to break a strike action, as demonstrated in the mass police involvement in the National Graphical Association dispute with Eddie Shah at Warrington in 1983. For the Government, if Britain were to play a central role in the world economy, its businesses had to be competitive - leaner and fitter than any international competitors. The effect of this during the early 80s was to create mass unemployment, with an excess of 4 million people on the dole. The Conservatives and employers were using this pool of unemployed workers as an economic regulator to keep wages down, especially for those workers employed in low-wage jobs. But it was also seen as a threat by many workers to their own employment, where the comment 'be thankful you've got a job' became the workers' byword.

Authoritarian Management

When 'Red Robbo' was sacked by Malcolm Edwards at Ford's car plant for distributing trades union material without the agreement of management, another factor came into play. The inability of the union movement to successfully oppose this sacking led to the adoption by other industries' management teams of a more authoritarian stance. The NCB were not excluded from the introduction of an authoritarian style of management, as can be seen from the activities of Wheeler in Scotland in the closing of Kinneil and Cardowan, and the engineering of the strike at Monktonhall. This style of management at local, area and national level was complemented by the appointment of McGregor as the Chairman of the Board in September 1983.

Monktonhall Dispute in 1983

The Monktonhall dispute was over two factors. The first was the dismissal of 63 miners for supposedly carrying out a 'ca canny' and, secondly, the stopping and removal of development equipment from the pit. The strike lasted for eight weeks and, again, a tremendous amount of campaigning work was carried out throughout the British coalfield. During this strike, a 24-hour stoppage of the Scottish coalfield was achieved on the 17th of October 1983; this was achieved through pithead meetings and taking votes at these meetings.

The NCB continued to employ successful divisionary tactics; for example, McGregor visited Bilston Glen in October 1983, during the same period that their sister pit, Monktonhall, was out on strike. A delegation from Monktonhall (Rab Amos, John Glen, Alex Bennett) met McGregor and presented the relevant issues surrounding the Monktonhall strike; McGregor's response was that Monktonhall was a second division pit, and he was visiting the 'Jewel in the Crown'. After his visit underground to one of the production faces, he left cans of beer for miners to celebrate his birthday; this beer was duly drunk by the Bilston Glen faceworkers.

It has to be appreciated that the Monktonhall delegation were not under any illusion that McGregor would step in and resolve the strike as a result of that delegation. The delegation went thereon the basis that McGregor had attracted the media, and the delegation used the opportunity to get their case heard, through the media, by a wider audience.

The Divisions of the Overtime Ban

When the decision was taken to implement an overtime ban in November 1983, the terms of reference were quite clear: there would be no member of the NUM working overtime in any capacity. This included safety coverage. The British Association of Colliery Managers (BACM) agreed that, if requested by the Area Director, then they would supply that safety coverage.

So began the game of three-card brag: in Scotland, the Area Director, Albert Wheeler, refused to ask BACM to provide that safety cover. Therefore, the situation was that, as the last men left the colliery, the electrical power was switched off, thus stopping all the underground ventilation equipment and water pumps. At the surface, through the safety monitoring equipment, the manager was able to monitor the water and gas situation and, if the pit was in imminent danger, the manager would then contact the Joint Committee at pit level to provide sufficient men to take the pit out of imminent danger. As can be appreciated, this was not a simple process and put the miners and tradesmen in a very arduous and stressful situation.

This process would be evoked by management two or three times during a weekend period, pressurising a small group of very important mineworkers, namely the winding enginemen. While mineworkers would accept these problems that the NCB created for them for a few weeks, there was no way that this type of activity could continue for months on end. Workers would accept the overtime ban, but then there was the proviso that they might be called out at some time over the weekend. This quite naturally raised the question 'does the Union at national level know what it is doing?'

Impact of Local Management Practice

In addition, local management adopted different attitudes towards miners, in an effort to increase the divisions between them. In the Lothians, management tactics used at Monktonhall and Bilston Glen were very different.

At Bilston Glen, for example, when a rope capping on the cage was being carried out, management accommodated changes of shift to allow the work to be completed within the normal five-day working cycle, without any loss of wages to the miners. When management at Monktonhall were broached to provide the same accommodation, the answer was in the negative; this meant that the work was done during the week, and the pit was idle until it was completed. These tactics of division were operated by British Coal management throughout the British coalfield.

So there were two stances being taken by local pit officials: those who were prepared to hold the overtime rules to the letter, and those who, while supporting the overtime ban, saw it as their responsibility to ensure that workers got five days of work. Therefore when it was suggested by the CEGB 'war cabinet' (Documentary) that the tactics of the NUM should have been to keep the overtime ban on until the autumn of 1984, the reality was that the divisions that the NCB created at each pit, where some pits were working five days, and others only three days, would have ensured that the overtime ban would have been lifted before Autumn 1984.

For and Against Strike Action

In Scotland, the NUM and SCEBTA held separate delegate conferences on the issue of taking all out industrial action in support of Polmaise, where the NCB had stopped mine drivages. The Union would then seek to have this strike sanctioned by the NEC under Rule 41. Yorkshire took a similar stance, but used a coalfield ballot taken in 1981 on the issue of pit closures to justify their support for Cortonwood, which the NCB had decided to close on economic grounds.

The NUM in Scotland narrowly voted against strike action whilst SCEBTA voted for strike action: the position was clarified at an executive meeting when the two votes were combined, as it was an Area Vote under Rule 41. So began the yearlong historic dispute.

However the implementation of this decision was not without its difficulties. After a number of stormy branch meetings at Bilston Glen, there was still rejection of the Scottish Area decision to come out on strike.

'Ballotitis'

The question of a ballot, or 'Ballotitis' as Mick McGahey christened it, was one of the main issues raised at nearly every meeting, whether it was a Labour Party meeting or the Political Economy class at George Watsons' School.

At the Special Delegate Conference in April 1984, it was decided to change the rule and allow decisions that were arrived at by national ballot to be decided on a 51% majority. There was an expectation among miners that this decision meant that a ballot vote was imminent, and that it was going to be used to bring Nottinghamshire into line with the rest of the coalfield. This scenario did not arise, as the ballot vote was not forthcoming. Nottinghamshire may not have participated in, or heeded, any decision arrived at by national ballot, given that their area ballot vote of mid-March 1983 had rejected strike action by 73%.

Also, would a ballot vote have amassed the support from those unions that used lack of a ballot as an excuse to stand on the sidelines? The answer is probably no, as they would have found some other excuse not to support the miners: the open letter that the EEPTU distributed to its members told them that support for the miners would threaten their own earnings and jobs.

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