Coal miners angered by closures End appears near for British industry

October 15, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- A wave of shock, sorrow and anger swept through Britain's coal mining towns as tens of thousands of miners, their families and people in related industries, tried yesterday to absorb the reality of life without work.

"I've been a miner since I was 16," said John Haugh, an underground foreman. "I'm 45 now, and the likelihood of me getting a job locally is very small."

Speaking for the people in the small coal community of Trentham in the British Midlands, he said, "The local community is disgusted. Gutted is the best word. I've got men who've moved from Coventry, from Lancashire, 70 miles away, moved house. They were told when they came here they had a job for life. Now they're on the dole. It's just a callous action."

The Trentham coal mine will close a week from tomorrow. The nearby Silverdale pit has until March. These closures will put 2,300 men out of work in an area of the Midlands with an unemployment rate already hovering around 11 percent.

Asked what he would do, Mr. Haugh said, only half joking: "Cry."

With British Coal's unexpected announcement Tuesday that about 30,000 jobs would be eliminated over the next four months, the end seemed near for the industry, and the commodity, that made Britain the world's first industrial nation and transformed this island into a major imperial power.

The list of affected places was read like a death roll yesterday by the British Broadcasting Corp. calling out the names of mining communities in England and Wales, against a background of funereal music.

By March, there will only be 17 coal mines left in England, one in Scotland and one in Wales, with 11,000 men working in them.

In 1985, following the protracted coal strike that turned into a test of wills between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the unions, Britain still had 171,000 miners digging in 150 pits. Today there are 50 pits, employing 41,000.

(By comparison, there were 3,434 mines in the United States operating at the end of 1990 employing 131,306 workers.)

The first pits on this week's list will close this weekend.

The reaction to the government's plan was swift and angry. Norman Willis, head of the Trades Union Congress, the labor movement's umbrella organization, appealed to Prime Minister John Major yesterday to suspend the plan.

"We must have a pause, a cooling-off period on pit closures," he said.

Arthur Scargill, the explosive leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), who declared the move "the most savage, brutal act of vandalism in modern times," was preparing for a special meeting of the NUM's executive board today to consider a strike. NUM was trying to get an injunction against the layoffs yesterday.

Mr. Scargill said he thought the union would opt to strike, and also said he expected support from the rail and power workers unions.

Derrick Fullick, leader of the train drivers' union, said, "We are also liable to lose thousands of members as a result of the decimation of the coal fields."

The Labor Party jumped into the dispute with warnings that the 30,000 jobs lost could quickly swell to over 100,000, with layoffs in coal-fired power stations, rail freight, road building, machine maintenance, clothing manufacturing and other industries related to mining.

Britain's overall unemployment level already is around 10 percent and worsening.

"The warning that 100,000 jobs could go is a modest estimate," said Robin Cook, the Labor Party's spokesman on industrial matters. He said the 12 regional electricity companies, privatized during the administration of Mrs. Thatcher, had "sold coal down the river" by switching over to natural gas.

A government spokesman said British Coal was determined to carry out the layoffs and pit closures. "There will be no going back," said the Trade and Industry Minister of State, Tim Eggar. "It is a recognition of the fact that there is not the market for coal in the United Kingdom that there used to be."

To make the bitter pill of sudden unemployment easier to swallow, the government says it will offer unemployment pay to laid-off workers, in some cases as much as $66,000.

At the same time British Coal, the government agency which manages the industry, threatened to withhold that pay from any miners who respond with "industrial action," such as strikes, slowdowns or vandalism.

Whether Mr. Scargill, perhaps the most militant labor leader left in Britain, can persuade the miners to strike in face of the possibility of lost unemployment pay is uncertain. But even should his arguments carry the day in the councils of labor, he cannot improve the future for the coal industry in Britain.

It has become a loser in the free market free-for-all. That was assured when the electric power industry was privatized in Britain two years ago. Given the authority to make their own decisions, the new companies switched away from coal, which they were constrained to buy when government operated, to natural gas, which they found cheaper and cleaner to burn.

So great was that switch that the Department of Trade and Industry expects gas will be providing nearly 60 percent of Britain's electric power within the next 25 years.

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