The declaration of world war in August 1914 saw chaos and catastrophe on all fronts. In Britainï¿½s coal industry, it saw mine owners levelling their own offensive against their employees.
The owners demanded repeal of the eight hours legislation, curtailment of holidays, and called for higher productivity. This offensive resulted in worsened conditions, and eventually provoked industrial action.
In South Wales, 200,000 miners went on strike in 1915, an action followed by widespread demands for higher wages in 1916. This response to the ownersï¿½ attack obviously threatened the war effort for which coal was desperately needed, and the coalition government of Lloyd George placed the entire coalfield under state control/
Minersï¿½ determination to seek justice, however, forced the Government to yield at least partially to two pay demands in 1917 and 1918.
It was during this period of turmoil that a Triple Alliance of coal, transport and rail unions was formed to give solidarity and mutual support to the workers in these three key industries as they struggled for decent pay, conditions and job security against the alliance of owners, employers and Government.
After the Armistice of 1918, coal remained under Government control. Politicians and mine owners alike had become fearful of the minersï¿½ ability to mount a thorough challenge after centuries of brutal exploitation. The flow of coal supplies was vital socially and economically, and the Government wanted to be able to step in and take charge when conflicts between owners and miners threatened that flow.
In 1919, the MFGB called for a six-hour day, a 30 per cent wage increase in the mines, and trade union rates of pay for the demobilised soldiers returning to the ï¿½land fit for heroesï¿½.
A breakdown in negotiations led to a ballot vote massively in favour of strike action. Faced with the minersï¿½ resistance, Parliament swiftly set up the famous Sankey Commission, a tripartite body representing the Government, MFGB and the mine owners. The Government indicated that it would be bound by - and quickly implement - the Commissionï¿½s findings.
Those findings, when delivered, favoured payment of a wage increase, a staged reduction in hours down to six per shift (from as many as ten and a half!), and the nationalisation of the coal industry on a permanent basis.
Since the Government had signalled its intention on abiding by the Commissionï¿½s conclusions, the MFGB called off its planned strike action. However, in August 1919 Lloyd George announced that the conclusions would not be honoured.
The miners took this betrayal to the TUCï¿½s annual conference, seeking support for a call for general strike action aimed at forcing the Government to honour its pledge. But the call for active solidarity was rejected at Congress.
While fighting for economic and social justice at home, the MFGB was deeply committed to an international perspective, having played the leading role in setting up the Miners; International Federation before the turn of the century. In 1919 it called for the withdrawal of British troops engaged in the fourteen-nation assault against the people of the Soviet Republic, and played a key role in the campaign against the presence of British troops in Ireland in 1920.
That was the year in which MFGB membership reached its peak, totalling nearly 950,000. Its willingness to protect and defend its membersï¿½ interests had prevented real wages from falling too drastically since the 1914 period, despite a general decline in living standards and value of pay.
Now, however, with the need for coal less acute than it had been over the past five or six years, the Government announced it was ready to return control of pits to the owners in early 1921.
Boys in the Mines
Children as young as three and four years were found working underground by the inspectors who drafted the 1842 Coal Mines Act. When the MFGB was formed, boys from mining communities were still condemned to a gruelling existence underground from the age of twelve years. Their first job was usually as a trapper, opening and closing ventilation doors to permit the passage of tubs. Son after, they would work as pony drivers, taking home a pittance from the owners, supplemented by a few tips from the colliers if they were good at speeding coal to the surface. It is a cruel irony that an industry which in the past was unscrupulous in tapping child labour should in recent years have abandoned the younger generation in the coalfields to the dole queue.
Pit brow lassies
The employment of women and children under ten years old was outlawed in 1842. However, women were employed on the surface until the 1960s in some areas, principally Lancashire and Scotland. Dragging tubs, working the tippler and picking coal on the screens was back-breaking work. There was a premium price paid for large coal, and each day entailed lifting very heavy weights. Women would then have to wash and cook at home. Though never more than a few thousand strong, the ï¿½pit-brow lassiesï¿½ are symbolic of the importance of women to the minersï¿½ Union. Throughout the history of the MFGB and NUM, every struggle has witnessed the crucial support of minersï¿½ wives.
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