The first trade unions in the British coal mining industry were established in the eighteenth century although records indicate the existence of ï¿½combinationsï¿½ as early as the seventeenth century. One can find references to the rules of a Coal Minerï¿½s Society in West Yorkshire during the late 1700s, and it is clear that similar organisations existed elsewhere.
Trade unions were born in the mining industry out of the worst possible exploitation of human beings. From childhood, through adolescence and adulthood, miners (female as well as male) gave their very lives to profit-hungry mine owners. Fully fledged slavery in the pits was not abolished until 1799 - and the miners of Tyneside were forced to submit each year to being ï¿½bondedï¿½ to their employer for nearly a century after that.
Under conditions where children as young as four had to face a seventeen-hour day and a six-day week working underground, the District Unions (forerunners of the Minersï¿½ Federation of Great Britain and the National Union of Mineworkers) were established to protect the interests and the lives of miners.
In the pits of Sheffield there was concerted action in 1792 when colliers employed by the Duke of Norfolk refused to work until their wages were raised. There are many examples of minersï¿½ secret organisations taking industrial action.
The first attempt at national organisation. called the Minersï¿½ Association of Great Britain and Ireland, took place in 1842. The same year, mineworkers and their supporters achieved a key piece of legislation, the Coal Mines Act, which made it illegal for mine owners to employ below ground women or boys under the age of ten.
In 1844 the Association led a heroic five-month strike for better wages; however, pressure from the coal owners and the Government crushed it out of existence by 1848.
It was succeeded in 1863 by the Minersï¿½ National Union, an organisation which concentrated its efforts on representing mineworkers in the courts and in Parliament rather than involving itself in industrial action, and confronting owners over pay and conditions.
Throughout the nineteenth century, conditions remained absolutely appalling, with major mining disasters claiming thousands of lives. Safety precautions were still non-existent: it took the death of 204 mineworkers at Durhamï¿½s Hartley Colliery in 1862 to force the Government and owners into introducing ï¿½up castï¿½ shafts for ventilation. It was only following other major disasters that any sort of proper legislation began to appear.
Meanwhile, the economics of capitalism (slump and boom) meant that mining communities were at the mercy of ï¿½the marketï¿½; lifted for brief periods from literal starvation to simple hardship, only to be dropped back into starvation whenever ï¿½the markerï¿½ collapsed into slump.
Whilst the District Unions did everything in their power, it was clear by the end of the 1880s that only a national union could effectively challenge the co-ordinated policies of Government and owners.
Thus, the Minersï¿½ Federation of Great Britain was born in November 1889. It would prove to be the first national trade union of survive the ferocious attacks of those who opposed organised labour in the coal industry.
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