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What killed King Coal?

08 Mar 2004

pithead winding gearThere has been no shortage of articles in the British media this week remembering the miners’ strike that began twenty years ago. It symbolises a very significant and painful transitional period in the evolution of the UK’s economic geography and employment structures during the twentieth century.

At the time, violent clashes between striking miners and policemen were accompanied by a political stand-off between Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government and the miners’ Trade Union led by Arthur Scargill. Twenty years later, there are less than 10,000 workers left in an industry that had employed one million at the outbreak the First World War (1914). Only 0.1% of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is now derived from coal.

See an overview of the coal industry in the UK

During the year-long strike, the sympathies of the British public were divided by unfolding events. It was a desperately unhappy time for all of the parties involved. As Mark Seddon observed in The Independent (05 March 2004), ‘The anniversary has not been forgotten. There is a chance for anyone under 35 to learn of a very different time, when communities risked everything in a year-long strike that at times became a localised civil war.’

What were the immediate causes of the strike?

On 5 March 1984, the National Coal Board (NCB) announced its intention to close the Cortonwood pit in South Yorkshire where 1,000 colliers worked. The next day, the NCB claimed it had further plans to close another 20 pits thereby laying off 20,000 more workers. This resulted in the National Union of Miners (NUM) calling for a general strike amongst its 180,000 members (around three-quarters of all coal miners at that time). The strike was to last until the following January.

UNIONS AND STRIKES

Workers in traditional heavy industries - as well as service providers such as teachers, train-drivers and nurses - often express solidarity with other workers through the medium of Trade Union membership. When job losses within an industry in one region are announced, workers in other regions express their support and sympathy by calling a strike and refusing to work. The most famous example of this is the General Strike of 1928-29, when workers in many different industries all united in common cause for better pay and downed tools; the Jarrow March is the best-remembered episode. More recently, London Underground drivers have called a series of stoppages related to pay and safety concerns, while in 2003 UK fire-fighters called a strike. Trade Unions are not legal in some LEDCs, resulting in low wages (especially for women) which can often prove attractive to Transnational Corporations (TNCs).

What were the underlying causes of the strike?

During the post-war decades, it had become evident that Britain’s coal industry was increasingly uneconomical along with much of the nation’s manufacturing output. The previous Labour government had already closed 30 pits between 1974 and 1979. Many industries were still directly owned by the government. These nationalised industries – which at the time included coal, water, gas and steel along with many others – were increasingly requiring large subsidies to maintain full employment.

The economic climate had also taken a marked turn for the worse after 1973, when the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised petrol prices by over 400%. With the cost of oil imports spiralling, inflation soared as workers demanded pay rises to cope with increased fuel bills and motorcar costs. Both successive Labour and Conservative governments found it increasingly hard to subsidise the output of uneconomical nationalised industries. A century of civil reform achieved through Trade Union reform had also resulted in much higher labour costs than in many developing nations.

Powerful Trade Unions made it hard for government to rationalise industries. Unions are dedicated to workers’ welfare and do not easily tolerate job losses. However, as the UK began to develop a trade deficit in goods for the first time since the industrial revolution, it was clear that rationalisation was necessary in many sectors. Savings could only be made if the scale of operations was reduced or widespread automation and labour-shedding were introduced. Countries such as South Africa were selling far more competitively-priced coal using cheaper labour while spending far less implementing health and safety legislation.

Why, argued the Conservative government in 1984, should taxpayers continue to subsidise uneconomical coal production when cheaper imports were available? Government critics pointed to the hidden costs of deindustrialisation. Without work, entire communities might need to draw state benefits, while a knock-on impact on local shops and support industries would be inevitable once local wages were lost: a negative multiplier effect would kick in. Farming subsidies throughout Europe were helping to stabilise rural employment – why not subsidise coal too?

MINING THEN AND NOW

 

 

 

1984

2004

Coal mining employees

around 250,000

under 10,000

Percentage of UK workforce

just under 1%

less than 0.02%

Number of mines

169

13

Output (million tons)

130

30

Annual exports (million tons)

10

1

Major employer

National Coal Board

UK Coal plc

Sources: The Independent, 05 March 2004; The Guardian, 02 March 2004 (quoting Professor Steve Fothergill, Sheffield Hallam University); New Statesman 01 March 2004; The Sunday Telegraph, 07 March 2004. Note that estimates vary between sources

 

 

How did the strike end?

Not all miners joined the strike. Those that continued to work were labelled ‘scabs’ by their co-workers. Notably, the Nottinghamshire miners kept working, unlike those in Wales, Scotland and other parts of northern England. For the strike to succeed, the pit deputies also needed to give their support. Coal mines cannot operate legally without these senior figures in place. However, in October 1984 the pit deputies voted to carry on working in the Midlands and Nottinghamshire pits, allowing strike-breaking miners to continue to labour. As Paul Routledge (then the labour editor for The Times) remembers in this week’s New Statesman, ‘I knew then it would only be a matter of time before the miners and their families were crushed.’ By January 1985, the strike was effectively over.

What were the consequences of the strike for the UK?

After the strike, the national economy initially worsened. Raging inflation and a housing market crash followed in the immediate years after the miners’ strike. However, unemployment – which peaked at over 3 million at the time of the strike – is now safely under control at less than one million. Many ex-miners have found work in tertiary occupations such as public services, retailing and call centres.

Coal now makes only a vanishingly small contribution to national GDP, along with other primary extractive industries. The national economy relies instead upon tertiary and quaternary sector activities, as the Clark-Fisher model demonstrates. The UK is currently the fourth largest economy in the world as a result of the strength of its service industries.

Clark-Fisher model

There have been positive consequences for the environment too, as the UK economy has shifted away from primary and secondary industries. Air and water quality throughout the UK are now the best they have been since before the industrial revolution. The countryside is also unlikely to have to bear new scars from open-cast mining ever again.

What were the consequences for the mining communities?

Mining was a dangerous and harmful occupation. If your school library has a copy of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, read the opening chapter which documents mining life in the 1930s – it does not sound like easy work! History may view the fact that future generations of young men do not have to work underground as progress.

Mining often left many men with disabilities and there is plenty of evidence linking inhalation of coal dust with an increased risk of cancer. Emphysema is also common amongst ex-miners. Unemployment rates amongst ex-mining communities in County Durham are only around 3%, which at first glance looks encouraging. However the hidden truth about ex-mining communities is that up to one quarter of working-age men currently receive sickness benefits. Significant numbers of older ex-miners are now classified as unfit for work.

In Cortonwood, new kinds of work opportunity can be found for younger ex-miners in the new retail stores found along the A1/M1 link that runs through the town and in a local call centre (The Independent, 05 March 2004). A Morrisons supermarket is now placed where the communal showers for Cortonwood colliery used to stand, while a branch of B&Q marks the site of the old mineshaft. Due to the severe deprivation that followed in the wake of pit closures, many changes to the area were only achieved through the provision of regional aid, notably:

  • Cortonwood Enterprise Zone
  • EU regional aid (£200,000 was given to the village of Brampton to establish its Healthy Living Centre, for instance)

However, some ex-miners are sceptical of these new opportunities and talk with immense pride in interviews about their traditional work (The Guardian, 25 February 2004). During the two World Wars, mining was a ‘reserved occupation’ meaning that it was so important that miners did not have to join the armed forces (in the 1939-45 conflict, miners were known as the ‘Bevan Boys’).

Not everyone has gained new employment in ex-mining communities and crime remains an issue in many of the old pit areas. South Elmsall village, near Frickley Colliery in Yorkshire, has had problems with heroin dealing, for instance (New Statesman, 01 March 2004). In Worksop, located on the Nottinghamshire coalfield, heroin addiction runs at 30% above the national average (The Sunday Telegraph, 07 March 2004). Professor Fothergill suggests that only half of the 250,000 jobs lost in mining since the 1980s were ever actually replaced.

Some ex-miners from Shireoaks colliery in South Yorkshire have re-trained to degree level and gained jobs working in social services and local government. However, 54-year old ex-miner George Bell, now a officer for homelessness with Bassetlaw district council, points out that his new work dealing with housing problems mainly consists of ‘picking up the pieces’ after the collapse of mining. The very problems he is now paid to deal with are a direct result of the deindustrialisation process that cost him his own mining job. (The Guardian, 25 February 2004)

No future for mining?

Soon, there may not be any mining jobs left in the UK. In January, Hartfield Colliery closed and the four-pit Selby complex shuts down in April. Yorkshire now has only three mines left – Kellingley, Maltby and Rossington. The brief time in which these changes to a once-vital industry have occurred is astonishing.

UK Coal Field Map

Less than twenty years ago, O-level students (the equivalent of today’s GCSE classes) were still taught to draw maps showing the distribution of Britain’s coalfields and needed to assess the value of coal’s contribution to the economy. In the space of just two decades, all of this has passed into the realm of historical geography.

 

Written by Dr Simon Oakes who works for the Flood Hazard Research Centre (Middlesex University) and Mander Portman Woodward School (London). He is a senior examiner for Edexcel.

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