British Coal to axe 20,000: Miners' leaders urge strike and legal action as 20 pits face immediate closure

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IN ONE of the most dramatic announcements since the recession began, British Coal is today expected to reveal its plan to close most of the mining industry.

Amid calls from pitmen's leaders for a national strike and legal action, management will disclose its intention to shut 30 of the remaining 50 pits before next March with the loss of 30,000 jobs - 4,000 more than the capacity of Lord's cricket ground. Twenty collieries and 20,000 jobs are planned to go immediately.

Since July more than 50,000 redundancies have been announced in various parts of industry and official figures on Thursday are expected to show the 29th monthly increase in unemployment, taking the number out of work and claiming benefits to one in 10 for the first time in more than five years. Yesterday Lucas said it was to axe 2,000 jobs and the Engineering Employers' Federation warned of 55,000 job losses next year and attacked the Government for 'ministerial paralysis'.

One senior British coal manager said management intended to get the 'bulk of the closures over in one go'. Most would go before Christmas, the rest before next March with a small number 'mothballed' in case of an upturn in the market. By next March there would be 21 collieries left in Britain compared with 169 at the end of the miners' strike in 1984-85.

British Coal refused to confirm the closure programme would be announced today, saying it would not 'add to the speculation'. But Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, and Tim Eggar, Minister for Energy, are due to spend the day at their London offices today ready to respond to the announcement.

Some insiders believe British Coal is deliberately presenting ministers with the full effects of untrammelled privatisation in the most graphic fashion possible, having failed to secure government intervention over the price offered for coal by the two main power generators, PowerGen and National Power. 'That's what comes of only having two customers,' said one official.

Leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers in Britain's biggest coalfield decided to call for a strike over the closures. The Yorkshire area of the NUM is to press for industrial action at the union's national delegate conference in Sheffield on Thursday.

Ken Capstick, vice-chairman of the NUM Yorkshire area, believes management will need compulsory redundancies to fulfil the quota of cutbacks. In the past miners have been offered alternative jobs in other pits.

He calculated that the loss of 30,000 colliers' jobs would lead to another 60,000 redundancies in related industries. Seventeen coal- fired power stations would also have to close.

Representatives of the mining and railway unions are to hold a joint meeting in London tomorrow to launch a campaign against the privatisation of British Coal and British Rail. Some of the most militant pitmen would like to see a united strategy of industrial action between miners and railway workers, many of whom will lose their jobs because of coal cutbacks.

Leaders of the non-TUC Union of Democratic Mineworkers said yesterday that they will take legal action if management attempted to get rid of any jobs without going through the agreed appeal processes. They are to meet Mr Heseltine next Monday to register their protest at the closures and their new concern over the practicality of privatisation. The UDM, still a supporter of a nationalised industry, is part of a consortium formed to bid for parts of the industry.

Neil Greatrex, president of the Nottinghamshire area of the UDM, registered considerable scepticism about the effectiveness of industrial action. 'Miners can't do anything about the closures,' he said. 'There is over a year's supply of coal at power stations and six to eight months at pit heads. We're talking about a two- year campaign of industrial action. Even if you won there would be no pits to go back to because of geological action.'

Nottinghamshire delegates of the UDM are to meet this week, possibly followed by a national meeting and a special executive on Friday. The Nottinghamshire area of the union contains 10,000 out of the union's 14,000 members. Coal industry analysts calculate that there could be fewer than 10 pits left by the end of the decade as a result of cheap imports, North Sea gas and environmental pressures. In 1947, when mines were nationalised, 718,000 miners worked in 958 collieries. Today, British Coal employs nearly 50,000 workers in 50 pits.

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