Coal miners set to strike

MINERS are pressing ahead with a ballot which could plunge Britain's biggest mining company into the country's first coal strike for 15 years.

The Nottingham-based Union of Democratic Mine-workers, the biggest union at RJB Mining, is sending out ballot papers tomorrow. It is urging its 3,000 members to vote for a strike from 20 February. The dispute is over pay rates that RJB imposed at the beginning of this month. Members have until 12 February to return their votes.

"The sensible thing would be for [RJB management] to talk to us," said Michael Stevens, general secretary of the UDM. "We were very close to a deal on restructuring the wages. But they haven't talked to us in three weeks."

A strike could curtail output from half of the company's deep mines, which account for about 80 per cent of the coal it produces every year. Coal met 18 per cent of the country's electricity requirement in 1997, down from 20 per cent the previous year.

RJB has asked its 6,800 miners to sign an opt-out clause from the European Union's Working Time Directive, which sets a 48-hour limit to the working week.

The company says this is for flexibility, but the miners argue that it is a tactic to keep the wage bill low and say they are being put under unfair pressure to sign.

Miners are furious that RJB's chief executive, Richard Budge, received a pounds 224,460 bonus as part of his pounds 610,000 pay package for 1997 - despite a drop in company profits.

Shares in RJB fell to a record low of 47.5p last year but have risen by a third since the company secured further long-term contracts from the electricity industry. The contracts were part of a complex deal masterminded by the Government, which is supposed to give consumers cheaper electricity and RJB's miners some form of job guarantee.

But the UDM, which began talks in May 1998 over a new contract for its workers, is frustrated that it has yet to secure an agreement with the company over a pay package. Instead, the company imposed a plan beginning in the first week of January that the union claims will pay annual increases of one percentage point below the UK's rate of inflation.

RJB denied that claim, saying that the total pay package will keep wages growing faster than the rate of inflation.

The National Union of Mineworkers, which represents a large part of the remainder of RJB's workforce, is also planning to hold a ballot for strike action for some time in the middle of February.