Coal and railway workers to vote on strikes

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UP TO 150,000 workers in the coal and rail industries are to be balloted on a series of 24-hour strikes in protest at closures and redundancies.

Leaders of unions in the two sectors yesterday registered their intention to urge public service unions covering a total of 5 million workers to join in the 'synchronised balloting' on 5 March.

The strategy is to co-ordinate opposition to job losses and the 1.5 per cent upper limit on pay increases for workers paid out of the public purse. Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT rail union, said yesterday's decision raised the spectre of a 'spring of discontent'.

According to rumours in the industry, British Rail could announce another 25,000 redundancies over the next three years on top of the 5,000 job losses already announced, Mr Knapp said.

Today, the House of Commons employment committee is expected to attack the Government over its plan to close 31 collieries with the loss of 30,000 jobs, and mining unions are due in the High Court alleging contempt of court by management for refusing to restart production at the 10 most vulnerable pits. The most damaging attack on the Government however is likely to come in a report from the select committee on trade and industry on Monday.

The balloting strategy was recommended by the executive of the 40,000- strong National Union of Mineworkers to a meeting of coal and rail unions at the TUC's Congress House in London. Mr Knapp said he was confident his executive would endorse the policy tomorrow.

Leaders of other unions covering pit supervisors, train drivers and BR clerical workers are to put the plan to their executives. Train drivers' leaders have already endorsed a plan for 24-hour stoppages throughout the public sector.

Arthur Scargill, NUM president, said he was delighted with yesterday's decision. 'We hope that members of the NUM and other unions will support the fight for jobs as they have been doing over the past four and a half months.'

He added: 'No one wants a dispute. We are finding it necessary to consider this joint action with our colleagues in the rail industry to stop the closures of sections of both our industries with the knock-on effect as far as other jobs are concerned. If that threat is removed, then the situation might change.'

A statement agreed by the coal and rail unions yesterday pointedly referred to consultations with lawyers to ensure that ballot papers are seen to be within the law. Unions must prove they are engaged in a 'trade dispute' and not a political crusade. The ballots will call for a one-day strike on a specific day to be named and a 'rolling programme' of subsequent one-day stoppages if there is no response from management.

If miners vote for a stoppage, it will be the first national strike since the 1984-85 conflict. The last nation-wide disruption involving RMT members was in 1988.

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