Coal industry may face 'death by a thousand market tests': Delegates meet amid signs of bleak future for the NUM

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The Independent Online
ONE OF Baroness Thatcher's fondest ambitions - the destruction of the National Union of Mineworkers - may be about to be fulfilled.

Delegates to the union's annual conference gathered in Scarborough yesterday amid signs that 'king coal' was sliding towards the status of a private-sector cottage industry.

Having encountered the public's wrath by announcing the closure of more than half Britain's collieries last October, management is achieving its targets through stealth. Death by a thousand market tests.

Out of the 31 collieries that management wanted to close, 11 have ceased cutting coal, 14 are being market tested and six have been mothballed.

Even more critical for the NUM's continued existence was the decision by British Coal to punish two recent 24-hour stoppages in protest at closures by abolishing the system whereby union subscriptions are deducted at source.

By some estimates the withdrawal of the 'check-off' arrangement has halved the union's membership in many areas. Peter Neilson, the NUM's Scottish vice-president says while the Trades Union Congress records 33,000 members - the figure is almost certainly lower than 20,000. More than 21,000 jobs have gone since October. Before the 1984 pit strike there were 200,000 members.

Attempts by NUM officials to persuade their members to have their dues deducted under the direct-debit system have largely fallen on deaf ears.

As a consequence some officials say the union is sliding towards penury. The NUM is contemplating the sale of headquarters in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, switching its functions to the Yorkshire area offices in Barnsley. It is also apparently seeking to shed a quarter of headquarters staff and 3 out of 15 national officials as part of a cost-cutting exercise. Arthur Scargill, the NUM president, has already assumed the general secretaryship as well as the presidency in the wake of the retirement of Peter Heathfield.

Mr Scargill contended that membership had held up despite the abolition of check-off, but he conceded there was a problem in trying to get colliers to authorise direct debits. 'Some of them don't have bank accounts,' he said, adding that he always argued against check-off because it put too much power in the hands of management. Nevertheless, miners were continuing to back the union by handing over cash weekly, he said.

Mr Scargill revealed that the union was in merger talks with four other organisations - three on an informal basis. The fourth is the Transport and General Workers' Union with which he has been in formal negotiations for some time.

He believes the NUM is going into such talks, 'not so much as a lame duck more as a pretty white swan'. However, most of the assets are in the form of property, which has declined steeply in value.