Coal White Paper: UDM to hold first strike ballot over pit closures: Moderate union's leadership condemns 'betrayal' - Electricity firms deny making firm commitments

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The Independent Online
THE UNION formed by strike-breaking miners is to hold its first ballot on industrial action in protest at Thursday's White Paper, which promised a reprieve for only 13 of the 31 pits under threat.

Leaders of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, which is part of a consortium to bid for pits when the industry is privatised, said they felt 'betrayed' by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade.

The White Paper also came under fire from senior electricity industry sources who denied giving any firm commitment to take extra coal. Neil Clarke, chairman of British Coal, argued the paper 'will give the generators the chance to put their tonnages where their promises have been.' A source in one of the generating firms said: 'There is no commitment at all. We are in a position to talk to British Coal but we are in no busting hurry. Quite a time could elapse.' He said it would be six months at least before his company took deliveries of any extra coal. Until then British Coal will be forced to continue stockpiling.

The UDM's vote on a 'day of protest' will be held next Friday when the rival National Union of Mineworkers is mounting a 24-hour stoppage. While Mr Heseltine will argue that the NUM action is predictable, the disruption by the UDM, which is not affiliated to the TUC, will be politically more damaging. The union was formed after the 1984-85 coal strike by miners who crossed picket lines after objecting to the NUM's failure to hold a national strike ballot.

UDM leaders are confident of a yes vote in their first strike ballot and they are likely to order the action within a week of the ballot.

Neil Greatrex, president of the UDM, said after a unanimous vote by his executive to hold the ballot: 'Everybody feels bitter about promises Michael Heseltine made in October. We were promised a level playing field to compete with other forms of energy. That has not happened.'

The UDM executive also voted to join a mass lobby of Parliament on Monday organised by the TUC and will deliver letters to Tory MPs urging them to vote against the White Paper. The UDM ballot will specify a day of protest, but it could be succeeded by others, Mr Greatrex indicated. Mr Greatrex, a more traditional trade unionist than his predecessor, Roy Lynk, denied the union was moving closer to the TUC, but added that as a bona fide union, the UDM 'had a right' to be affiliated.

In the UDM's Nottinghamshire power base, the Clipstone and Bevercotes collieries are to be 'mothballed' and Bilsthorpe, Rufford and Silverdale are to be kept in production for about two years.

Responding to the ballot plan, British Coal said: 'Industrial action will not create any additional market for coal or solve any of the industry's problems. It will only create uncertainty in the minds of customers.'

Meanwhile leaders of Nacods, the pit deputies' union, are to reconsider their strategy in the wake of the White Paper. Having failed by a narrow margin to secure the required two-thirds majority for a strike, Nacods may reballot its members. It is also possible that some areas of the union, such as Yorkshire, could press ahead with disruption of their own. Peter McNestry, general secretary of Nacods, denounced the White Paper as a 'cynical attempt to save Heseltine's career'.

Robin Cook, Labour's industry spokesman, poured scorn on the Government's offer to subsidise coal sales. He attacked the White Paper and said all 31 threatened mines would close within three years. Urging a mass protest lobby over the three days until the paper is debated in the Commons on Monday night, Mr Cook said: 'The remarkable feature of the Government's scheme is that it has come up with an offer of a subsidy without getting the generating companies to commit themselves.'