Pits strike campaign divides protesters

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The Independent Online
SPLITS OPENED yesterday in the popular front opposing pit closures after the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) began campaigning for a one-day protest strike and rejection of energy policies devised by an all-party Commons committee to make viable the 31 threatened collieries.

Arthur Scargill, the NUM president, claimed a unanimous vote by pit delegates in favour of a strike ballot on 5 March reflected dismay that the Commons Trade and Industry Committee had not made unequivocal recommendations in favour of keeping all the mines open.

But officials in at least three NUM areas - Derbyshire, Scotland and South Wales - claimed the delegate conference, dominated by the hard left, had failed to grasp the committee's long- term recommendations.

John Walsh, a Yorkshire NUM official, told the conference the campaign's achievements since the 31 closures were announced in October could be jeopardised by rejecting committee proposals which had been endorsed by Mick Clapham, a committee member and former NUM official.

Mr Clapham, Labour MP for Barnsley West and Penistone, has been criticised by Mr Scargill's supporters in Yorkshire since publication last week of the committee report.

But in Derbyshire, 'barometer' of coalfield opinion, his views earned greater respect yesterday than those of the union president. 'Nobody knows more about the industry,' an NUM official at Shirebrook colliery said. 'Purity of principle dominated the delegate conference, which is no good if you're trying to save jobs. On our reading of the report, there's plenty there to base the campaign on.'

Kevin Barron, Labour MP for Rother Valley and a former Yorkshire miner, said a strike would 'give the Government the weapon to use against the miners that they've been groping for in the dark. It's an irrelevance.

'What will we get from a 24- hour strike that we couldn't get from a 12-month strike in 1984? The Commons report made an economic case to keep open all 31 pits. If Arthur has read it, he hasn't understood it, and his grasp of economics remains as sound as it was shown to be in the Lightman report (criticising the conduct of NUM finances).'

Shirebrook miners said they would vote reluctantly for the strike. 'If the ballot is lost, it looks to the rest of the country as if we don't care about jobs,' a coalface chargeman said.

But the branch has already accepted changes to working practices which Mr Scargill has denounced. The pit regularly cuts coal on Sundays, all development work is carried out by private contractors, and the men say they are ready to negotiate new shift patterns. In return, British Coal and private managers have agreed high Sunday shift payments, guaranteed employment security, and given jobs with outside contractors only to NUM members.

Shirebrook rail workers, who will vote on strike action on 5 March, are also sceptical. Two local depots handling coal trains have already closed.

'Younger men are worried about their jobs, the older ones say a strike didn't achieve anything for us when we also came out in 1984,' a Shirebrook depot union official said, adding: 'You have to realise that a lot of them have had BR up to here and can't wait to get redundancy.'

(Photograph omitted)