London — The symbols are all too familiar: rusty red padlocks snapping shut on tall iron gates leading to coal mines around the country; tall mine chimneys standing smokeless in the Rhondda Valley in Wales; and urgent meetings between worried ministers and irate union officials.
Headlines warn of the gravest union threat Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government has yet faced, and there is widespread feeling that it was all tragically unnecessary: that wiser management and calmer heads all around could have averted the crisis atmosphere.
Abruptly, Britain faces a nationwide coal strike and perhaps, general power cuts -- at a time of growing worker frustration at the impact of 2.4 million people out of work and of unremitting cutbacks in public spending.
The strikes spread Feb. 18 from south Wales to Scotland and northern England only hours before the government was due to meet union leaders to try defuse the escalating situation. The government had hurriedly brought forward (from Feb. 23 to Feb. 19) a meeting with Coal Board executives and union leaders.
As they wrestle with union fears, ministers say the situation is not a repeat of 1974, when angry miners helped defeat the government of Edward Heath. Left-wing miners' leaders, however, have voiced their desire to topple Mrs. Thatcher and seize leadership of the union from its moderate president, Joe Gormley.
The men are protesting plans to close about 20 new pits (mines) and a flood of cheap coal imports from the United States, Australia, and elsewhere.
The potentially grim situation reveals the continuing class divisions within British society: "It's still us against them," said one London worker the other day, "and no government action can really change that. It has to come from inside you, know what I mean?" He was not optimistic.
It shows how difficult relations remain between a Conservative government and nationalized industries. On the one hand, Mrs. Thatcher is pleased that public outcry at the massive 2.4 million unemployment figure is not greater. High social welfare payments and large amounts of part-time work and unreported moonlighting cushion the impact.
On the other hand, the speed with which the miners' strike blew up into a considerable storm shows that frustration and anger do exist -- and that Mrs. Thatcher needs considerable finesse and political sensitivity to cope with it.
The worst of the winter weather is over. Coal stockpiles have never been higher. The Coal Board spokesman says electricity power stations have enough coal on hand to run for "six to eight weeks" at normal capacity, although the spokesman agrees selective brownouts may come sooner than that.
And, with so many other workers out of work or fearing unemployment, other industries may be reluctant to move toward massive strikes.
Some experts here think the miners' crisis now is more a flare-up of worker emotion than a serious long-term threat to the government.
"Miners feel they have to make some show of protest," one coal industry source said. "And they feel the Coal Board has handled the whole affair ineptly."
This correspondent was told that a number of area managers in Britain have criticized the Coal Board privately for announcing the latest mine closures Feb. 10 in a way that roused union fears.
About 40 mines have been closed quietly in the last decade (eight last year alone). But union leaders feared the board was about to close 50 mines after meeting with Coal Board chairman Sir Derek Ezra Feb. 10.
Sir Derek now says he only told the men between 10 and 20 mines were in serious trouble and 20 to 30 were almost exhausted. When closures over the next year or so began to be announced a few days ago, 25,000 south Wales miners walked out (breaking their own union regulations). Those in Kent and Scotland quickly followed. Now, as promised, North Derbyshire and others have gone out as well.