London — Britain's coal industry faces total shutdown. The crisis has deepened with a decision by 16,000 pit supervisors to join the strike, now in its 32nd week.
Until now some coal fields - notably in Nottinghamshire - have remained open because miners have refused to join the stoppage. But the law says a pit cannot be mined except under supervision, and unless there is a last-minute reversal by the supervisors, it will be illegal as of Oct. 25 for miners to go underground.
The supervisors' decision to strike followed the collapse of a mediation effort by the government's industrial conciliation service. During the negotiations, National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor offered to make concessions, but they were unacceptable to the miners' president, Arthur Scargill.
The pit supervisors' decision was received with barely concealed dismay by the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which had been hoping for a breakthrough in the mediation talks.
The government has calculated that if a complete strike can be avoided, there will be enough fuel supplies at least until the end of February, by which time the worst of the winter will have passed.
But with no coal at all being mined, stockpiles would be reduced at a rapid rate. Mr. Scargill's supporters claim that under these conditions there would be widespread electricity cuts before Christmas.
Mrs. Thatcher has reason to fear the political effects if this happens. Ten years ago her Conservative predecessor, Edward Heath, confronted the miners and imposed a three-day workweek on Britain. Public reaction was adverse, and Mr. Heath lost a general election.
With the likelihood of a total strike two key issues face the Thatcher government.
* Scargill's approach to the coal industry rests on the assumption that there is no need to worry about annual subsidies of (STR)1 billion ($1.2 billion) being plowed into the industry. This runs directly counter to the government's policy of modernizing British industry and phasing out uneconomic activity.
* Mrs. Thatcher came to power as an advocate of maintaining the rule of law while curbing the powers and pretensions of trade unions.
Arthur Scargill's failure to condemn violence on the picket line and his thumbing of his nose at the courts are seen as deliberately challenging the rule of law.
(Scargill has ignored high court warnings that unless he paid a fine of (STR) 1,000 ($1,200) and his union paid one of (STR)200,000 ($240,000) for allegedly preventing miners from working, the consequences would be severe. Recently somebody paid Scargill's personal fine).
Scargill's harsh language has not been moderated by 32 weeks of confrontation with the Coal Board and the Thatcher government. Learning of the pit supervisors' decision, he declared: ''We have no concessions to make. We cannot compromise on this threat to assassinate us.''
Behind the scenes, the Coal Board set in train a campaign of quiet persuasion aimed at convincing pit supervisors that the entire nation, as well as they themselves, will suffer if there is a total coal stoppage. MacGregor suggested that pit supervisors are not united and that it will continue to be possible for miners in the crucial Nottinghamshire coal fields to work.
It will be up to individual supervisors to decide whether to accept their union's instructions. Their leaders hope that by taking a strong stand they may be able to exact more concessions from MacGregor.
But the Coal Board chairman said he has no mandate to give ground. And the secretary of state for energy, Peter Walker, has affirmed that more Coal Board concessions would be unthinkable in the face of Scargill's intransigence.
Meanwhile, the order went out to check and double-check coal stocks to see just how long Britain could put up with a nationwide coal strike without having to turn out the lights across the land.