London — Britain's long-running coal strike this week began to pass through a psychological barrier that promises its early collapse. As thousands of miners for the first time voted with their feet to return to work, the National Coal Board (NCB) confidently predicted that more than 50 percent of the 186,000-strong labor force would be back in the pits in the next few days.
The seemingly inevitable turning point in the 51-week struggle approached amid widespread dismay in the coalfields at last week's collapse of negotiations aimed at producing a settlement.
Reaction of many miners in areas such as Yorkshire and Wales, where support for the strike has been notably solid, was to accept defeat and abandon their part in the dispute.
After a weekend of intense discussions in mining areas, thousands of workers decided to ignore pickets and return to work.
The mine workers' president, Arthur Scargill, questioned NCB statistics that show a record return to work for a single day, but reports from the coalfields indicated that the board had got its sum right.
Before the weekend, 47 percent of miners were working, following the slow drift back of recent weeks. By yesterday afternoon, the figure was nearing 49 percent.
The coal board's chairman, Ian MacGregor, has said that when 50 percent had given up the strike, it would be all over as far as he was concerned.
Thatcher government ministers, monitoring the return to work, said Mr. Scargill's refusal to accept a settlement plan worked out last week by the coal board and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was a key factor in changing the minds of thousands of strikers.
When Scargill saw the draft proposals, including a mechanism for reviewing the need for pit closures, he condemned them and persuaded his executive to do the same. A national delegate conference of miners took place the next day.
But Energy Secretary Peter Walker announced that Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had pulled the rug from under the NCB and TUC negotiators. He noted that a TUC delegation had gone to see Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and assured her that the terms of the settlement would be accepted.
In the circumstances, Mr. Walker said, there could be no more negotiations. ``It is the common sense of the miners that must now bring a swift end to this damaging and unnecessary dispute,'' he said.
At last week's negotiations, the coal board stuck to its view that it could not guarantee to keep open pits that were uneconomic -- one of the central issues in dispute. Scargill, however, said he would never sign an agreement sanctioning pit closures on economic grounds.
NCB officials noted that the accelerating return to work in Yorkshire, Scargill's power base, and Wales, where loyalty to NUM strikes is usually intense, indicated the extent of the NUM's failure to recognize the way its members were moving.
In South Wales last weekend small groups of miners agreed privately to return to work. They went to the pitheads in the same groups, ignoring pickets. Much the same happened in Yorkshire, Northumberland, and Scotland.
The coal board meanwhile reminded miners that if they went back to work by early March, they would receive payment for an unsettled 1983 pay claim, together with a substantial holiday payment.
Scargill attacked this offer as a cynical attempt to lure miners back to their jobs. But after 51 weeks on strike, the prospect of lump sum payments helped to persuade many miners whose families have been struggling to give up the fight.