Coal miners' strike in Britain -- why the long, bitter struggle

In a little over a week, Britain's coal miners will mark a whole year since they began what has been the longest strike in British history. No major strike in Britain ever lasted so long or caused so much violence.

At the time of writing, there were strong signs that the strike was finally coming to an end as more and more miners found it harder and harder to live without their wages.

At the beginning, about 25 percent of the miners stayed on the job. Last week, however, the number of miners back at work was more than 50 percent.

The feeling in Britain has always been that if the number of miners on the job went over 50 percent, the strike would have been lost, because it would show that more miners were at work than on strike.

That seemed to be exactly what was happening this past week, as many people in Britain felt that the strike was collapsing rapidly.

To go on strike means workers in a particular factory or industry refuse to work and will stay away from their jobs until an agreement is reached between the two sides.

The two sides to a strike dispute are the workers who call the strike, and the management. The management includes the people who manage or control the way a factory or industry is run.

Strikes can be called for a number of reasons, such as demands for better working conditions, or more pay.

British coal miners went on strike because they felt the management, in this case the National Coal Board, was closing down too many mines.

The strikers decided that by going on strike they would show the Coal Board they would not stand for any more mines closing down.

What had made miners nervous about their future was an annnouncement last March by the Coal Board that called for the closing of 20 coal mines. That meant some 20,000 men would lose their jobs. In some cases, it meant not only closing down mines, but also whole towns. It seemed heartless to many miners that the Coal Board should close down pits, as coal mines are also called, when many miners had spent all their working lives in them. Some have parents and grandparents who were also miners.

The Coal Board did say at the start of the strike, though, that if any miner lost his job because his mine had been closed, the board would find him a job in another coalfield.

Over the years many mines have had to close down when they outlived their usefulness. The Coal Board's plan then was to cut out the not very efficient mines and concentrate instead on the good mines.

To the Coal Board it was important to make this kind of choice because Britain had more coal than it could sell. It argued that a cutback in production and therefore in the number of mines had become essential.

The first mines to go would be those where it cost too much money to extract the coal. These are known as ``uneconomic pits,'' because they're so expensive to run. It's like comparing the efficiency of an old, worn-out car with a brand-new model.

This is really what the coal strike is all about. The miners refused to agree to closing down uneconomic pits because they weren't convinced they were ready to close down yet. They believed they could get, as with a car, more ``mileage'' out of the old mines.

Besides, the only time they wanted a mine to close down was if there were no coal at all left in the mines or when they became unsafe. The Coal Board said no industry could run efficiently on that basis and refused to agree to those terms.

The strike has gone on for so long that it has caused tremendous bitterness. Even the mining communities are not agreed that it was right to go on strike.

Those who didn't strike said the decision was wrong because they were not given the right to express whether they wanted to go on strike or not. The decision was made by the leaders of the union that represents the miners, the National Union of Mineworkers. Their best-known leader is the president, Arthur Scargill.

Violence broke out repeatedly because striking miners tried to prevent miners who did not go on strike from getting to work. Police were called in to separate the working miners from the nonworking ones. But there was so much anger on all sides that many police, striking miners, and working miners were seriously injured in scuffles that broke out outside the coal mines in various areas.

The strike has been far more bitter than other British strikes because Mr. Scargill believes he is also fighting a political struggle on behalf of the working classes. The government, in turn, thinks he is a threat to democracy, because he didn't allow the miners to vote on the strike. Some miners have said they were intimidated or threatened into striking even though they didn't want to stay away from work.

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