British coal miners vs. the Iron Lady

All over Britain from Kent in southeast England to Scotland in the far north, coal miners are out on strike in a country where their ancestors helped stoke the industrial revolution.

Yet Britain's industrial might is no longer centered in the great coalfields of Wales or Nottinghamshire, England. Coal mining is a shrinking industry. The number of mines has declined from 289 in 1972 to 174 in 1984. The number of coal miners has gone from 281,500 down to 180,000 during the same period.

The once powerful British coal miners have lost their stranglehold on the British economy. They are no longer able to topple a government as they did in 1974, or to bring the nation to its knees.

The coal miners confront a government determined to streamline an ailing industry, running more than (STR)200 million ($288 million) in the red. That means investing only in more efficient mines and closing those that have been exhausted or are unproductive.

Even more dramatically, the solidarity of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), once Britain's strongest union, is disintegrating. The picketing and violence between striking militants and moderates determined to keep working have pitted miners against miners.

Much of the controversy that has split the union centers on the means and methods of miners to opposed to the government's offer of a 5.3 percent wage increase and to pit closures. One of the most revealing lessons from this strike could be that the radical leader of the NUM, Arthur Scargill, may have seriously misjudged the mood of the miners and undermined his own credibility.

The miners rightly look to Mr. Scargill to bargain for them. Moderates among them though are less happy with his apparent determination to use his position as a political platform to radically socialize the country. They especially take issue with his bringing in militant pickets to areas where miners are opposed to strike action.

Despite a groundswell of support from miners for a national ballot on a strike call, Mr. Scargill has so far resisted the presssure. His reluctance could signal his own concern that his credibility might be further undermined if his lead were not followed. On two previous occasions his call for strike action has been rejected.

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