Britain's coal strike becomes a battle of wills as both sides dig in for winter
London — Summer has slipped into autumn here, and doors and windows are closed tighter to keep out the chill that foretells the winter and the higher energy bills to come.
The change in seasons should send shivers down the spines of Britain's Cabinet ministers.
This was the time when striking coal miner leader Arthur Scargill calculated he would win the longest-running industrial dispute in Britain's history.
His strategy: Hold out until the autumn, when coal stocks would be running so low the government would sue for peace.
It hasn't worked out that way. In an impassioned British Broadcasting Corporation radio interview Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said: ''There are not going to be power cuts this side of Christmas, and I don't believe there are going to be power cuts the other side of Christmas.''
A Department of Energy spokesman says that coal stocks at power stations had dropped from 31.9 million tons at the end of 1983 to 16.7 million tons at the end of June. He insists, however, there are enough stocks to ''last way, way into 1985.''
With no give on either side, the coal strike has become a contest of wills as the disputants tough it out for as long as it takes to win.
Seven months of industrial strife, for instance, have done nothing to blunt the determination of striking miners to man picket lines. This past week saw as many as 6,000 pickets take up positions outside the Maltby colliery in Yorkshire.
With no quick resolution of the dispute in sight, public opinion is getting testy over what it sees as the ''intransigence'' of the two principal actors: Mr. Scargill, head of the National Union of Miners, and Ian MacGregor, the National Coal Board (NCB) chairman.
Scargill's absolutist demands in not allowing a single uneconomic pit to close down unless it is exhausted has irritated even trade union leaders. But what has surprised and annoyed the government is a crescendo of criticism against the abrasiveness of Mr. MacGregor, accompanied by calls for his resignation from leading opposition politicians and, in a new development, from prominent clerics.
Much of this is seen as an expression of public impatience at the failure to reach a peace formula while the economic and social costs inexorably climb.
A leading London economist has been quoted as saying that the strike has so far cost Britain (STR)1.5 billion ($1.8 billion) or (STR)50 million to (STR)60 million ($62.5 million to $75 million) a week.
Power stations are importing four to five times as much oil to replace burning coal. Higher oil imports largely accounted for the (STR)430 million ($ 530 million) deterioration in Britain's trade figures in August over July. As a result electricity prices are expected to rise sharply if these additional costs are passed on to the consumer.
Those hardest hit economically by the strike are the striking miners themselves. They have lost an average (STR)5,000 ($6,250) each in pay.
As the toll of injuries climbs higher as a result of coalfield violence, relations between police and striking miners have worsened.
So far the cost of maintaining a special police presence has cost (STR)120 million ($150 million). The police presence is justified, says the government, as a buffer between working and striking miners.
But the clashes are becoming more violent. Defenders of the police in Parliament are calling for more powerful means to protect police against what they see as the use of more lethal missiles by striking miners. This follows a very recent development in which police have come under a hail of catapulted lead pellets.
A New Scotland Yard spokesman for the National Reporting Office that coordinates police deployment in coalfields claimed Sept. 25 that 711 policemen had been slightly hurt and 56 seriously injured since the start of the strike. The figures for ''other personnel,'' presumably miners, is 218 slightly hurt, and 26 seriously injured.
At the Trades Union Congress in Brighton in early September, Scargill reported that over 6,000 of his men had been arrested since the dispute began.
''Over 90 percent of them had no connection with the police before. Don't classify them as reckless criminals. Their only crime has been to fight for their jobs,'' Scargill said.
Although the strike has far-reaching economic and social implications, the dispute hinges on just one issue: the government's refusal to keep open uneconomic mines.
The striking miners equate that with the closure of pits and the loss of thousands of jobs. So far, 100 pits have closed down. That still leaves 42 working normally, 8 producing some coal, while some men are working but not producing any coal at 18 other pits.
The NCB is disturbed about the physical deterioration of the coal faces because they have not been worked for so long.
So far 19 coal faces have been lost; 16 are in serious condition; and concern is being expressed about a further 62 out of a total of 490 coal faces.
The hopes of the National Coal Board that various inducements such as higher pay offers and guarantees that no working miner would lose his job, would accelerate the drift back to the coalfields have not materialized.
Any number of polls conducted among miners have shown that many more would like to return to work but are inhibited by fear of reprisals.
The result is that some 120,000 of Britain's 180,000 miners still remain out on strike. An NCB spokesman puts the number of striking miners who have returned to work since the strike began March 12 at 5,000. ''It is still a trickle, but it has not dried up,'' the spokesman says.
With a persistent trickle back to work, and adequate coal stocks, there is reason to believe Mrs. Thatcher will prevail.
But such a scenario fails to take into account such imponderables as the severity of the coming winter, the ability of the striking miners to stay the course, or the unexpected development by colliery supervisors to press for a strike that could put every coalfield out of action, including those who have been working until now.
The strike sentiment is not the result of any belated switch in allegiance to the striking miners' cause. It is a mark of protest against what they see as MacGregor's high-handed behavior in insisting that foremen must cross picket lines or lose their pay.
Whether the pit deputies will use the vote to strike or merely as a bargaining chip to pressure MacGregor is the newest imponderable in the coal situation.
As one close to the dispute put it: ''It has the psychological value of the sheathed sword.''
Nobody will know until that sword is unsheathed whether the blade will prove to be blunt or razor sharp.
WORKING COALFIELDS IN BRITAIN Mines National Coal Number Mines with Board area of producing men mines coal working 1. Scotland 12 1 11 2. Northeast England 15 0 2 3. N. Yorkshire 12 0 2 4. Doncaster 10 0 2 5. Barnsley 16 0 0 6. S. Yorkshire 15 0 3 7. N. Derbyshire 9 3 7 8. N. Nottinghamshire 14 14 14 9. S. Nottinghamshire 11 11 11 10. S. Midlands 15 12 14 11. Western 17 13 16 12. S. Wales 28 0 0 Source: National Coal Board