Striking British coal miners seek `humane aid' from US unions

American unions, traditionally staunch supporters of workers abroad, have stayed out of the bitter 10-month fight between British coal miners and the British Coal Board and the government. Elsewhere, US labor, led by the AFL-CIO, continues to back the Polish experiment in trade unionism, Solidarnosc. American labor is fighting apartheid in South Africa, seeking sanctions against the exploitation of blacks. And a labor-sponsored study of ``longstanding social, economic, and political injustices'' in Central America has just been published.

But while there is sympathy for the British coal miners, there is a general recognition on the part of US union leaders that the dispute in Britain is over contract terms, particularly over job protection. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) struck to protest plans by the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to shut down 20 mines employing some 30,000 miners.

The United Mine Workers union has made contributions to the NUM strike fund, but, according to British union spokesmen, there have been only ``comparatively small'' contributions from other US unions. Hoping to change that, Peter Hogg, a NUM executive board member, recently visited this country to appeal to US unions for ``humanitarian assistance'' for British strikers and their families. Mr. Hogg, a miner for 35 of his 49 years, has five sons who are also miners; all are on strike.

A committee, American Friends of Striking British Miners, was established to raise funds -- not for strike purposes, but to help relieve ``extreme hardships of strikers' families.'' Before Hogg returned to Scotland before Christmas, funds were collected to buy food, clothing, and toys for the holidays. Hogg or a NUM alternate will return to New York this month, says the US committee, to focus further attention on the miners' plight.

As it is constituted now, the committee is largely from New York and includes union officials, one of whom is Thomas (Teddy) Gleason, president of the International Longshoremen's Association (AFL-CIO); New York state and city elected officials; lawyers; and religious figures among others. The committee ``expects'' spreading labor support and expansion into other parts of the country. It also hopes that Hogg or an alternate from the NUM will be invited to appeal for aid to the AFL-CIO Executive Council in mid-February.

Whether the federation or its unions will get involved beyond token aid could depend on a number of points:

In mid-1984, during the earlier days of the presidential election contest, American labor officials sharply criticized what they said were similarities between President Reagan's and Prime Minister Thatcher's pro-business, conservative policies. The Reagan action against air traffic controllers (fired for striking) and the Thatcher hard line in the miners' dispute were cited particularly.

Labor also sees similarities between what it calls ``union-busting'' policies in the British miners' strike and the long Phelps Dodge strike in the US copper industry. George Munroe, chairman of Phelps Dodge, and Ian MacGregor of the British Coal Board have had a long association through the American Mining Congress. Union spokesmen say Mr. MacGregor once led drives against the United Mine Workers in Western US coal fields.

Laborites on the American committee say there is a very fine line between human rights positions, defended traditionally by the AFL-CIO, and the British situation, in which, according to Peter Hogg, police are arresting those collecting food for miners' families, welfare funds for strikers have been cut, and ``mining communities have been turned into a virtual police state.''

Although supporters of the NUM say the majority of its directors are from the British Labour Party, suspicions of left-wing influences within the union (Soviet miners have contributed $625,000 to support the strike), and of aid from Libya (strongly denied by Hogg), appear to have made US union officials wary of giving full support to the strike. Still, Daniel Kane, president of a Teamsters local in New York and a member of the aid committee, says: ``The strike is very significant. A victory over there would be a victory for the American labor movement. It would show that, when under an attack supported by the government, unions can respond and win.'' -- 30 --{et

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