Britain's coal miners have voted by a narrow margin to end their strike. Most are expected back at work tomorrow, on the eve of the first anniversary of one of the country's most damaging industrial disputes in over half a century. But the miners' leader, Arthur Scargill, is threatening that disruption in the coal fields will continue, despite his union's surrender.
A chastened Mr. Scargill announced that, after three hours of debate, a special delegate conference of the miners' union had voted 98 to 91 to abandon the strike.
Supporters of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately claimed a major victory for the government and the National Coal Board, but they conceded privately that because the strike had come to an end without a negotiated settlement, the next few days would probably be marked by confusion and continuing bitterness, especially in those areas where miners have been more militant.
Initial estimates indicate that the total economic loss to Britain caused by the year-long dispute will be some 3 billion ($3.3 billion).
The narrowness of the final vote reflected a refusal by miners' delegates from Yorkshire, Kent, and other militant areas to accept that there were grounds for throwing in the sponge. Scargill warned Mrs. Thatcher that his members would be demanding the reinstatement of some 700 miners who have lost their jobs after being charged with misdemeanors during the long dispute.
But a Coal Board spokesman insisted that there would be no blanket amnesty for sacked miners. The amnesty demand seemed certain to make the return to work messy and uncertain.
Scargill and his supporters insisted that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had not conceded the Coal Board's right to close pits on economic grounds -- the central issue of the dispute.
Government officials, however, were jubilant that the NUM's long struggle to resist the board's pit closure program had ended in a major political defeat for Scargill and his hard-line supporters.
They pointed out that the NUM leadership had had little option but to concede defeat if they were to retain control over their rank and file.
Britain was given a taste of the bitter mood of many miners as the decision to abandon the strike was announced. Around the trade union headquarters in London, where the decision was made, violence erupted as delegates reached the street.
There were cries of ``Judas'' and ``betrayal.'' Some delegates had to accept police protection as they made their way to waiting police cars.
Inside the building Scargill declared, ``We shall go back together, but this union fights on to retain pits, jobs, and communities.''
Coal Board officials indicated that while there would be no overall amnesty for sacked miners, individual cases in each area would be considered on their merits. The board apparently hopes that this approach will undermine Scargill's anticipated attempts to make capital of the amnesty issue.
For Thatcher, the collapse of the strike is a significant triumph not only over Scargill and the NUM but over trade unions generally.
The nation's schoolteachers are currently organizing selective strikes, but may be discouraged by the defeat of the miners. The government hopes that other trade unions contemplating industrial action will learn the lesson of Scargill's defeat.
The Coal Board and the government showed no sign of softening its hardline when news of the miners' defeat was announced. Board officials said miners would receive no scheduled pay increases until they were working normally and until a nationwide ban on overtime, in force since November, 1983, had been called off.
Thatcher is hoping that attempts by NUM militants to oppose projected pit closures, area by area, will fail. Her officials have noted that the motion for a return to work came from South Wales, a traditionally influential mining region, where the bulk of the workforce has remained on strike throughout the past year.