British miners may take a second look at their leaders' credentials
London — Britain's coal miners, now that their year-long strike is over, are looking to the future in the hope that they and their industry will recover swiftly from the massive setback both have suffered. For Arthur Scargill and his fellow radicals on the executive of the National Union of Mineworkers, the future is cloudy. It was they who helped to precipitate and sustain the country's longest industrial strike, and their leadership credentials will soon be coming under scrutiny.
It is likely that the government's new industrial legislation will require Mr. Scargill, who was elected to head the NUM for life, to submit himself to reelection within two years. And it is likely that regardless of the union leader's own prospects, the miners' executive will soon have a more moderate aspect.
Scargill, a professed Marxist and brilliant orator, became president of the union in 1981 after a pithead ballot of the national work force. Under the law applying then, he could look forward to remaining in office well into the next century.
But Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's determination to set limits to trade union power has changed all that. Under new laws, a union leader with voting powers in his organization must submit himself to reelection at intervals. To remain within the law, Scargill must either accept the need for reelection or surrender his vote on the NUM executive.
Some of his radical colleagues who helped steer the miners into strike action a year ago will be facing the democratic music in the next three or four months. Of the 24-man executive, up to one-quarter will face reelection.
In the sour atmosphere created by the collapse of the coal strike, it is by no means certain that radical executive members will continue to receive rank-and-file backing. This is especially true in areas where large numbers of miners worked through the period of the strike.
Scargill himself has given no indication of how he plans to address the implications of the new industrial laws. He is on record as favoring periodic reelection of trade-union officials and may feel confident enough to let his name go forward.
As the coal strike came to an end, the miners' president began to argue that the long stoppage had been a great victory for his leadership. His skills as a news media personality, coupled with solid personal support in Yorkshire, Scotland, and Wales, will help to ensure that he remains a power to be reckoned with.
But officials of the National Coal Board and the Thatcher government point to the huge suffering of many miners caused by the privations of the strike. They expect miners and their families to remember those sufferings, especially when the Coal Board presses on with its plan to close mines which Scargill and his followers swore to keep open.
It would be a great irony if Scargill's authority were curbed by the democratic requirements of the new industrial laws. Many observers believe he made a fatal error at the outset of the strike by failing to call for a pithead ballot.
Had he done so, opinion pollsters say, the work force would have backed him by a solid majority and Thatcher and the coal board could not have argued that Scargill was leading an unpopular cause.
By failing to trust in democratic methods, the miners' leadership alienated thousands of rank-and-file coal miners who may now be in a mood to show them what democracy means.
In any case, the failure of the strike has persuaded many thousands of miners that their leaders should no longer have a blank check in deciding when to withdraw the labor of the work force.
The sager pundits forecast that by the autumn the miners' executive may still have a slight radical majority, but Scargill and his associates will be chastened men, much more ready to listen to the men they lead than they were a few months ago.