Norman Willis, who as head of the Trades Union Congress is Britain's chief union spokesman, was asked a few months ago about the then-embryonic movement among dissident mineworkers to form their own union in the coalfields of Nottinghamshire. ``Don't underestimate the complications that the Notts miners will create,'' Willis said at the time. ``It's exactly the thing that you don't want.''
But now that is exactly what Britain's embattled trade union movement is facing. Last weekend, the new, independent Union of Democratic Mineworkers won a 72 percent majority in Nottinghamshire and a 51 percent majority in South Derbyshire, two coalfields in the Midlands section of England.
Since then, a breakaway union in Durham voted by a 98-2 majority to affiliate with the UDM -- an expected result with a higher-than-expected majority. And Daw Mill, near Coventry --one of the nation's most productive pits -- announced that it would ballot its members on Nov. 4. Miners' officials there are certain of a positive outcome for the UDM.
Most observers have viewed this activity as a sharp rebuke to Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers, who led his membership through a year-long -- and some say fruitless -- strike which ended without a settlement last March. But it is clear that the trend toward the UDM, if it continues, will have profound consequences for the TUC, the Labour Party and the coal industry.
For the TUC, the dilemna is most immediate. It could recognize the union -- and thereby end a long-standing tradition of refusing to recognize breakaway unions, while at the same time incurring the wrath of Scargill, who still has a strong following among more militant trade unionists.
If the TUC takes the more expected path and does not recognize the UDM, it will lose a large chunk of its dues-paying membership. TUC leaders also fear that the new Notts union could serve as a focus for an alternative organization -- and thus attract the support of two large trade unions who face expulsion from the TUC for other reasons.
For the Labour Party, heavily dependent on the trade unions' political levy, the breakaway could have financial and political implications in the next election. Several observers say that the party could lose as many as five crucial seats in the Nottinghamshire area alone if it does not support the independent union.
And for the coal industry as a whole, the implications are puzzling. The National Coal Board initially greeted the UDM vote with approval, and has already recognized the Notts UDM as the official representative of miners in that area. But observers caution that the existence of two rival unions could seriously harm industrial relations in an already-embittered industry.
The last time the mineworkers' union faced a challenge like this was during a strike in 1926, when Nottinghamshire leader George Spencer broke with the national organization and negotiated his own settlement. Before the Spencer union dissolved in 1937, it had membership in pits from Scotland to Wales.
Whether the UDM will be able to attract a similar national following is unclear. The independent union grew out of the particular circumstances in Nottinghamshire during the strike. The Notts miners voted not to strike unless the NUM put the question on a national ballot. When the NUM refused and called a general strike in March 1984, the Notts miners went to work -- and stayed at work the year through.
The NUM eventually fired the Notts leadership for not supporting the strike. And the NUM passed controversial rule changes giving more power to Scargill and the national executive -- changes which the Notts miners opposed.
``People here are absolutely sick to death of that attitude,'' Neil Greatrex, one of three full-time officers of the UDM, said in an interview recently. ``It's not just Scargill, it's the entire national set-up now.''
Scargill has refused to recognize the UDM; a few other NUM officials have taken a more conciliatory approach. ``The so-called union does exist. But the vast, vast majority of mineworkers are still loyal to the NUM,'' Henry Richardson, former general secretary of the Notts NUM, said in an interview on BBC radio Oct. 22.
Richardson said he was optimistic that the differences could be resolved, but others are more doubtful.
The suggestion that a ``conciliation commission'' be established to mediate between the two rivals already has been rejected by the NUM and UDM leaderships. ``Feelings are running that high and that emotive that I don't think there's anything they can do,'' said Greatrex.
From the TUC's perspective, the NUM is still the legitimate national representative of all mineworkers. ``It's quite simple for us,'' said press officer Brendan Barber. ``Everything is done through national organizations and not through any other channels. We've never accepted breakaway bodies as affiliated organizations.''