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Art. 13.—THE COAL STRIKE. THE origin of the present struggle in the Coal Trade is to be found in the strike which occurred at the Cambrian Combine Collieries in the winter of 1910. In 1909 a seam of coal, known as the Upper 5ft. Seam, was being worked at the Ely Pit on day-work; and in December of that year the owners gave notice to the workmen that they wished a tonnage price fixed for the working of this seam.
The owners and the men being unable to agree on a rate, the matter was referred to the Conciliation Board, it being the practice in Wales that when a colliery company is unable to agree upon a price with the workmen for the hewing of coal, or for any general rates of wages, the matter in dispute is referred to the Conciliation Board, who appoint two representatives of the owners and men to consider the merits of the case. The Conciliation Board, for the purpose of settling this dispute, appointed two referees; but after long negotiations they failed to come to an agreement, and in December 1910 a strike began.
Mr D. A. Thomas, the Managing Director of the Cambrian Combine Collieries, despite his recognised ability, is generally regarded as one of the extreme men; but in my opinion this is very far from being the truth. Had Mr Thomas not been a member of the South Wales Conciliation Board, the strike would probably not have taken place. When the referees appointed to consider the dispute at the Ely Pit failed to agree, he offered to refer the whole matter to the consideration of an impartial arbitrator; but, as arbitration is not provided for under the rules of the Board, and as the general body of owners are opposed to that method, they refused to adopt his suggestion. This refusal was prohibitive, for under the rules of the Board an owner is precluded from making any agreement with his men unless the same is approved by the members; consequently, in the case of the Cambrian dispute, Mr Thomas was not allowed to effect a settlement, which he would doubtless have done if he had had a free hand. Hence the strike.
As to the points ostensibly in dispute at the Ely Pit, I have no doubt that the men were misled, and that the
real object of the movement was not economic but revolutionary. The Strike Committee issued a statement that the rates offered by the owners of the Ely Pit would only yield the men a 'starvation wage’; but the actual average earnings of all colliers at the coal-face one month after the mine re-started work were 9s. a day. The demand was forced on by the extreme men, who are also the younger, among the leaders or agents. The fact is that there are too many of these, and this is one of the chief sources of trouble in South Wales. In this coalfield, which produces less than one-sixth of the total output of coal in the United Kingdom, there are no less than forty Miners' Agents, besides a small army of other officials. These officials have to justify their existence; they fall out amongst themselves; and during the last two years a general attack has been made by the younger upon the older leaders. I am acquainted with many of these agents; and, writing quite impartially, I believe no men have been better served than have the Welsh miners by their old leaders, who fully recognised that the proposals put forward by the extreme party were economically impossible. On the other hand, the old leaders, having been displaced by the extreme socialists, now refuse to allow the latter to modify their programme; consequently for some time past an active dispute has raged between the two sections, and the extremists have gradually been getting the upper hand.
This process, it must be confessed, has been fostered by certain changes on the owners' side. During recent years many Combines, Trusts and Amalgamations have been formed in South Wales. This has been done for financial purposes purely ; and I look upon such developments with the greatest possible alarm. We live in an epoch when industry is carried on by large limited companies ; and this has certain unhappy results, for the old friendly and intimate relations, which formerly existed between masters and men, have to a great extent passed away. Every amalgamation and combine accentuates this difficulty, for it is impossible in these large concerns to maintain any personal relationship between employers and their workmen. From the men's standpoint it may be argued that the owners acted unjustly in locking out the men working at the other seams in the Ely Pit, for notice was given, not only to the men working in the Upper 5ft. Seam where the dispute arose, but also to all men working in other seams in the pit. This raises a general question of principle, which has for years past been the subject of constant conflict between owners and men. The men argue that it is unreasonable that owners should lock out men with whom there is no dispute. To this the owners reply that, if there is a wage-dispute with two hundred out of a thousand men, and it is confined to the smaller number, then they (the owners) have no means of bringing about a settlement; for the two hundred men, if they go out on strike, can easily be supported by the funds of the Federation, whereas, if the whole thousand are out and the Federation has to support them, their natural desire is to effect a speedy settlement. Further, the owners contend that, if the men insist on collective bargaining, they must be regarded as subject to collective treatment; the general lock-out is only the counterpart of the ‘sympathetic' strike. On the other side, it should be remembered that in South Wales, when a strike or lockout takes place, the owners of a mine are entitled to receive a subsidy from the owners' fighting fund, while the men are supported by their Federation. By these arrangements the incentive to either party to arrive at a speedy settlement is largely taken away.
I have written at some length about the South Wales dispute because of its far-reaching consequences. During the strike the Welsh socialist party sent delegates into all the mining centres of the United Kingdom to address meetings of English and Scottish miners. These delegates endeavoured to enlist the sympathies of the miners on the ground that the price-list offered at the Ely Pit was one which would only enable the men to earn 'starvation wages, and that the lock-out was a brutal attack of capital upon labour. The leaders of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain strongly resented the action of these Welsh emissaries, who openly flouted the Councils of the different Mining Associations, and held meetings denouncing not only the South Wales employers but also the English Federation leaders. Strenuous efforts were now made to bring about a general strike, ostensibly to
settle the Ely price-list; but the leaders of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain were strong enough to resist the attacks made on them. Finally, the insulting treatment meted out by the Welshmen to Messrs Ashton and Harvey, who were sent to Tonypandy by the Federation as its representatives, resulted in the Federation withdrawing its financial support, whereupon the strike collapsed. Mr Ashton, the General Secretary of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain, is one of the most able and conscientious men in the Trades Union movement. He holds a unique position, inasmuch as he not only has the complete confidence of the English miners, but is also respected and esteemed by the coal-owners, who recognise that his integrity of purpose and good faith are undoubted. A quiet and reserved man, he exerts a great influence over the Federation; and when on January 24, 1911, he issued a circular to the Federation miners stating that there are a number of men in South Wales who do not want a settlement of the strike at the Combine Collieries,' the revolutionary party recognised that the game was up.
The seeds sown by the Welshmen in the Federated area during the dispute, however, now bore fruit; and at the Southport Conference of Miners' Delegates in October, 1911, a claim was put forward for a minimum wage. Hitherto no general demand for such a concession had been laid before the owners in the Federated area, although it had been claimed that where, owing to bad management or abnormal places, a man failed to earn a day's wage, his remuneration should be made up to the district rate of wage. At the Southport Conference this limited demand was superseded by that for a minimum wage all round. The following resolution was submitted by the Executive and passed unanimously: •That the Federation take immediate steps to secure an individual minimum wage for all men and boys working in mines in the area of the Federation, without any reference to the working places being abnormal. In the event of the employers refusing to agree to this, the 21st rule to be put into operation to demand assent.'
It was further agreed that the delegates should report to a second Conference on November 14 the result of
their negotiations with the employers. On November 14 the district delegates reported their failure to arrive at a settlement. Thereupon a number of delegates urged that all further negotiations with the employers should be broken off. The Conference on this motion divided, when 336,000 votes were cast for further negotiations, and 238,000 votes against. The Conference then adjourned to December 20. Ata special Conference held on December 21 it was resolved that a ballot be taken on January 10-12, 1912; and that the question to be voted on should be— Are you in favour of giving notice to establish the principle of a minimum wage for every man and boy working in the mines of Great Britain ?' It was further resolved : "That each district send to Mr Ashton a tabulated statement of what it desires to be its minimum wage, and that the Executive Committee of the Federation meet to consider the statements and report to a National Conference to be held in Birmingham on January 18, 1912.'
At the Birmingham Conference the result of the ballot was declared : for giving notice, 445,801 ; against, 115,721 ; majority, 330,080. South Wales returned the high majority of 85,107 in favour of a stoppage, far exceeding that given in any other coalfield. The district delegates then submitted the minimum rates approved by their respective associations, but these the Executive refused to sanction. On February 2, after a stormy meeting, the Conference approved the following schedule.