Thursday, 3 September 2015

Joe Gormley "Battered Cherub"

A recent trip to a second hand bookshop resulted in the purchase of “Battered Cherub” (1982, Hamish Hamilton), the autobiography of Joe Gormley (1917-1993) who was president of the NUM in the dark days of the 1970s.

It proved to be a fascinating read, both in terms of learning about the harsh conditions of mining, and in terms of hearing the NUM’s perspective of the industrial disputes that characterised the early 1970s.

This post draws heavily from the book, with a few extra bits and pieces thrown in as well.

1972 Pay Negotiations and Strike
1973 Pay Negotiations and 1974 Strike
1975 Pay Negotiations
1980 Coal Industry Act
Other Thoughts

Joe Gormley - Battered Cherub

JG started working in coal mines at the age of 14 and he describes how mining in the first half of the 20th century was a very hard life, and worker protections were very few:
"We just couldn’t afford to be off work. I got a bad elbow once, when a big lump of coal came off the face and knocked me spinning. My elbow and shoulder were badly bruised, but I was back at work the following day...many times I've had fingernails ripped off, or had black nails through hitting them with a hammer. If that happened, I'd relieve the pressure by by getting a piece of wire....and sticking it down the back of the nail to let the blood spurt out"

Many years later Kent miner Jack Dunn commented:
“I remember the arguments on piecework when one of our colleagues was getting a bit old and he could not swing his shovel as quick as some of the youngsters. You had the internecine warfare of the younger blokes wanting to get rid of the old chap because they felt their returns were being diminished. Men exploiting their bodies and ready to exploit their mates”

JG was heavily involved in Labour Party politics, becoming a Councillor in the Ashton area in 1954. Surprisingly, JG feels that the Council there was more productive when it was all Labour than when it was split between Labour and the “Ratepayers”. Whilst acknowledging the dangers in the argument, he commented :
"the curious result of that was that the council actually became far less democratic than it had been when it was a hundred percent Labour. Because then we had fifteen different sets of opinions, and no one could claim they were arguing a certain way because it was local Labour Party policy....but as soon as the Ratepayers arrived...we started having to hold caucus meetings, and voted together according to what was decided at those private meetings."

There were two main factors affecting the mining industry in the 1960s: over manning, due to lack of a compulsory retirement age; and lots of cheap oil flooding the market, resulting in a move towards oil burning power stations . During this decade, the workforce dropped from from 700,000 down to 290,000 and from top of wages league down to 17th. Face workers getting just £27pw. Many pits closed in 60s, but in an orderly fashion and by agreement between NCB and NUM.

But that is not to say there were not problems. JG gave the example of Mosley Common pit, near Manchester. It was the biggest single pit in UK at the time. But there was poor relations between workers and management, to the extent that the pit was losing £1 million per year, after a 9million investment by the NCB and eventually the pit was closed. JG comments that:
"There are millions upon millions of tons of coal in Mosley Common, which are simply stagnating there… was the miners themselves who closed that pit, and I'll never forgive the people responsible, the NUM leadership there. Ah yes, the so-called militants, the fighters for this, that, and the other. Well they fought all right, but all they succeeded in doing was to close a bloody good pit."

JG became president of the NUM in 1971, a similar time to when Derek Ezra (described as being “thoroughly steeped in knowledge of the industry” became JG’s “opposite number” as chairman of the NCB chairman).

Between 1968 and 1971, the energy situation had swung from excess production and stocks to a critical fuel shortage. Indeed one of JG’s comments to the 1971 NUM conference was that “"...a world wide shortage of oil appears to be becoming permanent..." as well as pointing out that the industry needed to further mechanise and to improve wages to attract new talented miners.

Mining was still a dangerous business, between Jan 70 and May 71, 124 miners were killed and 912 seriously injured.

Joe Gormley on the tradegy of  Mosley Common Pit

1972 Pay Negotiations and Strike
In 1971, the NUM sought increases of £5pw for face workers , £9 for other underground and £8 for surface (to fulfil conference motion to establish £26 surface (from £18) and a minimum of £28 for undergroud workers, in a context of their having been a 9.1 %cost of living increase in the previous year, some miners were having to claim Family Income Allowance and Trawlermen being given £5pw, taking their pay to a maximum of £28.

The NCB offered £1.60pw, then a series of slightly higher offers, with Ted Heath’s incomes policies limiting what NCB could offer.

Ezra informally asked JG what would NUM settle at and JG responded with a figure of £3.50pw. JG also told Ted Heath that “It'll be a crime if you allow this strike to happen, because we shall win it you know.... [and] this will become the pattern for industrial relations for the next decade...'

The NUM voted for strike action, the first NUM national strike and which started on Jan 8th 1972.

The NUM, determined to make the strike as effective as possible (and thus short) adopted the new tactic of picketing to stop movement of coal, not just production. “Secondary” Pickets were sent, legally, to all major power stations, ports, coal depots and steel works to prevent coal movement (except for schools, hospitals, the elderly etc) . This action was with the support from TUC and other unions.

According to JG, there was a great deal of public support for strike, noting that “the Observer has come out with a feature in its business section showing how badly miners had fared over the years, and much of the press was also well-disposed”

Later JG learned that Dr David Owen had four picketing miners staying with him for the duration of the strike and said that “I’ve never met four better mannered lads in my life”

Soon 12 power stations ran out of coal and were shut down. Bob Carr at Dept of Employment told JG “The trouble is, Joe, that you’re doing everything legally. I can’t find a way of getting at you”

Joe Gormley on the 1972 Miners Strike

On Feb 9th, the NCB offered an effective £4pw increase for surface (cf £8 claim and previous £2 final offer), but over 18 months. This was rejected by NUM.

Feb 11th, 3 day week imposed, followed by 1,600,000men being laid off – yet still lots of public support according to JG.

A court of inquiry was held on 15-16th Feb. It heard stories including that of Jack Collins who worked in a pit so hot he had to work naked and whose wages had decreased from £5.50 a shift in 1963 to £5 in 1972 and from from Alan Carter who could earn £18.45 if driving a heavy pit lorry, something that would be paid £30-35 in other industries.

The inquiry also heard how there had significant productivity improvements over the previous decade.

Published on Friday 18th Feb, the Courts Report was very supportive of miners case, agreeing that wages should reflect the tough conditions in mines, and also recognising the social and economic costs of the industry run down in the 60s.

It recommended wage rises of £5 for surface, £6 for underground, £4.50 for face (giving £23, £25, £34.50 pw respectively) but over 16months, not 12.

Both NUM and NCB were keen to finalise a deal that day, given the pressure and the effects the strike was having on the wider UK economy. NUM felt that an increase on the report suggestions was unlikely, but neither had it met their wage increase targets. So the NUM prepared a “shopping list” of other items that had been in discussion over the years (fringe benefits, allowances etc) and eventually, well past midnight, got the agreement of the NCB to pretty much the whole lot. These extra items were worth more than the actual cash offer!

The deal was accepted by the NUM Executive and, via ballot, the members. Even so, JG comments that:
“looking back at it all, I’m not sure whether that strike performed a good service or a bad. It was good in that it united the lads, and showed them the strength which that unity could bring. On the other hand, its success led to an attitude of mind, prevalent even today [1982], where people, the moment they don’t get what they want, think and talk immediately of strike action”
Coal miner, 1942

Early 1973 pay negotiations and 1974 strike
By Jan 1973, inflation had eaten into the previous pay rise and the NUM put in for £30 for surface, £32 for underground, £40 for coalface (increases of £7, £7, £5.50)

The NCB responded with the government policy max of £1 + 4% (surface £25.29, underground £27.29, coalface £36.79).

When NUM balloted members for permission to take strike action, members said “No”, 143,006 to 82,631 - possibly due to residual financial pressure from previous strike, possibly because they were satisfied with other changes such as stop to pit closures and increases in pensions - so NUM accepted the offer.

In the July 1973 NUM conference, JG stated that “the miners will struggle for the right wage for the job, the wage which I have said previously must be the highest industrial wage in Britain, because the job warrants that wage”

Conference instructed the NUM leadership to put in for £35 for surface, £40 for underground, £45 for coalface, representing increases of around 35%, well above the government incomes policy at the time.

The NCB’s offer, on 10th October 1973, was of around £2.25 per hour plus various others benefits/allowances.

JG comments that “To the government it must have seemed that we were deliberately setting ourselves on a collision course with them. We weren’t. We simply wanted the right wages to keep young men coming into the industry”

JG had a secret meeting with Ted Heath in which he suggested that increases in unsocial hours payments might be a way of meeting the NUM goals without breaking the incomes policy - it was clear that the NUM was negotiating not with the NCB, but with the government directly.

In October, the Six Day War in the Middle East resulted in the Gulf states reducing their oil output and increasing prices. JG comments that “…our arguments, repeated over dozens of years, about the need for a national energy policy, and the maximising of our own resources, were coming home to roost”.

NUM met with Ted Heath on Oct 23rd and pointed out that the oil crisis meant that the country needed as much coal as it could get – but 600 men a week were leaving the industry for better conditions and wages elsewhere – but there was no change in the government’s position.

An overtime ban was called by the NUM on Nov 12th and took effect immediately. This was very significant as it meant that all routine weekend (overtime) maintenance work was now being performed during the week, and coal could not be mined at the same time, so output immediately fell by 40%.

John Wilson Carmichael A View of Murton Colliery near Seaham, County Durham, 1843

The entire NUM Executive met Heath on Nov28th. During this meeting the Mick McGahey (NUM Vice President) told Heath words to the effect of “Of course I want to change the Government, but I want to do it by democratic means, through the ballot box”.

JG interrupted saying:

“I’m not here to talk about changing the government. WE are here as the NEC of the NUM, discussing possibilities of ending an industrial dispute, and trying to get the right wages for the men on the job. That’s our position. When you do to the country, you go to the country. You’ll decide that. And I shall decide to oppose you at that time, and I shall work like all holy hell to get you defeated at that time. But this strike is not about that. This strike is about wages and that only”
McGaheys comments were leaked to the press who wrote it up as though the strike was about bringing down the government – a theme that continued in press coverage for the rest of the dispute.

A three day week was announced by the government on Dec 13th.

At around the same time, Willie Whitelaw, at the Dept of Employment, asked to have a chat with JG. In the course of the discussion, JG suggested that a way forward might be for some movement on the issue of waiting and bathing time – this being the unpaid time mines spent preparing to go down the mine and washing themselves after a shift – a suggestion that Whitelaw was supportive of.

The next morning, JG met with Harold Wilson, Leader of the Labour opposition, and mentioned the possible way forward to him. Wilson replied that “ do realise you’re pulling the Tory government’s irons out of the fire for them?” to which JG replied “I’m not pulling anything out of the fire for the Tories…All I’m doing as a trade union leader is trying to avoid the need for an industrial dispute…

The next day, Wilson presented the idea in Parliament as his own, thus ensuring that the Government could not accept it “nor would I expect them to” as Gormley comments.

Wilson later claimed that, after meeting JG, he also heard the idea mentioned in a public speech. JG suggests that this does not fit with the available facts.

Comments JG :
“…I will never forgive Harold Wilson for it. It was completely despicable…if Harold and company wanted an election, they should have forced it another way, using Parliamentary methods, rather than using the Union”
Joe Gormely on what the NUM really wanted to do in 1973

It is interesting to read what the Jan 3rd Times leader had to say about the dispute, in the light of oil price increases :

“Since the industry, at present pay levels, is having difficulty in maintaining, let alone increasing, its work force, the clear conclusion is that pay and other conditions of employment need to be improved fairly rapidly…”

On the Governments side, the offer was only what the incomes policy allowed, but with a promise to then sit down with the NUM and the NCB and discuss the future of the industry, including pay.

A ballot of NUM members on strike action resulted in a large majority in favour.

On 7th Jan 1974, Heath called a general election for 28th Feb.

The strike started on 9th Jan.

A Pay inquiry has held on 18-22 Jan and found that miners pay had indeed fallen in comparison to other industries and that miners deserved an extra 8%.

Labour won (just) the election and said they would not interfere in negotiations between the NUM and the NCB, i.e. that they would restore the right of free collective bargaining to these negotiations.

The NUM and NCB met the next day and were able to hammer out an agreement that put surface on £32, underground on £36 and coalface on £45.

Later in 1974, the “Plan for Coal” review was published and accepted by the NUM (and other involved unions), NCB, both sides of the House of Commons and the Government itself. One of its recommendations was that there should be safeguards to protect the industry against short term fluctuations in the price of competing fuels.

UK coal mining jobs trends

1975 pay negotiations
These resulted in an increase to £41 for surface, £41 for underground and £47 for coalface.

JG comments on negotiations by saying “You have to fight and prove your entitlement to every last penny. You must have a good case to put to employers….the idea that free collective bargaining inevitably leads to a great wage explosion is a complete fallacy”

In the July 1975 NUM conference Arthur Scargill, representing Yorkshire miners put forward a resolution demanding £100 for face, £85 for underground and £80 for surface. JG described this publically as “plain bloody daft” and told the conference that :

“We have proved in the last three to four years that this Union has great industrial power, and maybe some of us have become a little drunk with this power and are constantly wanting to be flexing our muscles…”, also telling conference that passing Scargill’s resolution would result in the Labour government introducing legislation to deal with wages.

Nevertheless, the motion was carried. JG comments that:

“As I had forecast at the end of the first strike, it was the first in a whole line of demands-backed-by-threat which have come to dominate the proceedings of our Union, and which run contrary to all I have learned in a lifetime dedicated to negotiation”
UK coal production and import trends

1980 Coal Industry Act
In 1980, the Tory government introduced the Coal Industry Act of 1980, which required the coal industry to be self-financing within 3-4 years. According to JG, this was impossible to achieve without lopping off large parts of the industry, and went against the (cross party supported) Plan for Coal of 1974.

At the time the NCB was stockpiling 8 million tons of coal per year due to cheaper coal being available from overseas.

In contrast to the public view that miners wages were making UK coal uncompetitive, JG states that British coal was the cheapest in Europe, and that other countries subsidized their production to a larger degree. In 1979 France was subsidizing at £28/ton, West Germany at £15/ton, whereas the UK was subsidizing at just £1.50/ton. JG admits, however, that US coal was cheaper, because it was open cast mined.

It was JG’s view that that NCB was putting rumours of pit closures out so they didn’t have to tell the NUM directly.

At a meeting on 10th Feb, Derek Ezra, under pressure, said that the NCB intended to close “between twenty and fifty pits over the next five years”

JG comments that “It was probably the most stupid statement he ever made”, pointing out that that fifty pit closures over five years might well have happened over the normal course of events (there had been 40 closures since 1974 for example) but in an ordered fashion, with new seams and mines being developed to replace the old ones.

But stating a target of fifty pits left the NUM ”angry and bitter”. Local strikes soon started and the NUM sought urgent talks with the Government. Surprisingly, the government backed down.

JG explained the logic of wanting to use UK produced coal “..we don’t believe that the cheap coal that is available from abroad is going to be there for very long. Once it becomes commercially possible to produce gas and oil from coal, no one is going to want to export coal…we’re going to find ourselves in exactly the same position as in the Sixties. The same trap. The reliance on a flow of cheap oil which suddenly dried up.”.

Other thoughts
JG retired from the NUM in 1981, with Arthur Scargill winning the election as next President.

In the penultimage chapter of “Battered Cherub” JG talks about his philosophy as a democratic socialist.

He describes his sadness that the higher ranks of the Labour Party were filled with people from the middle classes (Wilson, Castle, Benn, Foot etc) and that this has left out socialists who have grown up not knowing where their next meal is coming from. He feels that the latter group have a warmth and an emotion lacking in the intellectual socialists. In words that seems relevant today, JG comments that :

“…we are losing a lot of our traditional support because we no longer seem to be a Party, of warmth and emotion, a Party not only of radicalisation, but a Party of necessary change, and a Party which explained why that change was necessary. Somewhere, especially in the last decade, we have lost out, and there is increasing cynicism about the way in which Labour MPs, when they get into the House of Commons, seem to turn into different people from those who announced their platforms in order to get nomination.”
JG also claimed that Trade Union presence on the Labour NEC was a steadying influence on the Party.

Another point made by JG is that it is a “stupid thing” for Unions to campaign to bring down governments, suggesting that “that way lies disaster. We would get to the position where other people would step in to take control, and that would mean, in my opinion, not a Left –wing government, but an ultra-Right-wing government, whose prime objective would be to destroy the Labour and Trade Union Movement.

Image Sources
Coal Mine in 1942, Coal Production, Coal Mining Jobs, Murton Colliery