General Articles

BATTLE FOR COAL

To win her fight for survival Britain must lick a coal crisis that’s been 20 years growing. Can she do it? Halton says yes

MATTHEW HALTON November 1 1947
General Articles

BATTLE FOR COAL

To win her fight for survival Britain must lick a coal crisis that’s been 20 years growing. Can she do it? Halton says yes

MATTHEW HALTON November 1 1947

BATTLE FOR COAL

To win her fight for survival Britain must lick a coal crisis that’s been 20 years growing. Can she do it? Halton says yes

MATTHEW HALTON

CBC European Correspondent

LONDON—Ernest Bevin makes some rash statements, but he spoke sober truth when he said recently that 40 million tons of coal could change the history of Europe. Britain is now mining coal at a rate of less than 200 million tons a year, disastrously too little. If she could increase that production by only one fifth, by only 40 million tons a year, the British crisis would be in sight of a solution and the general European crisis sharply alleviated.

No matter from what angle you examine Britain’s crisis your attention comes back to coal. Coal is black magic; coal is almost worth its weight in gold. And there’s lots of it. This country has

enough coal for 200 to 400 years. And yet— maddeningly, frustratingly —she can’t get it out of the pits.

Every factory and generating plant in Britain, and every nation in Europe, clamors today for coal. Coal that runs the factories that make the fertilizer and the farm machinery that grow food. Coal that powers railways, coal that buys timber. If the Ruhr miners could produce more coal they could have more food; if they had more food they could produce more coal. Britain needs timber to build houses. Norway and Sweden have great supplies of timber. But they cannot import British coal because Britain has none to sellso they burn their own timber for fuel. British landworkers threaten to leave the farms unless they get houses. So it goes. Round and round roll the great wheels of a vicious

circle and 40 million tons of coal mean revival or decline.

“This island is built on coal and surrounded by fish,” said Aneurin Bevan, baiting the Conservatives one day before Labor came to power. “Only an organizing genius could produce shortages of both.” Today the mines are nationalized. Rhondda Valley is no longer a “Land of Heartbreak” and miners are no longer social pariahs living on starvation wages or on the dole. But still Britain doesn’t get the coal.

In 1913 in Great Britain, 1,107,000 men produced 287 million tons of coal, of which 94 million tons were exported. In 1938, 782,000 men produced 227 million tons, of which 46 million tons were exported. Last year 687,000 men produced 189 million tons, of which Continued on page 55

Continued on page 55

Continued from page 9

only nine million tons were exported, and that chiefly as ballast. The minimum target for this year—the minimum required to keep factories from closing down in essential export industries was set at 200 million tons. And that target won’t quite be reached.

“All rightwhy the devil don’t the British get in there and get. the coal?” That’s a question which I’ve heard even under t he dignified roof of the American Embassy on Grosvenor Square.

A glib answer repeated more and more both here and across the Atlantic as the cause of all Britain’s trouble is that the British people aren’t working hard any more.

During a lengthy study this year I questioned literally hundreds of owners, managers, shop stewards and workers in mines and factories all over England and I received almost every shade of answer to the question, “Are the British working hard?” At one extreme were those who said t he people wouldn’t work at all and that, the country was plainly finished; at the other were those who said t he British people had never worked as well as now. There’s a somewhat different story in almost every mine and factory, dependingon workingcondit ions, industrial relations and many other factors.

The British people are not working as hard as they might, not. as hard as they should, not as hard as in their magnificent spurt when France had fallen and Hit ler was at the gates. Who is? But the allegation that they aren’t working at all can be disposed of by a glance at the bulletin of the Oxford University Institute of Statistics. British production last year was higher than in 1938which should be so because more people are working. But the Oxford Bulletin decides that productivity per man hour is also somewhat higher than prewar. Britain will have to work harder, yes; but the cause of her present distress is that she lavished all her accumulated wealth on two world wars—in much higher proportion than any other country, not excepting Germany and Russia. She is starting from scratch with nothing but her skills, her natural resources and her will to greatness.

The Haulage Headache

Coal is the key to her recovery. Why can’t she get it?

The collieries of the United States produce three, four, even five times as much coal per man shift as those of Britain. That’s a fact often pointed out in the black-market restaurants of Mayfair over meals of filet mignon and salmon cooked in wine. But it’s a fact which means nothing unless correlated with all the other facts of a situation

which has been a century in the making. The basic fact, among all the complicating ones can be quickly stated. There are now 716,000 men employed in British coal mines—but only 288,000 of them are digging or cutting coal. Almost all the rest are engaged in “haulage”—that is, in getting the product from the coal face to the surface. All the trouble stems from there, from the fact that most British mines are hopelessly out of date and inefficient in moving coal.

Blighty per cent of British coal is cut by machine and 10% by pneumatic drilling. Only 10% is dug out by pick and shovel. But less than 2%, is mechanically loaded and removed. The rest is hauled from the face by awesomely ancient and cumbersome contraptions.

In the rich coal fields of Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire are mines second to none in mechanization and productivity. In a mine of the Moira group at Ashby de la Zouch there’s a seam six feet high and miles long where production is some 25 tons per man shift. A mechanical cutter working ¡ against the seam tears out coal like thunder and it is immediately piled onto a conveyor by the great mechanical claws of a duckbill loader.

'Phe average output of coal per man shift in the United States is about five tons. In Britain it’s just, over one ton. But the American miner doesn’t work harder than the British. In the United States coal is easier to get at and easier to get out. The average depth of coal mines there is 200 feet; in Britain it’s from 1,200 to 1,300 feet.

In many British mines the collier is taken half a mile into the earth and then crouches and crawls along tiringly another half mile or more to the coal face, in some cases act ually under the sea, where he has to lie down to wield his pick. But the main trouble is haulage.

“New” Horizon

Until 1926 British output per man shift was higher than in Holland and Germany where haulage conditions are similar. But between 1918 and 1926 those two countries reorganized and modernized their collieries. In the next 10 years German output increased 81% and Dutch output increased 118%,. Britain’s increased during the same period by only 14%,. In Holland there’s one haulage worker for every 25 tons of coal produced; in the U. S. one for every 50 tons; in Britain one for every five tons. That’s the tragic reflection on the blindness of the past.

At first, naturally, the British dug coal that was easy to get. As the years went on they had to go deeper and deeper and they went haphazardly. They would bore a few test holes to find the richest seam and dig a shaft down to it, and then follow the seam

Continued on page 57

Continued from page 55

wherever it led with no thought of building galleries and passages big enough and level enough for locomotive haulage.

I have watched the miners at work in various collieries, especially in Wales. Every pound of coal, whether hewn by hand or cut mechanically, is shovelled into what they call tubs small cars holding only half a ton. In many collieries the tubs are still drawn by ponies—there are still 20,000 ponies in British pits. Each pony hauls two tubs to the first junction, where the tubs are drawn into small trains. The trains in turn are moved on by a primitive system of rope haulage. And in some mines there are as many as three subsequent changeovers and three different haulage systems involving three different crews of precious manpower before the coal reaches the bottom of the shaft, in these ancient and dangerous passages there is no room for locomotive haulage and efficient conveyor belts.

Mining Wholesale

The answer to all this is “horizon” mining, which revolutionized production in Holland and Germany 20 years ago. Before sinking a shaft you bore enough test holes to learn the exact nature of the coal seam. After deciding on the level at which you can best extract all the coal within reach you sink a shaft to that depth and then send out wide roads and galleries at various depths—and at gradients which will permit use of locomotive haulage.

Some British owners did institute horizon mining. One of the finest collieries is at Gomrie in Fifeshire. The pits are 1,300 feet deep, but the galleries are so well planned that coal is loaded directly and automatically onto belt conveyors. These empty the coal into railway trucks, each holding three and a half tons, drawn by Diesel locomotives. That’s coal mining—but there’s too little of it.. Reorganizing the haulage systems is the biggest, costliest and most urgent task facing the National Coal Board. But there are ot hers.

Until coal royalties were nationalized coal belonged to the person who owned the land above it. Mining rights bad to be leased from property owners and where properties were small it was often impossible to arrange leases that would allow mines to be planned on a large scale. The result was hundreds of small mines. In 1943 there were 966 small mines producing less than 50,000 tons a year. Many of these small companies couldn’t afford to sink money in workings planned for longterm efficiency.

That was one of the principal arguments for nationalization—it would make possible the huge expenditure needed for t he fundamental replanning and rebuilding of the whole industry. 'Die miners themselves wanted nationalization 50 years ago. Experts and Royal commissions have proposed it for 25 years. Last year the step was taken. Hundreds of wasteful small mines can now he consolidated into fewer and bigger units. New mines can he opened and old hut still productive ones rebuilt for horizon mining. The National Coal Board plans to spend $600 millions in its first five years and that will he only the beginning of an enormous 25-year task.

More Coal Now —Or Later?

At this point, however, the National Coal Board comes smack up against the most baffling and maddening of all the vicious circles. The long-term plan clashes with the short-term need. To rebuild a mine you have to take it partly or altogether out of production

for two years or more—-exactly what Britain cannot afford to do when every pound of coal is a gold nugget. To sink a new mine you need manpower— exactly what Britain cannot spare from immediate production at a time when every vital industry including coal, iron and steel, textiles and agriculture are tragically undermanned. To produce more coal you must first produce less—exactly what Britain dare not do when already there’s not enough coal to power factories on which her life as a great power depends.

Is there no solution? Is it quite impossible to produce enough coal under present conditions to see the nation through the crisis?

The answer is that it’s possible. If every miner will work a little harder, if just another few thousand men will go into the industry, and if everything possible is done to make existing pits just a little more efficient, Britain can produce the extra 40 million tons. The short-term plan on which the Government Coal Board, mine management, trade union—and editorial writers— are working desperately, is to achieve those three essentials. And the greatest of these is harder work.

How do you get harder work out of a man? By incentives. Incentives is the word on every tongue in Britain and it fairly cascades from every editorial pen.

In 1940 the incentives were patriotism and glory and be-damned to Hitler —and a leader who could make words fight. In the drab days of 1947 after a hard eight-year grind, when people wrant to work less instead of more, incentives must he rewards. There is still patriotism and the miners of Britain are a grand and patriotic lot— hut patriotism is not enough. There is still some ideological impulsion—most miners are Socialists and they are anxious for “our Government” to succeed—hut that’s not enough either. Even Aneurin Bevan has recently admitted that “most of us” cannot indefinitely sustain an ideological effort without rewards.

Green Are Their Valleys

Well, the miners have been given various rewards. They now get a basic wage of $20 a week—far too low hut nearly twice as high as before the war. They get extra rations and housing priorities. Where in the ghastly days of unemployment they were unwanted men, regarding themselves as social outcasts, sitting round broken in their grim dead valleys of slag heaps and heartbreak, they are now the nation’s crack troops. And there is altogether a different spirit in the pits.

That is fact, not phrase or fancy 1 have seen it. The change in Rhondda Valley, for example, between my last visit before the war and one 1 made this year, was almost inspiring. That 14mile valley from Pontypridd to Treherbert was one of the ugliest places on earth. It was one long slum of mean houses and slag heaps and coal shafts. Nobody wanted coal and nobody wanted miners. I met young men who had been horn, raised and married on the dole and had never had a joh; 1 met people who had never eaten an egg or an orange. Today the valley is still ugly—but it’s alive. Hope and work have come back.

I read in a Cardiff paper the story of David Evans, aged 72, who has worked underground 62 years. “I want to retire,” he said, “but I’m good for years yet and I shall carry on until the crisis is over.” I could recount 50 similar stories.

One of the incentives to harder work is the five-day week. When it was inaugurated early this year it was

lielieved it would actually increase output by discouraging absenteeism. Hut its success has been only partial. Many miners have decided it isn’t worth while working a full week or overtime because of the heavy income tax. Many others, tired after years of special effort and with money in their pockets for once, do what most other people do when they’re tired and have money: take a day or two off and enjoy themselves.

Put Spivs to Work

And the miners are hopping mad at the abuse they get for occasional absenteeism. One elderly Welshman exploded to me, “Why should we be abused by a lot of editorial writers and press lords in London, who’d probably faint if they had to go down in a pit.”

When a miner does take a day off to go to the races he sees there thousands of well-dressed people with money to burn and apparently none of that “responsibility to national interest,” which he hears so much about. The spivs of Soho and the drones and butterflies of Mayfair go to Ascot or Wimbledon or to the Scottish moors for grouse shooting, or Bermuda, and the miner can hardly be blamed for gasping when he hears himself called a saboteur for taking a day off.

A far more important factor in production is the relation between workers and management; and a very significant thing is that the nationalization of industry hasn’t perfected, though it has improved, these relations. Many miners don’t think nationalization has brought closer contact between union officials and workers. Some have told me that the National Coal Board’s first mistake was psychological—they established headquarters in London’s Berkeley Square, synonymous to miners with unearned wealth and glorified spivs. A few of them think quite wrongly that some of the high-salaried officials of N.C.B. are parasites. Worse still, to the unthinking miner, some of these officials are former mine owners. The men may have good reason for disliking them as mine owners, hut the N.C.B. took them on for the good reason that a former mine owner probably knows coal mining.

A recent strike at Grimethorpe, Yorkshire, caused ostensibly because the men were asked to increase their stint, was chiefly the result of exasjxirated relations.

Incidentally, there were some astonishing incidents in that strike. Who would have thought a year or two ago the day would come when the miners’ most popular leaders. Will Lawther, Arthur Horner and Emmanuel Shinwell, would lie shaking their fists, threatening men with prosecution and describing strikes as sabotage? Some miners say bitterly, “the mines have changed ownership that’s all. We thought nationalization would mean development and mechanization. We find it means a drive to speed production at any cost.” But most realize the needs and understand the situation.

Why Be A Miner?

The first essential, then, for the short-term plan is harder work. The second is more recruits. During this last year 15,000 men have entered the industry as a result of better pay and other rewards and patriotic appeals. But 50,000 more are urgently needed.

Those 50,000 recruits will never be found while there are so many better jobs at better pay; and workers in basic industries will he reluctant to work much harder until they know

everybody in the country is working harder.

Listen to a group of Birmingham steelworkers to whom I talked this summer:

“When they say we must all work harder they don’t mean themselves— they mean us, the people who produce the real wealth, the miners, the steelworkers and factory hands. Why should you work in a foundry or a coal mine at six quid a week when you can get eight in lots pleasanter jobs? Why should a girl go into a cotton mill at three quid when she can get five in an office? We’ll believe the country’s in danger when the Government proves it and puts spivs to work.”

An M.P. friend of mine told me of visits he made last week, one to a coal mine and the other to a motor car factory, in his constituency. The latter, built as a shadow factory during the war, is equipped with magnificent canteens and hospital wards. The vast workshops are light and cool. To work here for good wages is no hardship. Scarcely a mile away the mining village is dominated by its slag heap and covered by a pall of smoke. The pit shaft is a waterfall and you’re soaked even as you descend in the cage. The narrow coal seam is irregular and the galleries, which go up and down like a scenic railway, are so narrow that the tubs jostle against each other and woe betide the man who’s caught between them. To reach the coal face you crawl along a narrow passage two feet high, blundering over the belt on which the coal is taken back to the tubs . . .

How can you get men to volunteer for work in this sort of a coal mine when they can choose a streamlined factory just a mile away?

Too Many Jobs

The third essential for an immediate increase in production is better repair work in the mines. This will seem comparatively trivial against the general canvas but several experts insist it is the most important immediate thing. Even mines suffer from the universal shortages of spare parts. Another expert has told me that tens of thousands of tons of coal are lost in spillovers as the coal is loaded into conveyors, and this coal is never used except for “gob” —for filling the underpinning and empty spaces behind the shaft.

Will Britain win her coal battle? That’s the question cabled to me by the editors of Maclean’s and I have replied by an article describing the difficulties that lie in the way.

I would say yes—she will win it. Britain has undertaken, under the Marshall Plan, to increase her production by 50 million tons in the next four years and after careful thought and interviews with dozens of experts I say she’ll reach the target. Recruits are slowly coming forward. Men are working a little harder. Some new pits are being sunk and some old ones reconstructed. I think the momentum of production will rise from now on, very slowly and painfully at first but more rapidly after 1948.

Many British Conservatives—and even the famous Liberal journal, The Economist—-are now openly saying that the only solution for Britain’s production problem is unemployment: a “pool of unemployment” of about a million men to “restore the mobility of labor.” In other words, the people won’t work hard until threatened wath unemployment.

British miners and their fellow' workers in other basic industries have only a short time in which to demonstrate whether or not this creed is valid. if