« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »
English and Scotch colliers enjoyed the benefit of continuous work. In the present case, however, the demand for a minimum wage is a claim put forward on behalf of the whole body of miners of Great Britain, and the Birmingham National Conference has shown that the principle is supported by a majority of 330,080 out of 561,522 who took part in the ballot; the figures are well over the two-thirds majority necessary to enable a national strike to be declared.
The demand for a minimum wage has been the subject of serious thought on the part of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain for a considerable period, and has now been pressed forward ostensibly to serve the interests of the miner whose work lies in getting coal in abnormal places. Where a collier is at work on a good normal seam, he is always in a position to earn a high wage from the facility with which he can win the maximum amount of coal, upon which he is paid a fixed wage per ton ; therefore the question of a minimum wage will not necessarily affect his interests. On the other hand, where a working place runs abnormal-i.e. with bad roof or floor, faults, and other geological disturbances which prevent the collier from raising sufficient coal to furnish him with a fair wage for the labour expended, he too often finds, when pay day arrives, that his earnings fall much below those of his more fortunate fellow workmen engaged in a good normal place in the same colliery.
In such cases it is the general custom that managers make an allowance to the collier, over and above the piece-work rate of wages, to compensate him.
It may be thought that the question of whether a working place is normal or abnormal is not a difficult matter to determine, but unfortunately the contrary is the case, and disputes are constantly taking place between colliery managers and the men upon this point; in fact, the difficulty in arriving at an acceptable allowance for these places is the cause of constant friction.
It cannot be ignored that there is undoubted hardship to those colliers who work in abnormal places, and since the crisis has become acute, numerous instances have been made public. In Lancashire, difficulties have arisen so frequently on this point, with consequent stoppages of work, that the heavy calls upon the local branch of the Miners' Federation for strikepay have resulted in its income being entirely expended, and demands have even been made upon the accumulated funds.
The acceptance of the principle of the minimum wage would of course finally settle the question of the allowance to be paid for cutting coal in abnormal places; but whatever advantages may be claimed for the establishment of the principle, colliery owners take strong exception to the manner in which this question has
been forced upon them at the present juncture. Especially is this the case in the important South Wales coalfield, where the masters contend that the tendering of notices to terminate work on the 1st of March is a violation of the present South Wales wage-agreement arrived at after prolonged negotiation in April 1910. This agreement was entered into for five years, so that it has still three years to run. The same complaint is made by the owners in Scotland, where the miners are also working under an unexpired agreement.
The socialistic influences which, unfortunately, are now an active force in trade unions, have led to an utter want of respect on the part of the workers for agreements entered into on their behalf with the masters. Vexatious demands are of constant occurrence, and colliery owners have no guarantee that work will proceed from day to day. This not only leads to friction, but adds greatly to the difficulty of fulfilling contracts, curtails the output, increases the cost of production, and is the means of diverting trade.
Let us now briefly consider the main objections to the principle of the minimum wage. In the first place, the strongest possible exception is taken to the proposal to fix a guaranteed minimum wage for each person working in coal mines, without regard to the amount of labour performed, as the incentive which at present exists for the miner to turn out the maximum amount of coal, to enable him to earn the highest possible wage, would be destroyed. It is held that the present system of payment by results cannot be superseded if the satisfactory working of the mines is to continue, as, owing to the very nature of work underground, there is a difficulty of supervision which is not met with when large bodies of men are at work in the light of day.
A guaranteed minimum would be a premium upon idleness and an encouragement to the shirker to win as little coal as possible in exchange for the minimum wage.
Owners contend that a fixed minimum wage is impossible without a corresponding guarantee of a minimum output of coal, and until such a guarantee is forthcoming the demands of the Miners' Federation will continue to meet with a firm refusal.
Owing to the variation in the wage-agreements in different parts of the country, the Birmingham Conference of Miners' Delegates failed to arrive at a uniform minimum wage to suit the requirements of the different coalfields, and eventually left the unions in the various centres to negotiate direct with their employers on this point. The most unreasonable demands were made by the Northumberland and South Wales miners, whose ideas of a minimum are actually in excess of the present
average piecework rate of wages in their respective districts. This strengthens the contention of the owners that the demand for a minimum wage is only a veiled attempt to raise the standard rate of wages beyond what is due under the terms of existing agreements.
A very important objection urged against the innovation is that its adoption would be fatal to the employment of any but able-bodied men, and would mean the discharge of miners who have passed the prime of life, and those who are suffering from physical defects. At present the latter find employment in the mines, and, although not able to earn as much as their more robust fellow-workmen, yet can earn a living; but under a minimum-wage system it would be idle to expect an employer to retain the services of those who could not be relied upon to give a fair return for the fixed minimum to which they would be entitled.
A study of the proceedings of the Birmingham Conference undoubtedly suggests the presence of a strong feeling of moderation in the minds of several of the delegates, and we may expect the influence of these moderate men to play an important part during the critical period which intervenes before the expiration of the month's notice. It is a hopeful sign that the difficulties which exist in arriving at a satisfactory working scheme under a minimum wage are recognised by this section of the delegates. Already the following proposal has been put forrard on the men's side as a possible solution :
A committee, consisting of an equal number of representatives chosen by the owner and the workmen, shall be appointed in every district to consider and determine any disputes as to wages and working places.
There is also a disposition, which, however, has not yet received unanimous approval, to meet the owners as regards the question of aged and physically infirm workmen, shirkers, and malingerers, so that a scheme may yet be devised by which the owners would get a fair day's work in exchange for a guaranteed minimum wage.
With regard to abnormal places it is also proposed by the men that a joint committee should decide whether places are abnormal and the extent of abnormality, so that it should not be impossible to arrive at a solution of this difficulty ; more especially as colliery owners have already expressed their willingness to discuss grievances as regards inadequate remuneration of those colliers whose occupation is in abnormal places, and colliery owners are also prepared to consider the position of the low-wage men (i.e. those not actually employed in winning coal), with a view to an improvement in their rate of pay.
As has already been stated, the demand for a minimum wage and the national ballot in favour of tendering notices for a general strike is a departure of the most serious character. It has been held, and doubtless with good reason, that this drastic and sudden step is the direct outcome of the unrest consequent upon the working of the Eight Hours Act, which provides, inter alia :
That a workman shall not be below ground in a mine for the purpose of his work and of going to and from his work for more than eight hours during any consecutive twenty-four hours.
In the winning of coal the occupation is attended with great and constant danger; it is therefore the duty of legislators to do everything possible by Act of Parliament to minimise the risks and safeguard the interests of those engaged in so hazardous a calling; but the Eight Hours Act is a measure which, in its practical working and general application, has led to grave dissatisfaction and personal inconvenience, has seriously reduced outputs, and has also resulted in a reduction of the earning-power of the collier. Often the cutting-surface of the coal will be a mile or more from the pit-mouth, therefore the actual working time will be reduced to 6 to 7 hours, after deducting the time necessary for the collier to travel from and to the surface.
The present abnormal price of British coal, and the uncertainty of our coal exporters being able to supply their foreign customers with regularity, must give an impetus to the coal industries, not only of the Continent, but of the United States.
Indeed, the prevalence of strikes in the coal industry of Great Britain is a matter of serious concern to those engaged in the exporting branch of the industry, and must inevitably hinder its progress and expansion. Although the export of coal from the United Kingdom for the year ending the 31st of December 1911 shows an increase of 2,513,790 tons, in comparison with 1910, yet if we examine the figures for the port of Cardiff, which has suffered so severely through labour disputes during the past year, we find that the foreign exports of coal for 1911 show a decrease of 829,979 tons, as compared with 1910. Thus it is apparent that foreign buyers of Welsh smokeless steam coal have turned their attention to the less valuable steam coal worked in the English
and Scotch coalfields.
The gravity of the present crisis cannot be overrated, and it will be the duty of the leaders of both owners and men to do their utmost to avoid a conflict which will result in untold misery and suffering, starvation and ruin to hundreds of thousands of our population, besides entailing an immense depreciation of national capital and the creation of enmity between capital and labour, the end of which none can foresee. Great Britain has already
suffered enormous loss of industrial and commercial prestige from the disturbances which have been so common in the ranks of labour. We have just had a serious conflict in the Lancashire cotton industry, with disastrous consequences to those directly concerned, but a national coal strike of even short duration would be a calamity of appalling magnitude. Not only would it have a paralysing effect upon home industries of every description, but it would seriously cripple our great shipping operations. Our merchant vessels look to exported coal to provide them with the outward cargoes for their voyages to all quarters of the world, from whence they return with the cargoes of foodstuffs and raw materials upon which our national existence depends.
Then there is the grave and urgent necessity of an uninterrupted supply of Welsh smokeless steam coal for the British Navy.
It is impossible to think that the old and tried leaders of the miners do not comprehend the danger which threatens the country, and it is to these men that the nation looks to curb the spirit of the younger and less experienced delegates who will share the responsibility of conducting the negotiations during the crisis upon which they have just entered.
It has been asserted with great persistency by the highest authorities that a minimum wage is an impossibility if applied to the majority of the collieries in the United Kingdom, and that its adoption would end in the closing of a large percentage of the pits now in operation ; the great body of colliery owners have therefore declared in no uncertain language that they will not agree to a minimum wage, but have expressed their willingness to negotiate upon the question of work done in abnormal places, which is really the crux of the minimum-wage demand. The door is therefore open for a compromise, and, provided both sides enter into the negotiations with a determination to avoid a conflict, a
a workable solution will yet be found.
W. H. RENWICK. Cardiff