From International Socialism (1st series), No.31,Winter 1967/68, p.38.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
South Wales Miners
R. Page Arnot
Allen & Unwin, 60s
It took the struggles of fifty years before trade unionism became firmly established in the South Wales coal industry. First, in the 1830s, there was ‘Scotch cattle,’ so named because of the symbol left behind by hooded miners who destroyed pits and the homes of blacklegs. Then, in 1839, colliers predominated in Frost’s ill-fated armed uprising at Newport. The 1840s saw the Miners’ Association, the first national union, gain a foothold in the Welsh valleys before being smashed. The same sad story was repeated in the 1860s and 1870s: wages poor, unions wrecked, victimisation.
Mr Page Arnot does not dwell on these violent and heroic early days. Nevertheless, he clearly shows they left their imprint on subsequent developments. Welsh miners understood the need for militancy. Only by being prepared to fight could they secure their objectives.
It is interesting to note that, once the owners grudgingly conceded the right to organise, they sought to castrate unions with a type of incomes policy. The sliding scale agreements geared wages to the price of coal. This meant that there could be no re-distribution of income from profits to wages; that all initiative over pay was taken from the collier at the coal-face, since decisions were taken by both sides of industry at top level; and that the main duty of union leaders became to restrain their own membership, chafing at unjust and exploitive agreements. The gliding-scale agreements geared wages to the price of derelict pit-shaft before a strong, healthy Miners’ Federation could be built.
This is the finest history Mr Arnot has so far written. It is without the arid academic approach that mars many mining histories by other authors. In vivid terms, he tells the turbulent tales. His account of the Cambrian Combine strike of 1910, when clashes with the authorities led to a semi-insurrectionary situation, is most moving.
Last updated: 28.12.2007