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What We Want and Why

Noah Ablett

I DO NOT pretend to be a literary man. But I know that the work of a journalist is to convey ideas in the clearest and most simple way so that the public shall understand, as easily as possible, what the writer intends to say. Writing of the Labour movement I know of no way to tell my story better than to relate the experiences I have been through, in order to show how I have been forced to come to the conclusions in which I now firmly believe. Therefore this article must be slightly biographical.

I am the tenth child of a family of eleven children and in consequence escaped the poverty and hardships associated with a large working class family. All I know of those hardships are the stories told me by my mother and what I have seen of my friends. My mother often told me how she used to manage on washing-day by tying a piece of linen to her foot and to the cradle and so combining the occupations of rocking the cradle and washing at the same time.

It is the ambition of every large working class family in Wales to set aside one member of the family to be a preacher – at least in Nonconformist families – and early on I was given to understand that my destiny was to be a preacher. As a boy of twelve I did preach in some of the chapels of my native locality. But at fifteen I had left the chapel and was studying for the civil service – for the excise service. Before I was eighteen a severe accident happened to me which had a great influence in forming my opinions. My father was a very hard and skilful workman and I was brought up in an atmosphere of great deeds performed at the coal-face by members of my family. I am only five feet six in height and weigh ten stone, and so I cruelly abused my body to keep up the family tradition of hard and successful work. The man who worked next to me – that is the next working place, or stall, as it is called in South Wales – had the reputation of being a "slasher", or a man who could produce more output than those working in neighbouring places. I was determined that he should not beat me, and the result of this determination was that a piece of coal weighing over four tons fell on my leg, causing a compound fracture. This gave me furiously to think, and certainly lessened my ardour in the matter of output. As a result I began to study intensely for the civil service, and it frequently happened that when my father came to call me for work he found me fast asleep with pen in my hand at my study table.

I was doing very well and had great hopes of passing my examination. In order to make success more certain I had saved enough money to keep me three months at a college. However, before going to the college I consulted a doctor. To my dismay the doctor advised me not to go to college. I had a compound fracture of the leg, two fingers broken, and a small growth in the nostrils, and this he assured me would prevent me being allowed to enter the civil service. I have since learned that this is not so, but at the time I fully believed the doctor and spent the next year and all my money in ways I do not now care to think about. But the idea of escaping the dangers and hard work of mining became ever more firmly fixed in my mind. This at first was a purely selfish ambition. But events were about to happen which were to broaden my mind and compel me to think that my difficulty was only a part of the general difficulty. I felt like a trapped animal. Up to this point my ambition was a purely selfish one and I was not troubled about my comrades who, if I escaped, would still have to endure the horrors of the mine as they were in those days. Had I been able to escape from the mines at this period of my life it is highly probable that I should not today be described as an agitator.

About this time it became necessary for me to remove from my working place, to a working place in another seam. Here I discovered that the agreed list of prices for different kinds of work incidental to coal getting were not being carried out – by the management – in one important particular that meant a substantial underpayment. I complained, but as the matter was not attended to I reported the matter to the trade union of which I was, of course, a member. Up to this time my relations with the management were perfectly friendly, but I was now to discover that by reporting to the union I had committed the cardinal sin for which there is no forgiveness. My work, which formerly had been quite satisfactory, was now subjected to the most minute criticism, and trivialities were monstrously magnified. But this had the effect of driving me to the union and I began to realise that my union was my only defence. I began to attend regularly and began to get some glimmering of the idealism that permeates that movement.

This is not a biography, but, if the reader will bear with me, I feel I must give two more personal incidents. My father was now advanced in age and could not continue to perform the more strenuous kinds of mine labour, so he was given a lighter kind of work, but because of his long service at the colliery he was paid a higher rate than was usually paid for that class of labour. I was now a member of the committee of the union, and began to take an active interest in the work. One day, however, on arriving home early from work, my father and mother were seated on each side of the fireplace looking very gloomy. I was horrified to discover that my father was to have a reduction in wages. I at once came to the conclusion that this was a penalty for my activities. I had never before nor since felt so indignant, and I immediately rushed back to the pit and on my own initiative wrote and posted up notices that a meeting at the pit top was to be held, and I was wild with impatience to address the men on my wrongs. But a few minutes before the men were due to come up the pit shaft an official of the union told me that the manager had sent for him and had told him that the notice to my father had been cancelled. So the meeting did not take place. But I shall never forget this incident, which was the turning point of my life. I commenced to study socialist literature, and read Blatchford’s Britain for the British, and eventually went through Das Kapital by Karl Marx, since when I have been a convinced Socialist, or as I prefer, a convinced Communist.

The other incident I want briefly to refer to is my, what is called, "victimisation". I continued to take a prominent part in negotiations with the management and was put on a sort of committee to settle a price list. There is no doubt that I was the chief obstacle preventing complete acceptance of the owners’ proposals. The managing director of the firm came to see me at my working place under ground – a most unusual proceeding. He was very frank and told me that I must choose between becoming either a member of his staff or dismissal. I refused to join the staff and on the next pay-day was "paid off". At this time the workmen of the whole of the coalfield were about to tender notices on a general grievance and I was advised by my friends that my grievance would be forgotten in the general grievance, and that the time was in opportune for a local strike. I – as I think now – foolishly accepted this advice, with the result that I was unable to get work for six long, unforgettable months. I would approach a pit top and an under official would give me work. But when I turned up next day I would find that the manager had refused to sign the paper giving me permission to work, on every conceivable excuse. Sometimes it would be that a sudden fall had limited the number of places available, another an unsuspected fault had occurred in the strata. Invariably the excuse turned out to be a lie, or, at least, a half truth. After six months I managed to obtain work at a colliery where the manager had recently come from another coalfield to whom my name was unfamiliar, as he frankly admitted to me a month later, but by this time I was an official of the local union lodge and was in too strong a position to be removed.

Have you ever been unemployed with not the remotest prospect of obtaining work unless by changing your name or some other deceit; have you ever had the feeling that you were being hunted and cornered like a trapped rat? If so, then I am confident you are or will be a convert to the views I am about to put forward on the demands of the miners. These, then, are the psychological conditions that inevitably breed "agitators" of men in whom the spirit of resistance is not wholly crushed by oppressions.

Now, before putting forward our demands and remedies, let us take a brief look at the coal hewer at work. Karl Marx, whenever he referred to the expansion of the mining industry, always used the expression – so many more men "condemned" to work in the mines. The hewer down in the mine away from the sunlight and fresh air, sometimes in a temperature up to 90 deg., every moment of the day inhaling coal and shale dust, perspiring so abnormally as few men in other industries can realise; head throbbing with the almost inhuman exertion; the roof, perhaps, eighteen inches low, perhaps, twenty feet high; ears constantly strained for movements in the strata on which his limbs or his life is dependent, breathing always noxious smells due to the absence of any kind of sanitation, and to gases given off by water and the often imperfectly diluted natural gases of the mine; subject at any moment to the terrible list of mining diseases, most common of which is the dread nystagmus, which may, if neglected, lead to insanity; liable always to wounds and death from falls of roof and sides, and ever and over all the sickening dread of the awful explosion; such a man is entitled to our sympathy and our respect – but what he frequently gets – is abuse.

What the Miners Demand

I can summarise our immediate demands under the following heads: (1) maximum possible degree of safety attainable in mining; (2) a six-hour day; (3) a minimum wage sufficient to keep him in reasonable comfort, to rear and decently educate his family, and to provide reasonable recreation and holidays; (4) when physically unable to work due to age, or infirmity caused by his employment, a pension to enable him to live in comfort; (5) control over the conditions of his employment, and (6) in order to secure these demands the elimination of the private ownership of the mines.

Let us deal with No.1 – Safety. Is a maximum degree of safety in mines possible under private ownership? Safety in mines above all entails a large initial cost. To adequately stow the vacant roads and spaces after the coal has been worked, to maintain the ventilation at its maximum efficiency, to dilute or otherwise render harmless the dangerous small coal, to prevent stagnant pools of water and provide plant for adequate pumping, and to provide a decent system of sanitation, etc., means a considerable addition to the cost of producing coal.

To do this work efficiently is admittedly very costly. I have examined several collieries in South Wales and a few in Yorkshire. I have had hundreds of conversations with miners in all parts of the country and I think I can fairly say that I have never heard of a single instance where the conduct of a colliery is up to the standard of safety asked for by the Mines Act, 1911. It is common ground that even if that Act was rigidly adhered to the mines would not by far be in that condition of safety that they might easily be, by a greater expenditure of money. While, as we might expect, some mines are managed more carefully, and less regard to the cost of safety is had than is the case in others, the tendency unquestionably is that the average safety standard approximates to that of the poorest mine. Why is this the case? The answer is – and it is an answer of sinister significance – that it is cheaper to take risks than to expend the money necessary to the maximum possible safety. Colliery owners are not angels, but even if they were better men than they are, this ugly fact would always be a temptation.

In mining the incentive of profits inevitably means a big casualty list. With all the elaborate machinery of Mines Acts, the slight increase in Mines Inspectors, the restraining influence of the powerful Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, the casualty list is four men killed every twenty-four hours, Sundays included, and nearly 200,000 wounded, some maimed for life, and the slightest recorded in this total, incapacitated for seven days. This is appalling, and no intelligent miner can ease his conscience by acquiescing in this terrible state of affairs. Surely every decent minded man agrees that human life is more sacred than private gain. If that be so then an impartial study of the history of mining for the last century must carry the sorry conviction that thousands and tens of thousands of lives have been lost because mining is conducted primarily for private gain.

There are on the market, at the present time, hundreds if not thousands of safety devices, for the prevention of overwinding, patent shackles to prevent trams and tubs running away when the rope breaks, safety shot-firing appliances that would reduce accidents to the absolute minimum, iron umbrellas for negotiating holes in the roof, and a great host of other humane devices that if at present introduced into the mining industry would reduce the death and accident roll very considerably. Why are they not introduced? The answer is that they are a little more costly than present methods.

Why does not the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain prosecute the colliery company? If only it could! If it had the power there can be no question that hundreds of lives would be saved each year. But the Mines Act provides that the workmen can only report infringements of the Act to the Mines Inspector and he, in turn, has to report to the Home Office, and only when the latter thinks the matter is of such importance as to demand a prosecution, can such a prosecution take place. One of the most urgent demands, therefore, of the miners at present is that they should be empowered by law to prosecute the colliery owners for neglecting safety precautions. If this power were granted by Act of Parliament it would revolutionise the whole mining industry and, beyond question, reduce the terrible casualty list.

A Six-Hour Day
It is not now necessary to argue, in detail, the merits of this proposal, since the Sankey Commission, after an exhaustive hearing of all the available evidence, recommended that the hours in the mining industry should be reduced to six hours per day in August, 1921, if the state of the industry would permit. It is necessary, however, to point out that the proposal, in practice, will not mean an actual working day of six hours. At the average colliery it takes half an hour to get the men down the shaft and another half-hour to raise them again. So that in the average colliery the first man down the shaft will be half an hour in excess of the six hours and the last man up the shaft another half-hour, or an average of about six and a half hours. It must also be remembered that the bulk of the miners do not live near the colliery and have to be conveyed to the pit in workmen’s trains which will run an hour before the shift commences and return an hour after the shift finishes. So that in general the miner will be eight hours on the property of the colliery, excluding the time it will take to come from his home, the workmen’s train, to change his clothes and to partake of his daily bath. It will, therefore, be safe to say that if eight hours are allowed for sleep ten will be consumed for work and preparation for work, leaving a leisure time of six hours per day. To those persons who would begrudge the miners this amount of leisure I can only say that if they worked in the mines for a time their opinions would speedily change.

A Minimum Wage and the Abolition of Piecework
Since 1912, and as a result of a hard fought strike, the miners have enjoyed a legal minimum wage. Prior to this wage the conditions of the coal-getter, who worked on piecework, were in an appalling state. I have come across some extreme cases where the coal-getter during certain weeks, due either to unlucky changes in the seam or lack of facilities has found himself, when coming to pay his assistant, without sufficient money to do so, and has had to go home actually in debt. I question very much whether the wage conditions in any other industry have ever been so bad as to yield such results. The element of "luck" or the great variations in the condition of a working place largely determine the ability of the coal-getter to earn wages. A place with good roof, a thick section of easily worked coal may change in one week. The roof may become very brittle and dangerous, the section of coal may become thin and the coal may be hard or "stiff" to work, and, on the other hand, the place may change for the better, and the coal-getter may for a period earn comparatively good wages. This fact I believe is the foundation for those stories one sees frequently in the Press of the fabulous wages of miners; of how he feeds his dog (all miners seem to have dogs in these stories) with his daily beef-steak, port wine, and so on. A miner may in a period of good luck double his average wage. The fact, however, is that according to the figures supplied recently to us by the Government the average wage of the whole of the miners of Great Britain in 1914 was 6/5.6, and in March, 1920, was 16/11.9 per shift, and the 1920 wage is rapidly going down in the direction of the 1914 wage.

These variations in the working place make it impossible to arrange for an equitable system of wages on a piecework basis. One man in a lucky place will produce with comparatively little effort three times the amount of coal produced by another man in the same seam using almost superhuman efforts. And so it can and does happen that the man who puts forth the least energy gets the highest wages. In pre-minimum wage days these inequalities were enormous. While they have been minimised since the Minimum Wage Act of 1912 they are still very considerable. And it must not be assumed that the minimum wage is invariably paid. The refusal of managers to pay this minimum is frequently the cause of disputes in all parts of the British coalfield, that is, because the Act does not make the minimum wage unconditional. It is hedged round with conditions which frequently enable the employers to evade payment.

The present method of dealing with these inequalities is, in the first place, to fix a price list for each seam. If the coal-getters in the poor places cannot earn the minimum wage on this price list the manager of the mine at his own discretion gives these men a certain allowance which may be equal or perhaps slightly in excess of the minimum wage. But this does not get rid of the profound injustice of paying the man who has to work the hardest, and under the most adverse and dangerous conditions less wages than the man in the lucky place. There is no method, however elaborate, under a piecework system that can adjust these inequalities to anything more than the merest approximation to equity. Under a system of piecework there is always the temptation to over-work which invariably has serious consequences. However serious this may be to a man in a mill or factory it is intensified tenfold to the miner underground in semi-darkness with probably a brittle roof over his head. Driven by the spur of piecework, I have in common with most coal-getters frequently risked life and limb by neglecting to adequately support a dangerous roof in order to increase output on which wages depend.

Broadly speaking, half of the workers in the mines are coal-getters on piecework, while the other half are workmen on a fixed day-wage. Of the pieceworkers, about a third of them are so fortunately placed as to be able to earn more than the minimum or "make-up" wage. No one can say authoritatively what the opinion of the British miner is on this question, but in the South Wales coalfield – which is the largest – a ballot was recently taken, and a majority vote in favour of the abolition of piecework was secured. The argument of the coalowners is the ancient one that to abolish piecework is to destroy incentive. But this argument loses all force when it is remembered that only about a fifth of the men employed in the mining industry are genuine pieceworkers, and the argument is never used against the others. Whatever may be said in favour of piecework in other industries, in the darkness of the mine, entering each day a part of the earth where no human foot has ever trod, caution is of the first importance – a caution most difficult to attain under the hustle and bustle – the lash of piecework.

The solution of these difficulties lies in the abolition of piecework and the payment of wages on a flat-rate principle. For five years miners, whether coal-getters or day-wage men, have been receiving nearly half of their daily wages on a flat-rate. The idea has captured the imagination of the miners with such force, that although they have had to abandon the operation of the flat-rate for eighteen months I venture to predict that there will be no peace in the British coalfield until flat-rates are restored and piecework abolished.

Old Age Pensions
There is no point I can urge for miners in preference to all workers for an old age pension, other than what I have already tried to make plain, namely, the nature of their work. On the general humanitarian grounds of old age there is unquestionably a strong case for all workers who have contributed to the production of the necessaries of the community. When age has robbed them of the power of further contribution, the community should step in and pay the man or woman whose powers have waned, a wage that could keep them from the workhouse. If this is a sound argument for the worker, in general, then it is intensified in the case of the miner, who when he arrives at sixty years of age is generally deformed; his back bent; his complexion no longer "shines"; his memory has gone; and, in short, he is no longer a man so much as a caricature of a man.

Control Over the Conditions of His Employment
During the last few centuries we have seen a great struggle for the modification of the Constitutions of all countries, in the direction of a greater control by the people, of the government of their country. And we have arrived, in several stages, from Absolute Monarchy to Parliamentary Government, and in this country to the enfranchisement of the majority of the adult population. Every class whose power has had to be modified has assured the succeeding class that the country was going "to the dogs": in quite recent history we read solemn essays on the absurdity of giving the vote to an agricultural labourer or a domestic servant. Yet no great alarm is felt today when an agricultural labourer sits in Parliament, and no greater disturbance need be anticipated when in the near future a domestic servant sits there.

The same struggle that was formerly political is now being transferred to industry, and nowhere more so than in the mining industry. This is no doubt due to the fact that the mining industry is situated in areas where the mining population predominate numerically. Be that as it may, there is no lack of evidence that the resentment of the miner is deep, and growing deeper, against the conception of the mineowner that the function of the miner is not to reason why, but to earn his minimum wage until he dies.

The miner is beginning to look upon the mining industry as a national institution, that ought to be national property. The notion that used to obtain credence within my own knowledge, that mineowners invested their money in mining so as to provide employment for miners, would today be received with contemptuous scorn. He now realises that he is considered merely as a cog in the great mining machine: he doesn’t know his employer, he only knows of some limited company: he has no voice in the price at which the coal he produces is sold: nor does he know how or where this coal is distributed. He knows that many improvements could be effected in the industry that would enable the coal to be sold more cheaply to the community, and at the same time improve his own wage position. But in all these things he has not as yet the power to give effective articulation to his aspirations. This condition of things cannot last, together with the growing realisation, of his servile position. That this is so one need only observe the change in the character of the miners’ demands during recent years: the question of wages does not now receive any more attention than the question of status. The idea of status has come to stay: its dynamic force is stronger than any opposition: ultimately – or in the not distant future – it must be realised.

The Fetters Private Production
All that I have written of, represents only the fundamental issues that confront the differences between "Labour and Capital". There are innumerable points which space will not allow me to develop in detail. But the main point of all must strike the reader that the remedies for the grievances of the miners must be so drastic as to affect not only the mining industry but industry in general.

Can we trust the safety of the miner to the man whose pocket interest conflicts with the interest of the safety, the lives and limbs of the men whom he employs, to the men who think more of safes than safety. Can any fair-minded man agree that the tribunal to decide the wage upon which a miner should exist should be composed of mineowners or men of the same class? Ought the hours of labour to be determined by men who have no fixed hours, but have the money and leisure to do as they like? The miner says, in the most emphatic way, that to such conditions he will never submit. What then is the alternative? The system of conducting industry for private gain has been tried and has failed; failed because all the reforms that the ordinary man in the street thinks equitable, they refuse. And boiled down their refusal is associated with their pocket interests.

Mining as an industry cannot be conducted with advantage both to the miner and the consumer. Why? Because the owner demands his livelihood at a generous rate – for which he performs no active service in coal mining – a rate which actually stops the productivity of the industry. When this state of affairs occurs it is quite clear that the industry requires a new principle before it can satisfy the requirements of all the parties concerned. When an industry is clearly seen to be unable to provide equitable conditions of labour, and to satisfy the demands of the people who are supposed to own the industry, then that industry on its own principles of working has shown it is a failure and must be replaced by some different system that can meet both requirements.

From Mrs P. Snowden et al., What We Want and Why, 1922.