Retro: Miners protest ‘poor pay offer’

Hylton Castle in October 1972
Hylton Castle in October 1972
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MINERS downed tools in their first national strike for almost 50 years in 1972.

 Pitmen from across the old County Durham coalfield, including Sunderland, Seaham and Easington, joined the action at midnight on January 9 in protest at a “poor pay offer.”

 Mining leaders had been seeking an increase of up to £9 a week on an average take home wage of £25.

 Instead, the National Coal Board offered a 7.9 percent rise.

 NCB chairman Derek Ezra told the BBC: “If we had granted the £120m they had asked for, we would have landed ourselves in a very serious financial situation.”

 But Lawrence Daly, general secretary of the NUM, said “Coal stocks will quickly run down. Industrialists will be pressing the Government to get the door open for serious talks.”

 Three-quarters of UK electricity in 1972 was generated by coal-burning power stations, with cold winter weather causing a peak in demand at the time the strike was called.

 All 289 pits in England and Wales closed on January 9 and, within just 48 hours, 17 schools in Shropshire – dependent in coal-fired heating – had been forced to shut down.

 Picket lines were set up at ports, power stations and pits, to prevent the transport of coal, although Dawdon Colliery opened to supply emergency fuel to hospitals and the elderly.

 But dogs had to be brought in to guard coal stockpiles at Dawdon and Seaham in February, following “extensive thefts,” with more than 20 people arrested in just a few weeks.

 Factories started to lay off workers as the strike continued. Thousands more people were forced into short-time working by Government restrictions on electricity use in industry. “The Wear’s shipbuilding industry is among the hardest hit. Every hour is valuable for the yards to meet delivery dates,” reported the Echo on February 12.

 Power supplies to Doxford and Sunderland Shipbuilders were cut for three days a week in February, while the Greenwell repair yard was left in darkness for two days.

 Other firms affected by the cuts included Sunderland Forge, Austin and Pickersgill and the Pallion shipyard. Shops within the town centre also suffered regular black-outs.

 A state of emergency was finally declared on February 9 – and an inquiry committee was set up two days later, under Lord Wilberforce, after NCB and NUM talks broke down again.

 Just 24 hours later, however, more than 2,000 striking County Durham miners received a “warm reception” as they held a demonstration march though the streets of Sunderland.

 Led by Silksworth Colliery Band, the pitmen marched from Mowbray Park, through the town centre, across Wearmouth Bridge and stopped outside the Boilermakers’ Club.

 “Sightseers and shoppers shouted encouragement to the miners. Women, especially, shouted that they hoped they would stay out until they were given a just pay rise,” wrote the Echo.

 Joe Gormley, national president of the NUM, later addressed marchers at the Boilermakers’ Club, apologising to members of other unions who were being laid off due to power cuts.

 “I hope they will understand the situation the miners are in,” he said. “People keep saying we are a special case. But we say the miners are not a special case. They are just a case.”

 As the strike entered its sixth week, so homes and businesses across Britain were without electricity for up to nine hours a day and an estimated 1.2 million people had been laid off.

 Finally, on February 19, a deal was reached. The £95million package agreed was below the original £120million claim – but included more than a dozen extra concessions.

 “The miners returned to work on February 25 among the highest paid in the working classes after a seven-week stoppage,” reported the BBC.