Miners' Federation of Great Britain
|Native name||Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB)|
|merged into||National Union of Mineworkers|
Kent Miners Association 1915
Lancashire and Cheshire Miners' Federation
Leicestershire Miners' Association
Midland Counties Miners' Federation
North Wales Miners' Association 1891
Northumberland Miners' Association 1907
Nottinghamshire Miners' Association
Scottish Miners Federation
Somerset Miners' Association
South Wales Miners' Federation 1899
Yorkshire Miners' Association
The Miners' Federation of Great Britain, MFGB was established in Newport, Wales in 1888 to represent and co-ordinate the affairs of local and regional miners' unions whose associations remained largely autonomous. The federation was reorganised into the National Union of Mineworkers in 1945.
Founding conference and membership
In 1888 after colliery owners rejected a call for a pay rise from the Yorkshire Miners' Association, several conferences were organised to discuss the possibility of forming a national union. At the conference held in the Temperance Hall in Newport, South Wales in November 1889, the Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) was formed. Ben Pickard of the Yorkshire Miners' Association was elected president and Sam Woods of the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners' Federation its vice-president. Enoch Edwards from the Midland Counties Miners' Federation was its first treasurer and Thomas Ashton, also from the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners' Federation, its first secretary. Keir Hardie was one of the Scottish delegates at the conference.
The Northumberland Miners' Association and the Durham Miners' Association initially refused to join but did so in 1907 and 1908. The Somersetshire Miners Association formed in 1872 became a constituent member of the federation in 1889. It had about 4,000 members in 1910 and 2,600 by 1944.
The federation's membership increased by 30% in its first year and by 1890 its member federations had 250,000 members. Most of its founding members were still in control in 1910 by which time the membership was more than 600,000. Membership peaked in 1920 when it had more than 945,000 members. In 1926 the membership dropped to 756,000 and had declined to about 530,000 in 1930.
The MFGB joined the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 1890. In 1893, 300,000 colliery workers were locked out when the mine owners demanded they take a 25% cut in pay. Six weeks into the dispute, two men were killed at a colliery in Featherstone in Yorkshire after the Riot Act had been read and soldiers opened fire on the assembled men. The strike ended nine weeks later after the mine owners backed down.
The MFGB participated in the 1906 Royal Commission on mines' safety and by 1908 had secured an eight-hour day for underground workers. Improving miners' working conditions was important to the federation and Robert Smillie represented it in the Royal Commission on mines' safety that led to the Mines' Regulation Act in 1911.
A lock out in 1910 by Cambrian Collieries in South Wales in a dispute about wage cuts led to a ten-month-long strike by 12,000 men. Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, sent troops to Tonypandy where they charged a group of striking miners with fixed bayonets on 21 November. The strikers returned to work defeated but a conference in 1911 called for a minimum wage. The demand led to the six-week-long National coal strike of 1912 in which more than one million miners participated.
The onset of World War I in 1914 led to calls for the repeal of the eight-hour day and increased productivity. South Wales miners struck in 1915 and increased pay was demanded in 1916 resulting in the coalfields being put into state control. In 1914 the MFGB had joined with the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) and the National Transport Workers' Federation (NTWF) in the Triple Alliance. In 1919 the Sankey Commission was set up to which the MFGB, colliery owners and government considered the future of the mining industry and two years later the government returned management of the collieries to their owners. In 1921 a decision by the NUR and NTWF not to strike in sympathy with the miners is remembered as Black Friday and signalled the end of the alliance.
Pressure for wage cuts in 1925 plunged the MFGB into crisis. The government backed the colliery owners and the TUC backed the miners. The government proposed setting up a commission and provided a subsidy to maintain wages at the July 1925 level. The commission took no representations from the MFGB and the government built up coal supplies until the report was published in March 1926. The MFGB rejected the report's proposals and its general secretary A. J. Cook coined the slogan, "Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day!". The colliery owners locked out more than one million miners, a "state of emergency" was declared and the General Strike began in April 1926. The strike lasted seven months. Despite support from many organisations including local communities, the Labour Party and financial support from workers in the USSR, the strikers were forced back to work in the November. The Nottinghamshire Miners' Association led by George Spencer broke away from the MFGB in early November after meeting local colliery owners and formed the rival Nottingham and District Miners' Industrial Union or "Spencer" union.
After the strike, the federation had lost public sympathy and the economic slump that followed affected miners' wages and working conditions. The MFGB's membership declined and by 1931 unemployment on the coalfields reached more than 40% and wages were poor for working miners. Hunger marches in the 1930s highlighted the plight of mining communities. A disaster at Gresford Colliery demonstrated poor working conditions and breaches in the law by the employers. A Royal Commission into mines' safety was started after the 1934 disaster but no new law was passed until the Mines and Quarries Act of 1954. Fatalities in the mines had fallen in the years before 1926 but coal industry deaths rose to the 1900 level after the strike.
A ballot for a national strike in 1935 produced the largest majority vote in favour of industrial action. Wages in Nottinghamshire, where the breakaway "Spencer" union represented 80% of the workforce, were the lowest in the country. Men who remained loyal to the MFGB were victimised and colliery owners refused to recognise the federation. Matters came to a head at Harworth Colliery in 1936. MFGB members demanding recognition struck for six months. Several officials and members were imprisoned and the breakaway union became even more isolated. The MFGB balloted its members about merging with the "Spencer" union but the proposal was rejected. The federation's leadership continued to negotiate until 1937 when the breakaway union returned to the MFGB but amid much bad feeling.
Support for the mining industry to be nationalised grew between the wars and during World War II. At the onset of war the MFGB and government discussed how best to ensure a supply of coal for the war effort. The miners' position was that they wanted the industry to be nationalised at the end of hostilities. In 1941 an Essential Work Order was imposed on the mines. In 1942 proposals to merge all districts and local associations into a single miners' union were drafted. After the Labour government was elected in 1945, the passing of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act meant all the industry's assets, rights and liabilities passed to the National Coal Board and the MFGB was reorganised into a single union, the National Union of Mineworkers.
The miners' unions were the largest and most powerful industrial combinations in Britain for decades and exercised a great influence on the rest of the British labour movement. The first working class Members of Parliament, Thomas Burt and Alexander Macdonald, elected in 1874, represented mining constituencies and were funded by miners' associations. Miners' unions continued to enlarge labour representation in the House of Commons in the years that followed, although they took little part in the founding of the Labour Party. Many miners' MPs sat with the Liberals and the MFGB did not affiliate to the Labour Party until 1909.
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- Stefan Llafur Berger, "Working-Class Culture and the Labour Movement in the South Wales and the Ruhr Coalfields, 1850-2000: A Comparison," Journal of Welsh Labour History/Cylchgrawn Hanes Llafur Cymru (2001) 8#2 pp 5-40.
- Page Arnot 1953, p. 546.
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