Historic Role of Coal Miners

Coal mine workers in our country are waging a determined struggle against privatisation and have called for a country-wide strike on 18th August.  In this context, it is worth recalling the historic role that coal miners of all countries have played in the development of modern industry and the international working class movement.

The growth of capitalist industry in the 19th and 20th centuries was based largely on coal as the primary source of energy.  Coal mining is one of the most hazardous occupations.  Diseases and deaths are common among the mine workers. Those who survive face significant health problems and have a much shorter life expectancy than workers in most other fields.

Underground mining has often led to suffocation, gas poisoning, roof collapses, rock bursts and gas explosions.  Open cut mining has caused mine wall failures and vehicle collisions. In the United States of America, more than 100,000 coal miners lost their lives in the 20th century.  While improvements in technology have reduced the fatality rate over time, even today there are about 30 deaths per year in the USA due to mining accidents.  In India, between 100 and 150 coal mining related deaths have occurred every year in recent times.

Coal miners were one of the first groups of industrial workers to organise and wage a collective struggle to improve their working and living conditions.  From the middle of the 19th Century, they were an active part of the organised working class movement.  They contributed many activists to the communist movement, in our country as well as in Britain, USA, Canada, Australia, Japan and many European countries.

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) of Australia, the United Mine Workers of America, the National Union of Mine Workers of Britain, the Canadian Mine Workers Union, and the Japan Coal Miners Union have been some of the major unions of coal workers.

The national coal strike of 1912 was the first nation-wide strike by coal miners in Britain. The government was forced to pass a minimum wage law after 10,00,000 workers had walked out for 37 days. During the General Strike of 1926, which was the largest industrial dispute in Britain’s history, coal miners got locked out of their mines. The next major strike of British coal miners was in 1972.  That strike compelled the mine owners to accept the workers’ demands for increased pay.  It also compelled the government to implement a scheme for compensating mine workers affected by the disease called pneumoconiosis.

In the USA, the organised and persistent struggle of mine workers over many decades succeeded in improving the safety of mines as well as the wages and benefits of the workers. The five month long strike of the mine workers of Pennsylvania in 1902, repeated strikes in Kentucky in the 1930s, the nine month long country-wide strike in 1946 and the 13 month long strike in Kentucky in 1972 were among the major struggles waged by American coal workers.

In Canada, the Amalgamated Mine Workers of Nova Scotia, formed in 1917, mobilised voters and took control of town councils. The mine workers challenged the coal companies on the use of company police and assessment of taxes. They won union recognition, wage increases, and the eight-hour working day.

Large-scale strikes of German coal miners in 1889, 1905 and 1912, of Australian coal mine workers in 1949, of Japanese coal miners in 1962-63 were all historic struggles in which the workers had to face brutal repression by the respective capitalist states.

In India, the first trade union of coal workers called Indian Colliery Workers Association was formed in 1920.  In 1921, the second conference of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was held in the Jharia coal belt, attended by over 50,000 workers. Coal workers had just emerged victorious after a powerful strike. The coal miners sent greetings to the workers of the Soviet Union who were building a socialist society in difficult conditions of imperialist encirclement.

In the Soviet Union, a young worker called Stakhanov broke all previous records by mining 227 tonnes of coal in a single shift in September 1935. The records he set became a model and gave rise to what became known as the Stakhanovite Movement, in which workers who exceeded production targets were honoured by the Soviet State.  Stakhanov was appointed as the director of a mine in 1936.  He was elected to the highest decision-making body in the country, called the Supreme Soviet.

In sum, coal mine workers have contributed to the industrialisation of countries in all continents, at great risk to their lives.  They have made an unforgettable contribution to the struggle in defence of the rights and dignity of the working class. They have made invaluable contributions to the movement for socialism and communism on the world scale.

In recent weeks, coal miners in Ukraine, Columbia, the US and some other countries have been fighting against closure of mines, cutback in production, and job cuts. Their struggles are forcing governments to address their concerns.

In our country, coal mine workers are waging a determined struggle against the decision of the government to open up coal mining and distribution to private companies, Indian and foreign. They are fighting to prevent this natural resource from being plundered by private companies, which care more about their profits than about workers’ safety or about destruction of the natural environment.

As one of the largest contingent of coal workers in the world, the struggle being waged by India’s coal miners today for their rights will have a great bearing on coal workers of all countries. It deserves to be supported by the entire people of the country and by workers of all countries.

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