The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has experienced a surge in membership in recent years. Rather than reflecting an increase in mineworkers, it is instead a rise in claims for compensation that have led to a resurgence of interest in the formerly dwindling union. Significant numbers of retired workers are reactivating their memberships in hopes of securing compensation from the government a variety of work-related health woes.
The NUM began losing members in 1984 when a year long strike ended in defeat for the union. The strike had commenced when 20,000 jobs were jeopardized by the proposed closing of twenty mines. Workers began the strike without a proper ballot and the Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, ruled that the strike was illegal. In doing so the government was able to seize NUM’s funds and deny the miners state benefits. Violence and large-scale arrests ensued. After the strike came to an end the following year, the pits were economically crippled, having lost many of their customers. As a result, NUM, which had 171,000 members in 1984, began to lose members at a rapid pace. The lowest number of members recorded was 13,045 in 1998.
This decline in membership began to reverse itself after a landmark legal battle in 1997, when a dispute brought by the National Association of Colliery Overmen (NACODS) and the Durham Miners Association against British Coal won a settlement for workers complaining of work-related respiratory disease and Vibration White Finger (a form of Raynaud’s Disease). Workers were then required to purchase a special membership to NUM in order to collect their award. After paying a membership and administration fee the miners were granted access to the union’s solicitor to pursue their claim. The addition of these “limited members”, mostly retired miners, to the NUM has caused membership to grow for the first time in nearly twenty years.
In the case of NACODS and the Durham Miners Association, which led to the initial membership increase, some ex-union members have asserted that they were misled by the NUM. They allege being told that rejoining the NUM would not only give them access to the union’s solicitors, Raleys, but would fund any further litigation that was deemed necessary to settle the worker’s claim. In fact, after paying fees to rejoin the union and administration costs, the union members were offered no other financial support. Raleys states that the union was only offering to provide funding for cases that fell outside the terms a 1999 settlement reached between lawyers representing the miners and the government.
However, the vast majority of Raleys’ claims against the government have been settled without dispute, which means that most miners have not been required to fund further legal action out of their own pockets. Out of a review of 55,921 compensation claims for NUM filed by Raleys, only eleven have required litigation.