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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 3 Feb 1943

Vol. 89 No. 3

Ceisteanna.—Questions. Oral Answers. - Castlecomer Coal Mine Strike.

asked the Minister for Industry and Commerce whether representations have been made to him in connection with the strike in Castlecomer mine and if his Department has been asked to intervene; if his Department has intervened if he will say what action, if any, he proposes to take in connection with the strike; if he is aware that the local Press has published articles dealing with the cause of the dispute; if he will state if there is any discrepancy in the price allowed to be charged for coal from Castlecomer mine and that which is permitted to be charged for coal from Wolfhill and Modubagh mines; whether he is aware that the proprietors of the Wolfhill mine are in a position to pay a higher wage; whether he is aware that it is stated that over 100 men left Castlecomer mine for Modubagh or Wolfhill and that the figures which have been published regarding the wages paid in Castlecomer mine are disputed.

I understand that the purpose of the strike now proceeding at the Castlecomer mine is to compel the Government to alter the provisions of Emergency Powers (No. 166) Order, by excluding coal-mine workers from its scope. While the Government is, and always has been, prepared to consider representations made to it concerning this and other Government Orders and has, in fact, amended Emergency Powers (No. 166) Order on more than one occasion on representations by the Irish Trade Union Congress and by workers in special categories, the Government will not permit itself to be forced into such action by a strike or threat of strike, for reasons which the Dáil will readily understand.

The strike now proceeding at Castlecomer and other coal mines, under the terms of the Order I have referred to, is not protected under the Trades Disputes Act. The Government cannot afford any recognition to a strike of this character, or initiate or participate in any negotiations or discussions relating to it. I think it is desirable in the interests of the workers concerned that this fact should be clearly stated.

Castlecomer collieries have received, prior to the recent strike, possible increases in their average earnings, since the beginning of the emergency, amounting in all to 24/6 per week. Their piece rates were increased by 6d. per ton in November, 1939, and increased by a further 1/- per ton early in 1940. Subsequently I caused a committee of inquiry to be set up to investigate the conditions of the industry. The recommendations of this committee were implemented in full by the Sixth Amendment of Emergency Powers (No. 83) Order, which permitted a further increase of 10 per cent. in wages coupled with an attendance bonus of 1/- per day for work on six consecutive days.

A submission has been made jointly by the Castlecomer company and the workers concerned for a bonus order in accordance with the terms of Emergency Powers (No. 166) Order. This submission was referred to a tribunal which met on Friday, January 22nd. But for the strike, it may be assumed that the application would have resulted in the making of a bonus order.

It will be appreciated from the facts I have given that the increases in their remuneration secured during the emergency by coal-mine workers, coupled with the further increase which it is possible for them to secure under Emergency Powers (No. 166) Order, compare more than favourably with those secured by, or available to, any other class of workers.

I understand that amongst the grievances voiced by the Castlecomer miners is the fact that their tonnage rates are lower than those operating at other collieries. It will, however, be easily understood that in an old-established and well-organised mine, uniform tonnage rates will yield much higher average earnings than in the case of recently-opened mines, not yet fully developed, and with comparatively small outputs. For some time past, however, I have been endeavouring, for the purpose of removing any financial inducement to coal-mine workers to leave their present employment for employment at other mines, to secure by agreement a general revision of tonnage rates in the area of the Leinster coalfield so as to produce uniform, average earnings. I appreciate the difficulty of effecting an arrangement on those lines which will secure general agreement, but I am not without hope that a satisfactory basis may be found. Examination of the matter, however, has had to be suspended in consequence of the strike.

With regard to the statement in the question that 100 workers have left Castlecomer for other coal mines, the numbers employed at the colliery do not bear this out. Prior to the opening of the colliery at The Swan, the number employed underground at Castlecomer on 24/2/41 was 410; the number so employed 20/11/42 was 401. The output of coal at Castlecomer in 1940 was 72,998 tons, compared with 115,000 tons for 1942.

With regard to the matter of the prices permitted to be charged for coal produced at Castlecomer, the principle applied is to permit of a reasonable profit on the undertaking. Part of the trouble at Castlecomer has been a claim by the company— apparently supported by the men in their desire to have their earnings increased as the price of coal increased— that the same price should be fixed for coal produced at Castlecomer as for coal produced at other smaller collieries on the Leinster coalfield. It will be appreciated that the costs of coal production vary from colliery to colliery and are normally much lower in an old-established colliery than in one in the early stages of development. The present price permitted for Castlecomer coal allows a very reasonable profit to the proprietors, but if, instead of fixing prices on the basis of costs at each mine, the principle were to be adopted of fixing a uniform price, which would have to cover production costs at the least efficient unit, the profits resulting to the Castlecomer enterprise would be altogether excessive.

At the present time the prices charged at pit-head for coal produced at other collieries are being reexamined, and any modification of these prices will be made on the basis of applying the same principles as have been applied to the Castlecomer colliery, but the result will not necessarily be uniformity of prices.

With regard to the final part of the question, I have seen it stated in the Press on behalf of the workers, that the earnings of a miner on an average shift were 10/3. It was stated in evidence before the Committee of Inquiry that the average earnings of a collier in 1939 were 9/-, which rose to 11/- after April, 1940, and were later increased, as a result of the special Order under Emergency Powers (No. 83) Order, by 10 per cent. plus an attendance bonus of 1/- per shift if a man worked six shifts. Even allowing for absenteeism, the average earnings per shift of a collier were quoted by the Castlecomer company at 12/5 per day. Over 60 per cent. of the colliers, who received the attendance bonus, would have got on the average something over 13/- per shift.

The Minister has mentioned the price of coal at a number of the coalfields. Will he tell us the price of coal at each of the coalfields, of which there are only four or five?

I should require notice of that question.

The Minister read a very long reply, and it is rather difficult to remember all he said, but I gather that, in the course of this dispute, the Ministry kept away from endeavouring to have it settled. I should like to ask if, now that the men have come up from the mine, very effort is being made to have the consideration of the matter by the arbitration inquiry expedited?

No. Under the terms of the Order, a bonus order cannot be made in relation to workers on strike, or where there has been a threat of strike.

Then the matter is in suspense at present?

The matter was before the tribunal when the strike occurred.

The Minister will appreciate that this matter is complicated in many respects. Surely, in a case of this sort, assuming that there was some departure from the normal course, the Minister would overlook the very strong feelings held. This is not a normal dispute, as the Minister will appreciate. There is a shortage of fuel, and, apart altogether from the dispute, the Minister's desire would be to get more fuel. These men cannot go back as matters stand. Anybody who has had experience of a dispute of the sort realises that they cannot go back, and, having gone some way in connection with it, surely the Minister might come some distance to meet them and let the arbitration proceedings continue.

The purpose of the dispute in question is to compel the Government to change the existing Emergency Powers Order. The Government cannot be compelled to change an Emergency Powers Order by a strike, and that had better be understood by these workers and every other class of workers. I think that, in the interests of the workers, they should not be encouraged to believe that they can succeed in that effort.

Was the question of the wage increase before the tribunal or before the Minister when the strike took place? I understand that the tribunal had concluded its hearing and that the question was before the Minister.

That is not correct. The tribunal met on 22nd January.

When did the Minister get the report?

I have not got it yet. The whole thing is in suspense while the strike is on.

With your permission, Sir, I propose to raise this matter on the adjournment. I should prefer to have it dealt with in some other way, but there is no other course open.