One of the first broadcasts of the the newly-created National Coal Board's film unit "The Mining Review" was a debate held by some miners on the merits of the five-day-week.
The British Film Institute gave a synopsis of this film on their website:
"Britain's mines were nationalised on 1 January 1947, though it quickly became apparent that this made no appreciable difference to the working conditions of the ordinary miner. As a result, there were frequent disagreements between the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board regarding working hours.
This item from the very first Mining Review compilation would have been made and shown in the early part of the year. It depicts a group of miners sitting in a pub after hours, debating the merits of a five day working week, and reaching universal agreement that this was not only desirable for the health of the miners, but it would probably improve absenteeism and even productivity...
The delivery is more than a little stilted, but this paradoxically adds to the impression of realism: these are clearly genuine miners, not actors.
Given that this film seems to firmly endorse the NUM line, it is intriguing to note that it was sponsored by the National Coal Board. But by capitulating to the demand for a five-day week - indeed, encouraging the idea via films like this - the NCB could stave off more drastic action, and a formal agreement was duly concluded with the NUM in May 1947."
It could be presumed that the mines being taken under public ownership and it being the Labour Party forming the government of the country negotiations would be easier. But the author of the above has probably summed it up correctly when he hints that talks could be difficult with frequent disagreements.
The five day week was still the subject of much discussion and disagreement during the State of the Nation debate in the House of Commons on the 6th August 1947. This was to a backdrop of the country, led by Prime Minister Clement Atlee, being heavily in debt to Canada and the USA, having taken an emergency loan to buy time to rebalance the economy and boost production. There was a great need for increased production in all manner of industries, where there was now a lack of skills, lack of machinery, spare parts and a lack of housing to attract labour. The country was too heavily dependant on foreign imports and was no longer able afford them. Attlee was being criticised by the opposition for his heavy subsidies which they said were pernicious. They were also critical of Britain's workforce who it was felt were work-shy and not doing their bit to help the country recover. The opposition felt that it was the wrong time to introduce a five-day week when increased output was needed. Attlee had to concede that an agreement had been reached for Saturday working when need arose. Interestingly, in the late 1980s I once interviewed an elderly ex-miner of Burradon Colliery, Bill Wardle, who told me nationalisation had been very welcome. Previously the miners had been on piece work and had worked hard to earn a basic pay. After vesting day they didn't push themselves any harder than they had to.
The matter was once again debated in Parliament on 12 February 1948 when the Prime Minister had to defend that there wasn't enough production and more man hours were needed. However Atlee stated that even if there was a seven day week the demand could still not be satisfied.
The National Union of Mineworkers have this to say on the five day week on their website:
"Vesting Day, January 1, 1947, saw the nationalisation of Britain's coal industry. Mining communities believed this marked the winning of an epic struggle for decent wages, family security and public ownership of a vital resource.
On Vesting Day, miners and their families marched in thousands behind banners and colliery bands to the pit heads. They cheered. and some openly wept, as the blue and white flag of the National Coal Board was unfurled above them. They crowded round the unveiled plaques which proclaimed:
'This colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people.'
The five-day week was won at last in the famous Agreement of 1947, while miners wages began to rise steadily, by 1950, they were at the top of the industrial wages league, in startling contrast to the starvation pay of pre-war private enterprise.
Soon, however, hopes and dreams began to sour as miners became increasingly aware that private ownership has been replaced by State rather than common ownership. It was now apparent that control and management of the industry had been left in the hands of those who had previously been either managers or actual owners of private mines."
STATE OF THE NATION DEBATE 06 AUG 1947
(Clement Attlee, Prime Minister)
First of all, the output of coal has been less than that required to meet our own needs, much less than to enable us to help Europe as well. The run-down of the equipment of the mines has been far greater than we had supposed. The recovery of the industry has been far too slow. I am not going into the history of that: we all know the position of the coalmines.
Second, though I think most people in the country have responded very well, there have been some sections that have not, perhaps. Undoubtedly, it has been difficult to get rid of all the practices we ought to get rid of. But we do not quickly get rid of bitter memories of past unemployment. Third, I would agree that it might have been better if we had had a greater concentration of effort. It may be we have tried to do too much in a short time. It may well be that we have relaxed controls too soon. But I would remind hon. Members opposite of their vociferous demands for every kind of thing to be done, and for a great many relaxations of controls. Fourth—I am trying to put this frankly before the House—there has been, undoubtedly, some failure on the part of some workers to realise that shorter hours and higher wages must be matched with higher effort. But I say, despite these things, that the record of the people of this country in these two years is one of which any country could be proud.
On the positive side, let me first take our basic industries and services. There we are setting ourselves definite targets. First of all, let us take coal. The House is well aware how vital to the industrial recovery of this country, and also how vital a matter for Europe, is the production of coal. We must get enough for our own industries and domestic needs. Coal once made a great contribution to our balance of payments, and it can make it again, and to the recovery of Europe. With some of my colleagues, I have been in consultation with the leaders of the National Union of Miners and with the Coal Board. They are, I know, wholeheartedly with us in our desire to raise output. Since the beginning of the year, the number of wage earners on the colliery books has shown a substantial net increase—27,000. There is every prospect that we shall reach the target of 730,000 by the end of the year, particularly if the Poles, who are willing and available, are accepted in the industry.
We have put forward to the mine-workers' leaders a proposal that, while preserving the five-day week and the general regulations of the hours of labour, there should be, as an emergency measure, for a limited period an extra half-hours' work per day. We considered various alternatives, including Saturday work, but came to the conclusion that this was the best. I know, too, that earnest efforts are being made to try to bring down absenteeism to the lowest possible level. There are also local matters which need to be dealt with; particularly we need increased "stints," which were contemplated as part of the five-day week agreement. These have not been settled with the local miners, and we want them settled as soon as possible. Our aim is an average weekly output from, 1st September, 1947, to 30th April, 1948, of at least four million tons of deep-mined coal, and in addition we want as much opencast coal as we can get. That is for the seven months, but we have to go on from there and over the years develop more and more greater output as rapidly as we can...
During the war, we had to use full powers of direction of labour. It has been the desire of the Government and the country to move as quickly as possible towards restoration of freedom of the individual to undertake the kind of work he prefers. As things have turned out, it may be that we have moved too far and too fast in this direction. Clement Atlee
Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston) With what the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Fairhurst) has just said I must strongly disagree, namely, that we have had from the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon the lead for which the country is looking and which it is eagerly awaiting at the present time. Indeed, in so far as there was a call from the right hon. Gentleman for national unity, my hon. Friends and I, and I am sure the whole of the country, will be with him to assist him, but the measures which he put for- 1523 ward will be regarded as thoroughly inadequate to deal with the situation in which we findourselves. Those proposals which the right hon. Gentleman put before the House this afternoon are not a call to heroic action by people who are eager, willing and anxious to bring themselves into a position of safety at the earliest possible moment. They are one more turn of the austerity screw, a rejection, a reversal of Government planning of the past, which leads to no amelioration of the lot of the ordinary man or woman either immediately or in the foreseeable future. Is this a blue print of "Socialism in our time" which we have had laid before us this afternoon? Certainly not. It is the honest attempt of the Prime Minister to bridge a 12-foot gap with an eight-foot ladder.
On two occasions the Prime Minister said, "I do not know how long this will be." Again, he said, "We could not foresee this." But this is a Government of planners. One can plan for the future if one can foresee it, but if one cannot foresee one's future, one might as well not make plans for it at all. In my view this Government could be called a Government of reversers. All their triumphs of the past are reversed within a few months of their achievement. With a great shout, the five-day week was introduced for the miners. Certainly no one who is privileged to spend all his or her working time above ground could begrudge the miners the achievement of the five-day week. But what were the arguments with which the five-day week was urged upon the House at a time when some of us were keenly anxious about coal production?
The arguments were three-fold. The first was the health of the miner, that he should have this complete rest for two days, in which he could refresh himself in the sunshine. That seems an admirable reason. The second reason put forward was that team work was now so much a feature of the work in the mines that absenteeism on the part of one member of the team was likely to slow down production, and, therefore, by having wholehearted work on five days a week, production would be the same. The third argument was that the mechanical devices in the mines were now of such increased complication that it was necessary to have a five-day week so that two days might be available for servicing the mines. They all struck me as being admirable reasons why a five-day week should be introduced. We shall hope that the Government spokesman, later in today's Debate, will be able to explain why a Government of planners, which accepted those arguments and others so freely only a few months ago, now find themselves able to destroy those arguments, and put others more satisfactory in their place to urge that there shall be longer working hours in the mines.
Mr. Harrison (Nottingham, East) It is a five-day week just the same.
Mr. Butcher The hon. Member says it is a five-day week, but in the past all the agitation has been for shorter hours in the mines, and quite properly so."