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British government and coal miners dig in for a long strike

A striking British coal miner, behind on three mortage payments, was gloomy about the prospects of ending the 10-week-old strike by coal miners. ''If all the miners would join us, the strike would be over,'' he said before the start of a 15,000-strong miners march here in the heartland of the Nottinghamshire coalfields.

Frustration is setting in on both sides. Some 130,000 striking coal miners have tried, but not succeeded, in forcing another 49,000 coal miners to stop work.

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As a result, some 43 mines remain open.

At the same time the National Coal Board is disappointed that not enough miners are coming back to work. As the coal strike goes on, there are rumblings of electricity price increases, and police action in trying to curb picketing coal miners has already run up a (STR)25 million ($35 million) law enforcement bill.

With the government digging in for a long haul and Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, announcing to a cheering crowd in Mansfield that the strike could go on until the end of the year and bring down the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, the opposing sides remain far apart.

The rift is exacerbated by what amounts to a personality conflict between the National Coal Board's tough chairman, Ian MacGregor, and the mineworkers' Mr. Scargill.

Mr. MacGregor says flatly he won't do anything about the dispute. His position is that Mr. Scargill started the strike, and if the mineworkers' chief wants it to end, it is up to him to come forward and negotiate.

But Mr. MacGregor quickly points out: ''He hasn't come to see me yet,'' as though to pin the onus for the continuation of the strike on Mr. Scargill. At the same time, Scargill contends he is willing to talk to MacGregor, but he says the issue of pit closures is nonnegotiable.

This virtually makes talks a nonstarter, since the strike is in part a response to MacGregor's plans to close down inefficient pits to make Britain's coal industry viable once more.

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With neither side blinking, there is recognition that a third party may have to intervene to bring the two sides together.

That third party could be the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies, and Shotfirers, which is reported to have made just such an overture.

But the possibility of holding talks is an extremely delicate matter since the two sides remain far apart in their preconditions.

Yet the imperative to hold talks is there.

For the mineworkers union, the unresolved dispute has tended to magnify the divisions within the trade union movement rather than promote worker solidarity.

The triple alliance of coal, steel, and railway workers is not holding together because of the refusal of steel workers to support the coal miners in their strike.

Although the Mansfield rally was intended to reflect broad-based union support for the miners, the march was conspicuous for the lack of support it drew from other unions.

Scargill's claims that his union's actions will bring down Mrs. Thatcher's government brought a stinging rebuke from Eric Hammond, general-secretary-elect of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications, and Plumbing Trades Union.

In an obvious allusion to Scargill, Hammond said: ''We in this union are not prepared to use our strength to bring down elected governments.

''Who do these nursery revolutionaries think they are kidding? Abandon our support for law and parliamentary democracy, and trade unions are defenseless.''

Despite his claims of a mineworkers' victory, Scargill's own position is precarious.

He has not always had the miners behind him, and if he cannot carry the day on the miners' strike, his position as leader may become untenable.

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