By David Douglass, former NUM branch official and Yorkshire area executive member, looks back at a cooperative experiment.
Thirteen years ago the miners of Tower colliery in south Wales bought their own pit, refusing to accept British Coal’s assessment that the colliery was unprofitable and surplus to requirements.
For men used to spending large parts of their lives in pitch blackness this was still a dangerous leap in the dark. The scheme would involve investing £8,000 each of their redundancy money – quite a chunk, with no safety net or guarantee they would ever see any of that cash again. The market for coal was in free fall, with the fuel economy rigged against it. Mines were closing the length and breadth of Britain and the National Union of Mineworkers had had one final go at swinging the workers’ movement behind a last great stand against pit closures. Despite massive public support – even cheer-leading by the tabloids, two million people marching across the country, pit camps and direct action by Women Against Pit closures; despite two one-day general strikes or stayaway ‘sickies’ and 12 million lost working days, on each occasion the movement ground to a halt.
A Labour motion in the Commons demands no pit closures unless on grounds of exhaustion or safety. It is the moment for all our ‘friends’ across the parties who have stood on our platforms and beat their chests to stand up and be counted. It is defeated by 320 votes to 307. The Liberals under the leadership of ‘Paddy Backdown’, as he was to be christened, cross the floor to vote with the Tories and for the closures. This is bought for a mess of a pottage – 21 of the threatened pits are to be placed into a ‘review process’. They all close.
The prospect of buying a pit was fraught was danger. The NUM at national level was against such ventures – we thought you could not operate on socialist principles in a sea of capitalism and the pressures of the market would force the co-op to adopt ruthless and unsafe working measures – men would risk their necks to secure the money they had invested. We wondered how the image of workers’ control would stand if causalities started to mount, in what was far from an easy mining prospect.
Still, the alternative looked even more bleak: this was the end of a way of life, with nothing whatever to take its place. We were acutely aware that this industrial genocide was entirely motivated by class hate, and had nothing to do with ‘normal’ economic considerations. We would not go quietly into that dark night. In addition we were standing looking into a chasm of social deprivation, poverty, anti-social crime and hopelessness, which was afflicting coal communities up and down the whole island. The loss of hope and social vision was eating the heart and soul out of the former pit villages and regions.
At Tower colliery they decided to take it on – 250 of them bought the pit and, with the lodge banner flying and the colliery band playing ‘The Internationale’, they marched back to work to prove that miners could run their own pits. They were fortunate in that the emotive impact of being the last shaft mine in Wales and the whirlwind of support they had secured across Welsh politics brought them a secure power fuel market.
Tower had always been a profitable pit, with a workforce highly tuned to the underground conditions and wiles of its geology, and they maintained that profitability throughout. For 13 years after British Coal abandoned the mine and miners as worthless, they managed to earn a good living and in the process extract another seven million tonnes of coal. It has not made any of them a fortune, but they kept their dignity and demonstrated that workers can indeed run industry. The pit is finally fully exhausted (this is probably the only time we have heard that about a coal mine anywhere in Britain over the last 40 years where it is likely to be true).
The site is probably best left to nature, with the headgear left in situ, as a monument to the generations of miners who have worked the valleys. But this unlikely to happen. The men will probably put the site up for development in the hope of getting the maximum back from the money they all put in to the buy the mine and land in the first place. We are confident that if it is sold as business development the community will ensure it is something worthy of their traditions and love for the area.
Before anyone tells us that the lads did not achieve socialism – we know that. Neither Tower, nor the entire coal mining population of south Wales, could do that alone. This had been a final act of defiance, and a practical, short-term solution to an impossible dilemma – an immensely brave gesture and one that deserves our applause.
It is perhaps ironic that Britain still burns something like 45 million tonnes of coal a year. Probably six million tonnes of it is mined here – the rest imported into Wales, and into Barnsley and Newcastle, past a 100,000 unemployed coalminers, past closed mines which sit on 500 years of untapped reserves. Cheap? Yes its about 2p per tonne cheaper than British coal, but costs the lives and limbs of tens of thousands of impoverished third world miners every year (and in real terms far more expensive).
The end game was always a fait accompli for mass nuclear development – a far safer option, not in environmental or economic terms, but in social control. The nuclear industry is unlikely ever to be dominated by Bolshie power workers who can challenge government and believe in using their strategic position to change the social system. When the first of the new nuclear power complexes opens, I doubt very much that the technicians will march through the gates singing ‘The Internationale.’*
* This article first appeared in the Weekly Worker. http://www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/707/index.html