The end of a mining industry: Co-operative News


The Paul Gosling column


The miners’ strike of 1984 was one of those politically defining moments – except it was not a moment. It was a year of hard graft for striking miners, their wives and families. It was also a time when those families and the thousands of people who actively supported them learnt a lot about the realities of politics and the ruthlessness of the state system. And, yes, it was a period in which people on the left could reflect very slowly that a divided labour movement got nowhere.


Some of us learnt other lessons, too – like just how horrible it was down a mine. Even if you read of work in a pit, it is not the same as the experience – plunging at speed down a rudimentary lift; jumping on the moving belt to get nearer the pit face and then, worse still, jumping off as you near the working face, scrambling through the narrow opening for what seems like an eternity, barely able to move bar crawling along and then, eventually, into the chamber where the coal is hewn, in an atmosphere of near solid coal dust. At last, you can almost stand and, at last, you have got to the place of work.


Not, of course, in my case to go to work – but a trip to see inside a pit, taken down by the local NUM after the strike was over. And then I could feel as well as realise why the miners deserved support – even if it was even harder to understand why anyone was willing to work in such conditions.


Back in 1985, there was the bitter taste of defeat to go with the mouthful of coal dust. But there were some positive things that came from the strike – particularly the determination of miners to control their own destiny. That spirit was demonstrated in Hirwaun, South Wales, where miners facing redundancy refused to accept their pit was finished. Instead they sunk an initial £2,000 of their own money to investigate keeping the mine open, forming a co-operative.


It is 12 and a half years since Tower Colliery reopened as that co-operative – and it remained a working pit until last month. Sadly, one of the most glorious episodes of co-operative history then came to an end. Tower Colliery has now closed.


When British Coal previously shut down Tower in 1994, managers said existing reserves could not be economically mined – the very argument at the heart of the 1984/5 strike. This time, the NUM lodge, aided by the Wales Co-operative Centre, put the case for a workers’ buy-out – and succeeded. The purchase price was £1.93m, financed by an eventual £8,000 per miner, plus a £1m loan from Barclays. A brass band and union banner led the workers back into the pit.


The co-operative’s success can be measured not merely in its survival for over 12 years, but also in what it did for those who worked within it. It earned over £4m in profit in some years and the colliery provided much improved working conditions for its members – just what had been promised when the pits were nationalised back in 1947. At Tower, wages went up, profit related pay was introduced, a better pension plan adopted, dividends paid on workers’ shares, a sick pay scheme established, more holidays given.


Not that the Tower story is yet finished. The old colliery has been involved in training miners to work in a new surface mine and a slimmed down company continues. But Britain has long since ceased to be a nation of coal – today we have a few hundred working miners, compared with 200,000 after the miner’s strike.


Closure of Tower is poignant, but inevitable. The seams are now exhausted. Driving force and company chairman Tyrone O’Sullivan said there was simply nothing left to extract. “We have mined the last ounce of coal in the ground,” he reflected. “No pit owner in the past could have said that.”


O’Sullivan spoke to Co-operative News at the end of what proved to be a tearful day of bands, marches and speeches as Wales’ last deep mined pit closed down. “It’s been a huge day,” he said. “I have all the emotions of a fantastic 13 years, which have been recognised throughout the world. But there is huge sorrow at the wheels turning for the last time. I can’t see any deep mine ever again in Wales.”


For O’Sullivan in particular, it’s been an experience that has reshaped his life. “It’s probably one of the most exciting experiments – ever,” he said. “Working people taking over a coal mine – and making it work.”


While he hopes others will be fired by the Tower example, he warns them to be practical. “You must have a business plan that works,” he said. “We had that from the very beginning, a business plan that could make a profit. Don’t live on hope.”


But hope and inspiration is what is left behind by Tower Colliery, more than anything else. And the significance of Tower was illustrated by the homage paid in its last week by leading politicians. Ironically the then Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, turned up two days before its closure to say farewell – but in the event it was his Whitehall doors that closed for the last time, before those of Tower’s.


Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan paid glowing tribute to O’Sullivan and the Tower workers. “The story of Tower Colliery is truly inspirational,” he said. “It is a story of confidence among the workers in their own ability and in the future viability of their mine. It is the story of visionary leadership by individuals who knew that Tower was far from finished. And it’s a story of a strong Valley community that gave their complete support for this ambitious project.”


For Morgan, the narrative of a “collective enterprise” that brought people together in a spirit of defiance and determination is one that he wants as a metaphor for Wales. To inspire not just the co-operative movement, but also an entire nation – what an epitaph.

This article was originally published in Co-operative News in February 2008

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