It's our pit and we'll do as we please

Workers at Tower Colliery could not stand by and watch their mine close. So they bought it. A year on, business is booming and ex-miners are queuing to return.
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The Independent Online
Tower Colliery was not quite what Margaret Thatcher had in mind when she envisaged the privatisation of British Coal. She had a dream for the industry in which miners worked 12-hour shifts and collieries stayed open 24 hours a day, workplaces were de-unionised and wages low. Her dream also encompassed a productivity record that Stakhanov, the legendary Soviet hero of labour, would have balked at.

All of which has come true at Tower Colliery, a shallow mine tunnelled under the Rhigos mountain in south Wales, but with one startling difference: this is the only pit in Europe to be run entirely by the miners who work in it. It is a model of "common ownership", as the President of the Board of Trade, Michael Heseltine, so quaintly put it. Or of "ownership by the commoners", as one miner said, with a wry chuckle.

Production of coal is at a level of which Stakhanov would approve, and yet the wages are high (pounds 400 a week on the coalface, compared with pounds 210 at other privatised mines). In addition, the miners have one more week's annual holiday than British Coal gave them, a death-in-service package that beats any other they know of, and they have just been awarded yet another pay rise of pounds 23 a week.

"If the Government wants to hold us up as an example of modern capitalist miners, then let them," says one miner. "But we are not capitalists. We are putting socialist principles into practice." The miners have sent pounds 800 in goods to people in Cuba, money to schools in Nicaragua and El Salvador. "We are willing to fight the battles of the working class," says Tyrone O'Sullivan, 50, the man responsible for the "worker buy-up", and a miner and NUM branch secretary at Tower Colliery since 1960.

This revitalised hotbed of radicalism has proved attractive to redundant miners who swore they would never return to the mines. In an area where unemployment among men hovers at 25 per cent, and a 39-hour week in a packaging plant pays pounds 90 before tax, Tower Colliery is attracting a vast number of job-seekers, anxious to become part of the success story. Last week, three surface jobs were advertised offering a weekly salary of pounds 263; more than 200 former miners applied. "The first time I made a shortlist, the number of men selected totalled 190," says Mr O'Sullivan, who is in charge of recruitment.

This avalanche of eager applicants put him in an unenviable position. "Friends were on that list. I had to phone them up and tell them they hadn't got the job. I explained that the company comes first. I won't appoint anyone on friendship grounds. I won't have my favours bought." After much discussion, the shortlist was reduced to 10. "I selected men who were already trained - older men who could adapt to our need for a multi-skilled workforce. I looked to see if they were family men with children, who lived in this valley or the adjoining valley."

Political leanings would also have played some part. A member of the Labour Party for 26 years, Mr O'Sullivan admires "men with a conscience. This world would be a better place if the rich gave more to the poor," he says from behind his desk. On the wall are letters of support from rich and poor people all over the world. One is from a woman who sent a cheque of pounds 2,500 to help the miners buy their pit. Mr O'Sullivan sent the cheque back to her. "It was too much money," he says with an air of finality.

Tower's miners are the inheritors of the finest radical traditions of the South Wales "Fed", the precursor to the National Union of Mineworkers. The first flag of revolt, white but then dipped in sheep's blood, was raised by striking miners and iron workers in the Merthyr rising of 1831. Tower men signed up for the International Brigades to fight fascism in Spain, and their swift response to the 1984 call of the Yorkshire miners for strike action against pit closures helped bring the South Wales coalfield to a standstill within days.

By 1993, the miners' radicalism and their passion to save the coal industry had dissolved. For eight years they had watched the closure of mine after mine, some miners having to move pit five or six times. So when British Coal told them that there were no markets for coal, many were prepared simply to accept redundancy.

When this excuse was rumbled (Ann Clwyd contacted Aberthaw power station, which had no idea that its supplies were being thrown into jeopardy), British Coal came up with another ruse. Yes, Tower Colliery could be reprieved, but the workforce would have to work 12-hour days and six-day weeks on a vastly reduced salary, and produce more coal - and the deal would depend on a private buyer being found. On top of all this came threats that if the miners accepted the deal, then found that no private buyer was willing to take over the pit, each miner would lose pounds 19,000 redundancy money. It looked like the end of the road, and at a mass meeting in Aberdare a majority opted for redundancy. Pay-outs ranged from pounds 20,000 to pounds 32,000 depending on the length of service.

It took the behind-the-scenes efforts of Mr O'Sullivan and the public support of Ann Clwyd MP, who staged a one-woman occupation of the pit in protest at its threatened closure, to re-fuel the miner's enthusiasm to fight. "We refused to close quietly," says Mr O'Sullivan. "We started a high-profile fight." The year before, Mr O'Sullivan had made speeches at more than 250 meetings all over the country, talking about the plight of the mining industry. Thousands of people sent in money and letters of support. The Labour movement pitched in, Billy Bragg organised a fund- raising gig and even the Kray twins offered gifts for a raffle - a gesture that was turned down. "We realised we couldn't stop the privatisation. But suddenly the idea of a worker buy-out seemed feasible," says Mr O'Sullivan.

Meetings were held with representatives from the TUC; they said the scheme might work. Another meeting was held with 175 members of the National Union of Mineworkers. All agreed to contribute pounds 2,000 to the buy-out.

A team of managers was chosen ("We couldn't have 175 people running round like chickens," says Mr O'Sullivan) and financial advisers interviewed. "We chose advisers who were friends of the Government. If they said we were viable, the Government would believe them." The British Coal managers refused to help, so the new management team (an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer, a surveyor and a manager) had to gather facts quickly. Within weeks a business plan had been compiled which sufficiently impressed Barclays Bank. If each of the miners contributed another pounds 6,000, they would back the scheme. "They trusted us," says Mr O'Sullivan proudly. "We were a strong pit. We had a strong union."

The money was found (66 per cent of miners used their redundancy money to pay the pounds 8,000; the rest took out loans from Barclays) and Tower Colliery reopened on 1 January, 1995. Over 2,000 people marched to the colliery gates for the opening ceremony and sang the Welsh national anthem and the Red Flag. Since then, new markets have been found (British Steel works in Port Talbot; power stations in Belgium and France) and old clients retained and coal production is now at the same level as in 1992 - but with fewer men and fewer shifts. "We are as efficient as any mine in Britain," says Mr O'Sullivan. "We don't go down there to lie around. We go down there to work hard.

"Generally speaking, the boys don't have to be told what to do any more", says Jeffrey Robinson, 43, lamp-room supervisor at Tower for seven years. "Under British Coal, they would never bother looking for work. Now if they see something needs doing, it is done."

Absenteeism has dropped from 18 per cent under British Coal to 0.03 per cent; the bonus scheme and overtime pay have been scrapped, and previously inflexible working hours have been changed. When it was suggested that the hours of the night shift should be changed to make use of cheaper electricity, instead of a storm of protest, the men agreed to give it a try. Any savings, they say, will secure their long-term future.

In a cabin by the lift shaft, three men are sitting huddled over cups of tea. All were active during the 1984-85 strike and remain ardent admirers of Arthur Scargill. But one of them, Keith Garland, 42, a shaftsman who has worked at Tower for three years, says that the radical tradition at the colliery is gradually dying out."The men here would not go on strike to support the NUM," he says, casually. "It would put a nail in our own coffin."

Immediately there is an eruption from Billy Teague, 32, a shaftsman at Tower for six years. "If the NUM told us not to cross the picket line, I would obey," he says, defiantly. "Well, 99 per cent of the men here wouldn't," retorts Mr Garland. Mr Teague seethes, fiery-eyed, chest heaving. The third man, Nigel Heenan, 38, sits silently, breath held, waiting for the explosion.

Mr O'Sullivan, a large, charismatic figure, who still looks uncomfortable in his tie and jacket, says: "If I stood up and said 'Don't cross the picket line', they wouldn't." But he can't think of a situation in which such a stance might be needed. The bottom line is this: "I would never risk our company over a dispute."

Red Flag or not, Mrs Thatcher's dream of a motivated, productive, de- unionised workforce seems to have materialised. Just not quite in the way she imagined.

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