Obituary: Emlyn Williams

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Emlyn Williams, a former president of the South Wales area of the National Union of Mineworkers, encapsulated the tenacity and resilience of a coal field now reduced to a single deep mine. He was at the helm from 1973 to 1985, a period during which the workforce in the South Wales collieries shrank from 31,000 to 23,000; but no pit was closed without a determined fight. Without his strong dedicated leadership, the decline would have been much steeper.

The epic strike which ended in March 1985 tested the mettle of miners almost to the point of destruction. That South Wales emerged largely intact owes much to Williams. No one who witnessed the march back to collieries like Mardy, where Williams once worked, could fail to have been moved.

The relationship between the union and the managers of the then National Coal Board in South Wales was an object lesson in industrial relations - an example which did not find favour with Ian McGregor, the hammer of the NUM.

A stocky and powerful man with a gravelly voice, Williams will rank alongside past leaders of the Welsh miners like William Abraham, Arthur Horner and Will Paynter - names engraved on the hearts of communities where pit wheels no longer turn.

Born in Aberdare, he went underground on leaving school at the age of 15, working at the Bwllfa colliery. The war saw him in action in a tank regiment, pitting against German panzers in the Western Desert; miners nicknamed him "Rommel" when he returned to Mardy. The emphysema contracted underground plagued him for the rest of his life.

He was appointed a full-time NUM official in 1957, acting as miners' agent for collieries in the Rhondda, Cynon, and Merthyr Tydfil area. On many occasions Williams's logic won the argument with managers at Penrhiwceiber colliery, one of Britain's most militant pits.

He was elected unopposed to the presidency in 1973. He was an inspiring orator, in a manner now out of fashion. At one rally in 1976 he called for a pounds 100-a-week wage for face workers and posed a question which still has resonance today: "Why should men who risk their lives, who work hard, who produce a commodity essential to British industry, not be paid accordingly? And if the answer is that society cannot afford it then my reply is that society must be changed so that it can afford it."

Shortly after the 1984/85 strike he retired to his home in Cwmbach, a village in the Cynon Valley proud of its choir and, like mining communities from Kentucky to the Rhondda, respected for its fortitude. Pride and fortitude were qualities he displayed in abundance.

Tony Heath

Emlyn Williams, trade-union leader: born Aberdare, Glamorgan, 20 February 1921; president, NUM South Wales Area 1973-85; married Elsie May (one son, one daughter); died Cwmbach 14 July 1995.