New model miners go quiet over superpit

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The Independent Online
WHEN businessmen start visiting British Coal mines in the next few weeks to assess which ones they might buy following privatisation, it is likely that Asfordby - the so-called 'superpit' - will be close to the top of their list.

British Coal began developing Asfordby 10 years ago during the year-long miners' strike. In the past couple of years, when attention has been focused on job losses and colliery closures in the rest of the industry, the pounds 470m mine, set in rolling Leicestershire countryside, has been quietly gearing up to win fresh coal.

At least half a dozen companies have already registered an interest in taking over the coalfield that includes Asfordby. Among them is a consortium led by Malcolm Edwards, British Coal's former commercial director, who now runs Coal Investments, and the Union of Democratic Miners.

If the bid is successful, miners would be offered direct participation in the consortium and a share of the profits.

Dubbed a 'superpit' by British Coal, Asfordby is due to come fully on stream after the industry has been sold off at the end of the year. Since 100 men were first recruited to work at the mine in 1989, another 350 have joined, and 220 contractors are developing the site.

Asfordby and its working methods have long been seen as the model for the future of coal. Flexible working - long the demon of the National Union of Mineworkers - has been introduced at the pit.

Its workforce does six seven-and-a-half-hour shifts a week for three weeks followed by a week off. Dealing with the NUM's refusal to countenance such work patterns was simple - the management 'transferred' the pit into Nottinghamshire, heartland of the UDM.

But now, just before the potential private bidders arrive, there are signs of a familiar pattern of coalpit strife emerging at Asfordby. Grandiose plans to employ 1,400 have been shelved. The sharp downturn in the market for coal coupled with advances in technology have changed that, although investment has not been scaled down.

Proposals for tougher working options are being mooted, including 12-hour shifts and compulsory weekend working. So far, response from the workforce has been quiet. Members of the NUM, which is not recognised but has 96 men at the pit, were out in force recently when president Arthur Scargill spoke at a hall in Asfordby village, telling them their grandfathers would turn in their graves if they signed up for a new package which would give managers even more control over miners' lives.

But morale among these new model miners had already been severely hit by British Coal. Its campaign to get them to accept a package deal of a pounds 6,000 sweetener and a redundancy payment in return for allowing pit managers to tailor shifts to business needs, was eventually accepted, where once it would have been rejected out of hand.

At first, 99 per cent of UDM men at Asfordby voted to reject the package in a pit-level poll; but 70 per cent of the members signed up by the acceptance date. Gary Clark, the young pit manager, sent letters to miners saying that it was the only deal on offer and would offer some protection when the industry changed hands.

The workforce's change of heart highlights how fearful miners have become - even at a pit that looks safe from closure after privatisation. Gary Ison, a development worker and UDM branch committee member, said even the committee voted for the deal.

'Morale is very low because we don't know who's going to take us over,' he said. 'We don't know who's going to be in charge, what the conditions will be and what the pay will be.'

As for job security, 'when they can turn round and shut Annersley and Ollerton, two of the leading profit-making pits in this area, it shows that nobody's safe. At this pit, we've already been run down before it's started producing. Just look at how they've cut the tonnage in half and the projected manpower by more than that.'

New working practices have brought a new culture. 'Nipper' a contract worker from Doncaster, who was arrested at Orgreave during the miners' strike, summed it up: 'At my old pit, you could tell the manager to go bollocks. Not here.'