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Labour and Trade Union Review, Feb 2008


Tower colliery, near Aberdare in the Cynon Valley, has finally closed.

Tower was the last deep mine in South Wales (there were 170 deep - shaft - mines throughout the UK in 1984, on the eve of the miners' strike but only eight major ones left by the end of March 2005). It was closed in April 1994 by British Coal - formed in 1987 as a successor to the National Coal Board with a mandate to prepare the industry for privatisation.

The 1994 closure was part of a severe slimming down of the industry begun in 1992 while Michael Heseltine was in charge of the department of Trade and Industry. This did not signal an end to reliance on coal. Nearly 40% of the UK's energy needs are still provided by coal, the great bulk of it imported from, for example, Russia, Colombia, Australia.

The Tower miners had protested against the decision and the protests had included a 27 hour sit-in in the mine featuring the local MP, Anne Clwyd, later to distinguish herself as Mr Blair's 'human rights envoy' in Iraq. But the really important development came after the closure when a group of workers, largely under the inspiration of the NUM Lodge secretary, Tyrone O'Sullivan, decided to buy the pit out.

The decision was made in the Penywaun Miners' Club. 239 men agreed to contribute £8,000 each of their redundancy money. They got the support of the then Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood. On his blog ( for 25th Jan, 2008) he remarks:

"I was suspicious of the Coal Board's view. Experience had taught me that they were not great managers of our national resource. They had a glittering legacy of losses, subsidy demands, closures, redundancies and poor employee relations to their credit. Their safety, productivity, profitability and social records were far from perfect. I was not inclined to believe them that so many pits had suddenly become uneconomic (though this was the firm conviction of his colleague Michael Heseltine - PB) ...

"I was therefore delighted when I was told by my private office that miners representatives from Tower colliery wished to come to see me to put the case for keeping open the mine. I was even more delighted to learn that they believed their case so strongly that they were prepared to take the pit over and mine it themselves ...

"So was forged a partnership in British politics that none had predicted. I joined forces with Tyrone O 'Sullivan, the charismatic Lodge Secretary and leader of the buy out team to persuade Coal Board and government they should give the miners a chance. I was the only person who saw nothing strange in the alliance. I had always believed in workers participation and employee ownership ...

"I was delighted for them when they took possession of their mine, improved conditions and wages, and set about demonstrating that there were 13 years of profitable workings left ..."

It is generally agreed on all sides that the project was a success. The Tower colliery website claims that by December 1995 (after the first year of working - the formation of the new company coincided with the final privatisation of the coal industry in December 1994) they had made pre-tax profits of over £4 million. Through their operations they improved wages, introduced a contributory pension scheme, 38 days holiday a year, a profit related pay scheme, a sick pay scheme. Profits were ploughed back into local community projects. They boast that they were ' the only worker owned coal mine in Europe.' In total they mined over 7 million tonnes (£300 million worth) of coal, finally closing because the pit really was exhausted.

To quote the account in the Sunday Independent, 3rd February:

"And so, in the club on Friday, emotion and pride were shoulder to shoulder, just as the miners and their families had been throughout the traumatic 1984 strike, a hard-fought struggle to keep intact the pit and the community around it, the triumph of the buy-out and the 13 fulfilling years that followed - and, yes, the day of the march away after all the coal that could be mined was brought to the surface. "We didn't leave an ounce down there," Tyrone O'Sullivan declared."


BUT ...

But all this begs a question. The miners proved that British Coal's estimate of the potential of its pits was wrong; and they proved that the miners themselves could run the enterprise efficiently and profitably. So why was Tower colliery unique? Why did no one else attempt something similar? Why did the success of Tower colliery not inspire a general policy of worker management throughout the NUM or other parts of the trade union movement? Why, indeed, was it not itself the product of a general policy of encouraging different forms of worker management in the NUM and other parts of the Trade Union movement?

We can turn the question on its head. Why did the NUM, which had previously been sternly opposed to any form of worker involvement in management, not oppose the Tower Colliery initiative? Which was clearly quite in harmony with the Tory government's privatisation policy - hence the support of John Redwood - and which could be said to have proved not just that workers were capable of managing and profiting from a purely capitalist enterprise, but also that a purely capitalist enterprise was capable of serving the interests and inspiring the enthusiastic support of the workers.



In September 1984 - at the height of the miners' strike, the Ernest Bevin Society (responsible for producing the Labour and Trade Union Review) published The Miners Debate Workers Control, an account of a meeting organised by the NUM in Harrogate in December 1977 to discuss the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy. Most of the speakers supported the idea of Industrial Democracy but it was opposed, vigorously, by Arthur Scargill. He said:

"It is impossible to have workers control within a capitalist society. Capitalism by its very nature, produces contradictions which cannot be resolved until and unless we change the system of society. We have to change the system, otherwise workers control cannot be obtained.

"What we can have within our society is class collaboration and compromise with the mixed economy ...

"Participation will only perpetuate capitalism. The NUM should not be misled into supporting the theory of workers control within our existing society.

"It cannot work and it is against the basic constitution of our Union and the wider labour movement. Our constitution calls not for collaboration with capitalism, but for a change of society ... "

As the Bevin Society introduction says:

"Arthur Scargill appears in the pages that follow to get the worst of the discussion. But he was already victorious before Harrogate took place.

"His opponents neither explained nor agitated for their position in any serious way, and Arthur was never compelled to take his position to its logical conclusion in debate.

"We have since been experiencing the working out of the crisis in the mid seventies. It was a crisis of the trade union movement and it is the trade union movement which is having to live with the consequences.

"First we had the 1979 'winter of discontent', which brought down the Labour government and brought Thatcher to power.

"Now we have a protracted miners' strike and the next best thing to a civil war within the trade union movement.

"The resolution of the crisis has been taken out of the debating chamber and onto the streets. The union movement which refused to either develop its power or define it, is now having that power taken from it."

On Scargill's reckoning, the Tower colliery adventure was a despicable piece of class collaboration. And it is because the Scargill viewpoint was and still is so deeply ingrained in the instincts of the trade union movement (even in its right wing or 'moderate' form, which has no larger view of the world, no alternative to the large view proposed by Scargill) that Tower colliery remains a freakish exception to the rule despite its great success.

I should stress that a worker controlled enterprise operating in a predominately capitalist society in a fully capitalist manner is far from ideal. But it was better than the alternatives on offer when the opportunity for operating worker controlled enterprises in a largely socialised economy had been thrown away.

Privatisation was designed as a means by which management - declared by the likes of Arthur Scargill to be eternally alien to the interests of the workforce - could acquire yet more untrammelled power over the workforce. In Tower colliery it became something else - a means by which a coalmining community could thrive and prosper, and profit could be made to serve a collective interest. If it had occurred within a general working class culture willing to be inspired by it and to learn from the example it could have opened the door to many other possibilities. As it is, it was a great experience for those who were involved in it. It would be very sad if it was never to be anything more than that.