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Last time’s ‘enemy within’

Tower of Strength: The story of Tyrone O’Sullivan and Tower Colliery

By Tyrone O’Sullivan, with John Eve & Ann Edworthy

£14.99, Mainstream Publishing, 2002

With Tony Blair gearing up to emulate Margaret Thatcher by taking on his own ‘enemy within’ – public sector workers, starting with the firefighters – ALEC THRAVES looks at a recent book on Tower colliery, its chairman, Tyrone O’Sullivan, and the history and struggles of the South Wales miners.

TYRONE O’SULLIVAN is the chairman of Tower colliery in Hirwaun, South Wales. He led the team of miners that fought to buy the pit from British Coal after it was due to close in 1994/95. He and 238 other miners each paid £8,000 from their redundancy settlement and borrowed an initial £2 million to become shareholders. Since the miners’ buyout, Tower has remained a profitable going concern and is now the last surviving deep mine in South Wales with the best wages and conditions in the mining industry.

Prior to the miners’ buyout, Tyrone O’Sullivan was the National Union of Mineworkers’ (NUM) lodge secretary at Tower for over 20 years and an integral part of one of the most militant and respected group of miners in the South Wales coalfield. This book is about Tyrone’s life, the pit, and the many people identified with the struggles of the miners in their proud history.

In 1947, there were around 100,000 miners working in the South Wales coalfield, overwhelmingly giving support to the new union, the NUM, that had been formed from the old Miners Federation in 1945. Nationalisation was welcomed by the majority as a major step forward but overcompensation to the coal owners and bureaucratic mismanagement was to have a significant impact on the industry with 74 pits closing in South Wales during the 1960s alone.

As a young man growing up in the post-war economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s it is understandable how Tyrone fondly reminisces of a time when "no one locked their doors and window locks were unheard of. I lived in a real community and was lucky to be enveloped in such a loving and caring environment". The main reason why "it is a great pity that youngsters today often never get the chance to experience that feeling of security and trust" is because of the way capitalism has ravaged the valley communities. Especially after the defeat of the 1984/85 miners strike "Poverty and despair destroyed many families. There was an increase in homelessness; alcohol abuse and drug problems started to become a real issue for the young. The older age groups reported higher levels of despondency and depression".

A recognition of the effect of pit closures on a community was one of the driving forces behind the determination of Tower miners to fight against Thatcher’s closure plans. Another and more important reason was the tradition in Tower of struggle, solidarity and socialism. The South Wales miners had a history of adult self-education. For generations, in the miner’s libraries up and down the valleys, miners would study everything from Marx to mathematics. Socialist classics were devoured by workers who could not only explain theories of surplus value but were also able to relate Marxist economics to the every day life in the pits.

Tower colliery was fortunate to have a leader in Tyrone O’Sullivan who would not just act competently as a lodge secretary but along with many of the lodge committee members would inject a daily dose of trade unionism and socialism into a knowledgeable workforce. That is one of the reasons why in Tower "as underground miners we never lost a vote for industrial action".

The miners at Tower not only fought for better wages and conditions for themselves but also followed the magnificent traditions of the South Wales miners in supporting other workers in struggle as well as workers internationally. The Welsh Triple Alliance, where nurses, miners and seamen came together to support each other, was very special to Tyrone because some of the events of that period were very traumatic and demonstrated that miners were not insular and they could relate to the needs of other workers.

They picketed Barry Docks in support of striking seamen, they occupied a block at Aberdare hospital when news broke of the intention to close the hospital, and they even supported chicken factory workers on the Welsh-Newent border by not only joining them on the picket line but also getting chicken forced off the canteen menu at the nearby British Coal research centre! The South Wales miners and Tower in particular were the first stop for numerous strikers over the years and workers in struggle knew they were guaranteed support and solidarity action.

Like their forefathers, the miners in Tower also had an internationalist outlook. One example highlighted in the book was the support given to the Solidarity movement in Poland. Tower miners had been sending money to Poland for some time, to the families of miners who had been killed in a pit over there during the uprisings. The Solidarity movement made its first visit overseas to this country and their first port of call was the Tower colliery. Numerous overseas visitors have passed through the bleak landscape of Hirwaun over the years on their way to meet a workforce respected for their internationalist and socialist outlook.

The great strike

SUCH A BACKGROUND prepared the Tower miners well for the biggest industrial battle since the 1926 general strike. Thatcher and the Tories meticulously planned for the 1984/85 miners’ strike that lasted twelve months. The miners were traditionally the British workers ‘Brigade of Guards’. A defeat as humiliating as possible was the conscious aim of Thatcher. The government provoked strike action in 1984 and Thatcher set out to create an ‘industrial Falklands’ to defeat the ‘enemy within’.

Tower miners recognised that this strike "was a strike like no other. It was not about rates of pay, conditions or working practices. It was a strike about the very future of the coal industry. The Conservative government wanted its revenge after losing many past battles. They would not forget that the miners had brought down the Heath government in 1974 and they were determined to curb the power of the NUM".

Coal Board boss Ian MacGregor had announced plans to close 20 pits and do away with 25,000 jobs. The closing of Cortenwood provoked a movement of Yorkshire miners who appealed to other coalfields for support. Surprisingly, because of a lack of support from Yorkshire when Welsh pits were in trouble, the South Wales NUM area conference voted 3:1 against industrial action. Tyrone believed this was due to a lack of information surrounding the events when Yorkshire refused South Wales support. Nevertheless this was a huge setback, which Tyrone, whose pit had voted 99% in favour, refused to accept. "I phoned Emlyn Williams who was President of the South Wales area of the NUM and told him of my unease. His pit had voted for action but they were not going out on strike as they had been beaten by the area vote. I suggested something could be done. Emlyn said – do what you can, but don’t tell me".

What they did over the next few days was picket out every pit in South Wales! This proved to be a correct strategy because by the end of the week all the pits had met and agreed support. If they had formally accepted the area conference decision then there would have been no strike in South Wales.

That is why it is somewhat of a contradiction for Tyrone to later argue against a national ballot. Both at the time and later (and the argument continues in this book), not a little ink has been spilled over the issue of whether it would have been more effective if the miners had called a national ballot, even while they were out on strike, to confirm an overwhelming majority in favour of strike action. Tyrone argues that "it might appear irrational not to have held a ballot but the South Wales miners knew that a national vote would, by definition, have to include Nottinghamshire and from bitter experience they knew that they would vote against. I will always dismiss that option as rubbish".

Nevertheless, many militant miners believed it would have been tactically better for the NUM leaders to have sanctioned a ballot a few weeks into the strike. This would have resulted in a probable 80%-90% national majority in favour of strike action. Even if the Nottinghamshire coalfield had voted against then it does not take a great imagination to picture how the leaders of the scab Union of Democratic Miners (UDM) would have reacted. They would have advanced the argument that Nottinghamshire voted against the strike action and therefore was ‘opting out’. But a majority in favour on a national level would have put huge pressure on these Nottinghamshire miners and could have convinced the majority to strike. Even if they had refused to join the strike, a national ballot would have removed an obstacle that was used by right-wing trade union leaders, politicians and the media to undermine support throughout the duration of the strike.

Tyrone argues that the formal constitutional position of the NUM was that "a national vote needs total support. All the areas have to vote in favour and I knew that was not possible". However, Tyrone correctly ignored the formal constitutional vote against action in South Wales and yet was prepared to accept that a formal vote by Nottinghamshire against the strike would have been decisive!

What leaps out of the chapters on the 1984/85 miners strike is the momentous support for the miners from rank-and-file trade unionists, from ordinary working-class people everywhere, and the international solidarity the miners received. Unlike right-wing Labour and its leader Neil Kinnock, who was always ‘too busy’ to attend NUM rallies, socialist organisations within the Labour Party such as Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party) played an important role in organising support throughout Britain and internationally. Tyrone recognises that "our work was also made easier by the help and support offered by Militant".

Tower miners were welcomed with open arms wherever they went seeking support: from Bournemouth, to Islington, to the small village of Wivenhoe, where a busload of strikers went to stop coal coming into the harbour from abroad. Millions of pounds, thousands of food parcels, clothes, and even toys for the kids at Xmas, were donated by a generous and sympathetic working class that wanted to see the miners defeat Thatcher.

Tyrone is also correct to point out the marvellous role played by women during the strike and in South Wales there were one hundred women’s support groups covering the 27 remaining pits. "It is likely that the actions of these women changed attitudes forever about the role of women. They no longer waited for their miner husbands to come home on a Friday and hand over a pay packet. Now the support they gave to the miners’ cause was fundamental in the fight to save the mining communities".

If the Labour Party and trade union leaders had come to the miners cause with the same solidarity as ordinary people then Thatcher wouldn’t have lasted three months! Tyrone bends the stick too far in putting some of the blame on ordinary people for the defeat of the strike when he comments, "similarly in this country ordinary people scatter and run instead of standing and supporting each other". There is a big distinction between ordinary trade union members who fully backed the miners’ cause and would have undoubtedly responded if given a lead and the well paid, largely unelected, overpaid trade union bureaucrats who helped Kinnock undermine the strike.

After twelve months the miners returned to work proud but defeated. The recriminations were quick in coming and NUM president Arthur Scargill, probably the most vilified and courageous trade union leader for generations, bore the brunt of the criticism. Surprisingly, in his re-election for president, the South Wales area, for the first time in its history, failed to support the candidate from the left. The recently elected NUM president in South Wales, Des Dutfield, who had narrowly beaten the only rank-and-file candidate in a three horse race for South Wales NUM president, Ian Isaac, a prominent Militant member and lodge secretary of St John’s colliery in Maesteg, assisted this decision.

Inevitably however, as Scargill predicted, the government continued its programme of closures and redundancies. As a high productivity pit Tower was granted a temporary reprieve but in 1992, Michael Heseltine, the new Tory trade and industry secretary, announced that another 31 out of the remaining 50 pits left in Britain were to be closed with the loss of 30,000 jobs!

The Tower Employee Buyout

A FIGHT LOOMED again and of course the miners at Tower were to the fore. "For over two years my comrades and I spoke at rallies and attended marches all over the country. The men of Tower organised and attended more marches and rallies than the rest of the other pits put together". However, the pits continued to close and Tower, now the last pit left in South Wales, was given its death notice on April 5, 1994. Tyrone outlines the next ‘14 days that shook Britain’ when Tower miners struggled to save their pit. At 12-30pm on April 19, after two weeks of intense activity, the pressurised and isolated miners at Tower voted by a margin of 70% to 30% to accept the redundancy terms. But after returning from signing the redundancy terms with British Coal managers the despondent Tower delegation, drowning their sorrows with their families in a local pub, floated the idea of a buyout. Far from being down and out, the morning paper the following day screamed out, "Tyrone O’Sullivan quotes Arnold Schwarzenegger, ‘We’ll be back!’"

The following chapter then outlines how an idea in a pub can be put into practice by a determined leadership who almost overnight had to become familiar with accounting, insurance, management, markets etc. The Tower Employee Buyout Team (TEBO) put forward over the next couple of months a business plan that generated the finance for the buyout as well as gaining the support of the redundant miners, who each paid £8,000 to become shareholders. Ironically it was at the Tory Party conference later that year that Michael Heseltine made the announcement that the TEBO team had become the preferred bidders for Tower colliery. After going to London to hand over a down payment of £1 million for the purchase of the pit the TEBO team quickly returned back to the valleys where the mayor of the Cynon Valley pronounced, "Their names should go down in history, they have secured jobs not just for themselves but also for their children and grandchildren".

An appropriate tribute but also a warning. Tower was unique for many reasons that are outlined in this book, in particular the trade union and socialist consciousness of the workforce, a strong and determined leadership, and a pit that was economically viable. Tyrone however, by his own admission, has become a tribune for workers’ buyouts, based on the Tower model. "This is the way forward and I hope the rest of Britain can learn from us. I will continue to travel the length and breadth of the country to spread the word to anyone who is prepared to listen".

Despite Tyrone championing the cause of workers’ buyouts over many years the fact is that not one has been successfully taken up! For a very good reason – that nowhere have you had a viable business being privatised in which the government is being forced to sell to its workforce. While on the other hand, private bosses, if they are going out of business anyway, might sell up, but then it would already be a loss making prospect from the beginning. Look at the recent Corus steel example. They would not even consider the possibility of selling Llanwern to the workforce even though it was making a loss because it would end up competing with them.

Unfortunately, ‘small islands of socialism’ surrounded by a sea of capitalism can have no long-term future and while perhaps necessary in isolated, exceptional cases such as Tower, cannot be a viable alternative to a socialist plan of production where the commanding heights of the economy are nationalised under democratic workers control and management. Unlike previous nationalisation, there should be no compensation paid to the fat cats but compensation paid only on proven need in order to protect small shareholders.

Tyrone says "it is true; we have embraced capitalism, but only on out terms". However, this may not always be the case. Ultimately, the future of Tower is determined by the capitalist market, not by what is good for the community, the workforce or society in general. Whilst the economy is controlled by capitalism the future of even this unique experiment at Tower will always be at risk.

The very success of Tower is a story that needs to be heard and this book should be read by all those inspired by working class struggle and solidarity. That is its strength, not as a new economic alternative to be pursued by any workforce threatened with redundancy but through showing how a group of workers who struggled to the end to save a nationalised industry and with their backs to the wall, were forced into a workers buyout in order to save a few hundred jobs. Hundreds of workers, their families and the immediate community of the Cynon Valley, will be forever grateful for the efforts of these miners but for the tens of thousands in the rest of the South Wales valleys, and the millions throughout the rest of the country, capitalism continues to ravage their communities with mass unemployment, poverty and despair.


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