Tower Colliery is a unique example of a producer cooperative thriving in a highly competitive international market: it is the only worker-owned colliery in the world.
The legend of the buyout of Tower Colliery (photo, left, courtesy of BBC Wales) is a valuable case-study because it offers in microcosm the narrative of the working man of the Valleys──except with an unexpectedly happy ending. The narrative includes a hero and heroine──Tyrone O’Sullivan, NUM lodge secretary at Tower for 22 years and leader of the buyout bid, and local Cynon Valley MP Ann Clwyd──a history of double-dealing and deceit, suffering and courage shown by the brawny miner and his wife. It is easy to dismiss this narrative as soap opera, which on one level it is. But one should not allow one’s post-ironic sensibilities to overshadow the fact that in the Valleys these sorts of mythologies are believed, and that belief in them generates a tremendous source of passion and energy. The genuine, real-world success of Tower Colliery is the result of channelling that energy and converting it into work. This is a lesson that should be learned by others who expend their energy generating mission statements and bewailing the failure of entrepreneurship in Wales. It is not that the Welsh people are not up to the part but that they are being offered the wrong script.
However attractive and moving the narrative the role of the academic is to be detached and to provide a factual and, as far as that is possible, objective account of historical events. According to Tyrone’s own account, the story of the buyout begins in the resistance to the devastating programme of pit closures in the South Wales coalfield following the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike and the re-election of a Conservative government in 1992. He details the lengthy struggle to resist the combination of pressure and tempting redundancy packages from British Coal, culminating in what he and the fellow union leaders felt to be a humiliating defeat after which it was their responsibility to sign the redundancy agreement. In one of the most moving passages in the book he describes how he cried uncontrollably on the way back from the meeting, and how this emotional crisis led to the idea to buy the mine:
I'm sure you can imagine that if you are in a car with six miners and one of them starts crying, it really is the others’ worst nightmare. These are tough men and they are good men but they cannot handle a man crying. . . . Eventually we got to Abercynon and I pulled the car over and just sobbed. I could not believe that we were losing the colliery; even though my father had been killed at Tower, I loved the pit and I loved the people there. . . This was a dreadful day and I hated what they had done to us.
Inevitably they end up in a local pub, joined by their families, reminiscing about good times
By ten o’clock all the good times had been gone over again and again, but more importantly, this was when the first talk started about buying back the pit. I have to admit that it is Elaine [Tyrone’s wife] who tells me about this as by this time I was too drunk to remember.
This passage is taken from Tyrone's own account of the worker buyout, written with two academic colleagues and published as Tower of Strength (Mainstream, 2002). Employment policy in the Valleys has been created on the assumption of workers as ‘rational economic agents’, as cogs in a larger industrial machine. But as this extract shows, the ‘tough’, strong, emotionally controlled miners are driven by human passions, and the success of Tower Colliery is based on the fact that they have found a way of using that passion and the energy it generates to their own advantage rather than in opposition and in ‘struggle’.
Tower Colliery is clearly a successful business. It has been operating in a highly competitive sector for eight years, returning a surplus and paying a dividend in most of those years. It also plays an important role in the local community by its multiplier effect: it is estimated that without it the local economy would lose up to £10 million per year (Heath, 2000). To the 239 members of the original cooperative have been added another 61, making a workforce of 300 people, 90 per cent of whom are shareholders. Tower is the only deep mine in Wales employing more than 150 men (Treasury, 2001). All 300 permanent employees have well-paid, relatively secure employment, as well as an additional 100 contracted employees. In December 2002 the Western Mail published a list of Wales’s top 300 companies. Tower Colliery was number 174 on the list, with a £28m. turnover, profits of £2.7m. and a 26.8 per cent return on capital. However, it has benefited thus far from accessible reserves that could be exploited without major investment. The next year represents a serious challenge to the colliery and to those who support it. It has proved its efficiency against comparable market players, but it may become a political decision whether or not to support the colliery with public money if it requires major investment in the near future.
These extracts are taken from my book The Pit and the Pendulum, which uses Tower Colliery as a case-study of an alternative system of work organisation which might provide the key to regenerating the depressed economy of the Valleys of South Wales. The photo shows Tyrone O'Sullivan launching The Pit and the Pendulum in Cardiff in June 2004.