Miners who Run Their Own Pit

Submitted by Reddebrek on October 29, 2017

YOU PROBABLY KNOW THAT THE ANARCHO-SYNDICALISTS in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War successfully took over the operation of the tramways and other public services. Records of this episode are fairly exhaustive. Now even the US Embassy Information Service deals tenderly with experiments in decentralised workers' management — when they are in Yugoslavia. But what about practical industrial democracy in this country to day? The general view seems to be that the idea died with Ben Tillett and Tom Mann, or, at least, with the demise of the Guild Socialist movement. "Workers control" is generally an exercise in theory by esoteric left-wing groups since the unions refused or were denied participation in the management of nationalised industry.

Our press and broadcasting services have given some faint praise to the sporadic and tentative attempts by workers to control their own destinies. "Tonight" will lay on a bluff and not unsympathetic visit to a firm like Scott Bader, but the whole conception of workers' control is treated as an amiable aberration outside the real stuff of politics. Where successful it is an amusing "jeu d'esprit"; where a failure there is wise shaking of heads at the understandable but pathetic foolishness of those who cannot recognise economic realities.

Some of the failures could well have been successes. At Cumllynfell, the anthracite mine which was closed by the NCB under a "rationalisation" (sic) plan, was the economic life of an entire remote community in South Wales. Here the people were freeholders of their homes and lived a rich social life in the traditional Welsh pattern.

DOUGLAS STUCKEY is the treasurer of Demintry, the Society for Democratic Integration in Industry


Their reaction to the threatened closure was that they should run the pit themselves. This was no pipe-dream — Dutch importers were prepared to take the whole of the output of the colliery at the pit-head in the area, and the local union officials showed some enterprise in their attempts to achieve their aim. Needless to say, the Coal Board and the Labour Party showed distinct antipathy to the scheme, and as the National Coal Board has authority to control all mines employing more than thirty workers the miners lost their fight.

More recent and happier is the story of Brora. Brora lies on the east coast of Sutherland, just north of Dunrobin, the former private railway station of the Dukes who take that county's name. It is the only colliery north of the Tay and possibly the oldest mine in the Commonwealth. Here the owning company fell on bad times and went into liquidation. Here, too, closure would have meant depopulation and social stagnation, but fortunately there were men about with an empirical approach prepared to look at the miners' proposals on their merits. Bruce Weir, of the Northern Times at Golspie, approached the voluntary Highland Fund on their behalf, and John Rollo, Chairman of the Fund, immediately visited the colliery and recommended the setting up of a sub-committee to examine the problem.

The Highland Fund agreed to help. A new company, Highland Colliery Ltd., was formed to be operated on behalf of the miners, with three directors from the mine and three from the Fund (the latter to remain during the period in which the Fund's money was on loan). Interest on the loan, three per cent, is a first charge on the profits. Each miner takes up two 5s. shares in the company each week by deduction from his wages. Remaining profits are divisible among miners and staff and in due course the mine will be theirs.

On October, 17, 1961, the colliery buildings and briquetting plant reopened after negotiations with the liquidator and the National Coal Board. The output, two tons per man per shift, is entirely consumed in the locality and a viable livelihood has been restored for the workers and their dependants to a total of about 150 people.

These are small examples in an obsolescent industry; as well as these, Kentish colliers, miners in Northumberland, Scottish railway men, chemical workers and others have at different times during the last few years tried to run their own show.

A tithe of the energy and imagination which is devoted to phoney by-elections could produce permanent advances in industrial democracy. There are plenty of attempts by CND and others to garner support for the peace movement among industrial workers. It would be a big step forward if workers for peace could be induced to support efforts to achieve industrial democracy.

The opposition from the managerial establishment should not be underestimated. Their view is the same as that of the Secretary to the nineteenth century Congress at Aix who, in reply to some enlightened proposals by Robert Owen, expostulated: "But we do not want the mass to be wealthy and independent: how could we control them if they were?"