Archive article from The Socialist Issue 359
The fighting spirit that saved a pit
Mariam Kamish, long-standing Socialist Party Wales member, has just been elected to the Lodge committee of Tower Colliery National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
This is an historic result, as Mariam is the first female member of the NUM ever to be elected onto a Lodge committee.
It is a reflection of the respect she has politically and for her trade union work amongst miners at Britain's only workers' co-operative pit.
Alec Thraves recently interviewed Mariam for the socialist.
TOWER COLLIERY is a militant pit. It has been for decades and after the miners' strike - as pits were closed - fighting socialists also came to Tower from other pits like Mardy, Penrikyber and St. Johns.
When Heseltine and the Tories announced their pit closure programme in 1992, Tower was at the forefront of the opposition, with Tower activists speaking all over Britain and helping other NUM lodges to organise a fight back.
Eventually in Spring 1994, the Tories came for Tower and after a fierce fight, the pit was closed. But Tower miners wouldn't accept defeat. They raised a public campaign - against stiff competition - to be allowed to buy the pit back as a co-operative with their redundancy money.
On 2 January 1995, the Tower workforce marched back to the pit behind the NUM banner, accompanied by their families and their supporters.
Today, both Tower NUM and Tower as a co-operative campaign for the renationalisation of the mining industry and the power generation industry. Tower NUM continues to support other workers in struggle - on the picket line, financially and in strategy discussions with workers in dispute. Most recently they have supported civil servants in PCS, the firefighters, Ukranian miners in Donetsk and Hoover workers in Merthyr.
How long have you worked at Tower and what is your job?
I'm a printer and I do all the print and signage work at the pit, including the underground safety signage. Tyrone (the current chairman of the pit and former NUM Lodge secretary) hired me in summer 2000, the day after an industrial tribunal ruled in favour of an employer who wanted to sack me for leading an industrial dispute.
But I'd worked at Tower before on short contracts and I was well known in the pit because I'd fought alongside the boys in battles in the past and in solidarity in which they'd taken part.
Has the buyout succeeded and what impact has it had on the workforce and community?
We're very aware at Tower of the problems of being an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism. To be honest, it's not an easy situation. We're still here and the traditions of South Wales NUM are still very much alive - and we're very happy about that - but we get implicated in compromises not of our making. And political consciousness has gone backwards within the pit to a certain degree.
Having said that, the fighting spirit that saved the pit has done an enormous amount for consciousness beyond the pit gates. As a union, we get delegations and visits from all over Britain and all over the world, asking for solidarity and also advice.
Tower NUM is seen as a "tower of strength", because we've fought as socialists and we've survived. And the fight isn't all in the past. For all Tower's successes, survival is always a battle. We don't have British Coal to threaten us with closure any more, but we don't have them to smooth our way with equipment and contracts, either.
What role does the union play in the workers' co-operative and what is its relationship with the board?
Tyrone likes to say that the union should have a 40% say in the running of the pit. In reality, power and influence can't be fixed so definitely. There are things we may not hear about as a union, until after they've been decided, because the directors have negotiated them as a "business".
Then again, when the workforce do decide on something, they have to decide whether to act as a union or as members of the co-operative. Usually, it turns out to be best to act as a union.
But, it can be complicated, particularly because there are three - not two - poles of power in the pit: the directors, the union and management - and management are mostly old British Coal management, because their qualifications are needed legally to operate the pit. It's an interesting situation and one of the many ways in which Tower, in microcosm, foreshadows issues that could arise when workers take control of the running of society.
To be honest, the main reason the union has as much power as it has is that Tyrone gives it a lot of support. We've got some excellent socialists on the Lodge and in the rest of the workforce, but we need to build our sense of unity and purpose back to what it was when we had to fight British Coal. Tyrone is retiring in two years' time.
Why did you decide to stand for the Lodge committee and what were the main reasons for your success in this overwhelmingly male environment?
When I first came to work at Tower, I was a veteran of a number of industrial battles, but I was as much in awe of the NUM as anyone else. That kind of romanticism, though, has no place in the day-to-day battles of life as a trade unionist.
And yes, even at Tower - which is a workers' paradise compared to anywhere else - conflicts crop up pretty regularly. So, it wasn't five minutes before I was involved. When I thought I'd put in enough work to be a credible candidate, I stood for a place on the Lodge.
Being the first woman on an NUM Lodge committee isn't something I really think about. We're socialists in the union and that's what matters.
What do you see as your main objectives as a member of the Lodge committee?
Let's just say that you can never have too many fighting socialists on the Lodge.
As a prominent member of the Socialist Party, do you get support for your socialist ideas at the pit, particularly for our demand for a new mass workers' party to replace New Labour?
Over the years, long before I worked at Tower, I was getting support for our campaigns from Tower NUM. In 1991, Tower NUM was the first union organisation in Wales to affiliate to the Campaign Against Domestic Violence.
And it's supported countless other of our campaigns, with visits to the pit of comrades from Siberia, Kazhakstan, etc.
Virtually every member of the workforce at Tower sees him or herself as a socialist, so it's easy to bring the ideas of the party into work. And, of course, the Lodge has the socialist on subscription. But there is a fair amount of debate, as well.
A lot of the boys didn't support our position on the war in Iraq. And there are real differences of opinion on whether a new workers' party could succeed - or even whether we should go down that road. But a number of the boys do support the idea and I believe that support will grow.
Peter Taaffe [Socialist Party general secretary] had an excellent visit to Tower to discuss a new workers' party a couple of months ago - and he made more impact in a morning than I could have made in a year.
Life At Work
No pits left - but plenty of warehouses
I ORIGINALLY come from South Elmsall, in West Yorkshire, a former mining town in what was once called ‘The Labour Heartlands’. My father used to work at Frickley Colliery.
Steve Faulkner, Sheffield Socialist Party
As a town ravaged by Thatcher’s pit closures in the early 90s, the decimation of South Elmsall’s industry gave way to a boom in warehousing.
Of the new warehouses built around the town the largest employer was Next, which today, with three warehouses operating (and another one being built) has succeeded Frickley Colliery as South Elmsall’s largest employer.
I’m a student with a part time job as a warehouse operative where I have become a shop steward. I began working for Next three years ago as a 17-year-old whilst still taking my A-levels.
As my shift was Sundays only, I could fit the job around my studies. With the opportunity to work overtime in the holidays, the job was one which I could ill afford to lose after I started at university, particularly when wages could be around £9 per hour for unskilled labour.
As a committed socialist, joining the recognised union (USDAW) was a formality, and it wasn’t long before I needed the union’s assistance. Whilst working, I had a copy of the socialist with me, which I tried to sell as I worked. However, I was caught by a supervisor chatting to a friend, whilst he was taking a look at the paper.
The supervisor then told us we should not have been talking and confiscated the paper, saying that it could only be retrieved at the end of the day. When I went to retrieve the paper, the same supervisor told me that it had been shredded, as I should not have had the paper with me.
Once the union was involved the supervisor had to apologise to me, and give me back £2 for the paper, even though I only paid 50p, the other £1.50 going to the fighting fund!
As soon as the opportunity arose, I stood for election as a shop steward and have now held the post for around eighteen months. At times I have been frustrated with bosses, with my own work, with other members I represent and those workers who I do not represent, but on the whole I feel that during my tenure as shop steward, I have made some positive changes.
"We choose our representatives"
ONE EXAMPLE of this is a recent run-in I had with a manager who tried to claim that, as I was a weekend steward, I had no business interfering in week matters (which I was doing as I was working overtime during the holidays). Instead, week stewards should be the ones dealing with the matter, in order to "build up relations" with the company.
After bringing this up with my senior steward, he instructed me to: "Tell him to fuck off! The union chooses who its representatives are, not the company!" It was clear to everyone in the union that this manager did not want me involved as he knew that I got things done.
But despite this, the changes are limited. As the old cliché goes, a union is only as strong as its membership and, despite the union clearly gaining in strength in the last year or so, it’s a far cry from the National Union of Mineworkers, which many workers at Next used to be members of.
One reason for this is disillusionment in USDAW’s right-wing, pro-New Labour leadership and its constant line extolling ‘partnership’ with the employers. Despite being the only union recognised by the company, many workers will not join USDAW.
Some are not involved with any union at all, whilst some - TGWU, or GMB members - believe in the false dawn that a new union’s leadership would simply solve the problems facing workers at Next.
A large influx of immigrant workers (mostly Kurdish) has also led to many people shifting the blame for their working conditions from the bosses to the immigrants.
As most of the immigrants are working for profiteering agencies rather than for Next, most of them are in fact worse off than the rest of us, as they have no fixed hours and can be laid off at any time.
Racist graffiti is rife in the toilets and the BNP stood in the local elections. Despite the BNP only finishing fifth, it still received a worrying 800-plus votes. A former USDAW senior steward is now an active member of the BNP.
Of course, the beginning of these problems can be attributed to the political battles which Margaret Thatcher fought, and won, against the miners.
After struggling against the Tory government for longer than a year and still not coming out on top, many workers have become resigned to the fact that unions have only so much power and so lose their ‘revolutionary zest’.
In an article in The Mirror a couple of years ago, the paper’s political writer Paul Routledge - who is well acquainted with the area - claimed that South Elmsall was officially classed in the worst 10% of the country. But the fact remains that the miners could have won their class war with the British ruling elite, and that the only thing limiting a union’s power is one’s own expectations.
Working on weekends, where most of the workforce is young and still in full-time education, many of the workers have no experience of what the role of a trade union is, and how unions can be used to help fight their battles.
But at the same time, these workers do not carry with them the scars of defeat in the past and we should look to them to help create a fighting union, capable of implementing real change for workers.
Public Sector Under Attack needed across the public sector Labour at war with firefighters your rights