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Miners shafted

The dismantling of the coal industry is now a reality; but the regeneration of the coalfields is a myth. David Armstrong reports from West Yorkshire

John has been a Yorkshire miner for fifteen and a half years. He is unlikely to make it to 16. 'I can only look forward to redundancy', he said. That was before the government announced its plans to close down another 31 pits (8 of them in Yorkshire), with the loss of 30 000 jobs nationwide.

Jim has moved from pit to pit. Everywhere that he's worked has been closed down. He was told that where he is now has '50 years' work'. But he has learned the hard way that 'no job is safe'. And these days, he says, there is 'no union and no solidarity. Today if you complain management can say "if you don't like it you can go down the road"'.

Just 'doggin on'

Hassle from management and the ever-present threat of closure has long since created a climate where everyone left in the pits has just been 'doggin on', waiting for their redundancy money. Even before the announcement of compulsory redundancies Tom reckoned that '90 per cent of the men would go if you offered decent redundancy money - they've had enough. You never know if you'll have a job tomorrow and the hassle from the managers is endless'.

These men live around Wakefield in West Yorkshire. There used to be 20 collieries in the area. Today there are just three. After the latest closures there will be none. In this area alone 16 000 jobs have been lost from mining and related industries over recent years.

Even before the latest announcement of sweeping closures, British Coal had shut 119 pits with the loss of around 130 000 jobs since the end of the 1984-85 strike. It amounts to the destruction of an entire industry and the communities which depended upon it.

With 'no union and no solidarity', miners can't see any way of defending jobs. Pit closure and redundancy are seen as an inevitability. Many have accepted voluntary redundancy when it's been offered, preferring to get out rather than put up with the heavy-handed tactics of management or stay in an industry with no future by taking a transfer to another pit with no future.

John thought he had 'no future at all' either inside or outside the pits. In Knottingley where he lives, a major employer, Rockware Glass, was announcing job losses. He could see no prospects for ex-miners other than living 'on the dole or on the sick'. Jim was of the same opinion. Mining villages and towns would 'never be the same' there would be 'no jobs in the future'. Geoff had had enough and was 'getting out whether it closes or not, but I'm scared stiff, I've not got a clue what else I can do'.

So what do miners do when they leave the pit? Tony was made redundant from Frickley colliery in South Elmsall in 1985. He hasn't worked since. 'There were plenty on the dole and I knew nothing but mining.' Bob took voluntary redundancy from Kellingley colliery in 1988 because he was 'tired of management'. With his redundancy money he set up a small business fitting kitchens. This folded. He thinks his prospects are 'bleak'.

Ken took voluntary redundancy from Allerton Bywater colliery in 1990. For the last two years he's worked as a lorry driver. But he doesn't like to speculate on his employment prospects which 'depend on the building trade'; 'nothing is secure these days'.

Adrian took voluntary redundancy from Kellingley in 1988. His experience since is typical: a series of temporary jobs interspersed with long periods of unemployment. One temporary job Adrian did was as a miner for a private contractor. Contract miners are only taken on for specific jobs and can be hired or laid off on a day-to-day basis.

No regeneration

Alan is a contract miner. He says that 'miners hate contractors because they threaten their jobs'. Most contract miners are men who took redundancy to escape the uncertain future of pit life. When the redundancy money ran out, they ended up back in the pits working on an even more insecure basis, for less money. Now they face the dole again.

British Coal Enterprise is supposed to be helping to regenerate the coalfields and find work for ex-miners. Its adverts claim that it has helped to produce more than 75 000 jobs in coalfield areas 'over one job per hour every hour'. Those hours seem to have passed by redundant miners in West Yorkshire. Wakefield district has suffered levels of unemployment above the national average since the start of the closure programme. In Castleford, a local town, the majority of the working population used to be employed in the mines. Today all the five mines that used to surround the town have gone. The last one, Allerton Bywater, shut in February with the loss of 790 jobs.

The truth is that the regeneration of coal mining areas is a myth. There are two enterprise zones in the Wakefield area. Local companies simply relocated existing jobs there, to take advantage of the tax breaks on offer. Locals in nearby South Elmsall are scathing: 'Nothing's been done in this area that wasn't started before the pit closures', said one. 'Langthwaite Industrial Estate lost its enterprise status in 1991, so firms started moving out.' 'There's been no regeneration', said another, 'just bullshit'.

One new company

European Community assistance is supposed to be available to combat 'regional disparities' within the EC. In Castleford, the 'Five Towns Resource and Enterprise Centre' was set up with EC money. It provides facilities for starting up new businesses. Since opening up in 1989 it has only had one success, a company that repairs and services cash dispensers.

Some EC-assisted schemes have been more ambitious. Glasshoughton colliery used to employ 3000 workers. This had fallen to 500 by the time it was closed in March 1986. In the summer of 1989 plans were afoot for the renewal of the site as a £100m 'European Business and Leisure Park' which it was claimed would create 5000 jobs. This was the last that was heard of that scheme.

The replacement is the slightly less ambitious Glasshoughton Cultural Industries Centre, located in an old school building opposite the colliery site. It houses the Yorkshire Arts Circus, a publishing company whose organisers aim 'to develop self-confidence and give people a sense of their own worth'. Somehow 'self-confidence' and 'cultural industries' seem a poor substitute for ex-miners in need of a living.

Additional information provided by Suketu Naik.

The toll of jobs lost since the 1984-85 strike has now topped 150 000
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 49, November 1992



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