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The miner who held a pit hostage

Ex-miner Russ Telford made the headlines in November, when he forced his way underground with a toy gun at Markham Main pit. Andrew Calcutt and John Riley asked him why he did it

Russ Telford (29) told his wife Ellen he'd got a job doing salvage work ('murdering the pit') at doomed Markham Main colliery. He lied to her because 'I needed an excuse to get my pit gear out'. Before leaving home early on Thursday 5 November, he pocketed a toy pistol.

Arriving at the pit, Telford got ready to go underground. 'All the banksman had to do was shut gate and rap off, and I was down. But he put my numbers through and they didn't tally. I said, "Pete, I'm going down whether you like it or not". I cocked this thing - it wouldn't shoot tatties - and put it back in my pocket. I had no intention of harming anyone.'

Telford forced his way underground. But he didn't get to the pit bottom, because the banksman stopped the cage half-way down. There he stayed for nine hours, a maverick protester against the latest phase of the government's pit closure programme.

Cuffed up

Early reports said that an armed miner had taken a hostage underground. The real story is more prosaic. Telford's 'firearm' was an old toy which his nephew used to play with. He stayed in the cage with the help of 'a screw of chewing baccy' sent down by the police. When he came back up he joked with the colliery manager: 'Do I get this at straight time or time-and-a-half?' But the police officers who arrested Telford couldn't wait to 'kick my legs away and cuff me up'. As we go to press, it's not yet known how Doncaster magistrates will view his actions.

Telford says he did it 'to lift the miners' spirits...something to give them a bit of confidence to feel they can fight'. October's big TUC demonstrations had achieved nothing. The government's promised inquiry would only postpone the pit closures for a few months; indeed the first 10 of 31 pits on the hitlist were being run down ready for closure within 90 days (Markham Main has already been stripped for scrap). Telford didn't know which way to turn, and on 5 November he gave vent to his frustration.

Telford's solo protest looked like the act of a man out on a limb. But in many ways he typifies the sense of desperation felt by millions who face the effects of the slump along with the dissolution of the old labour movement.

Still fighting

Telford was born into a mining family. 'When we left school, we went to the pit. It was always the pit before the dole office.' Going to the pit meant joining the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Telford was proud to be part of the NUM's Yorkshire stronghold. He was active in the 1984-85 strike, which cost him the house he was buying. His pit - Markham Main - was the last to return to work. Even after the strike was lost, Telford wouldn't back away from a 'rag-out' (unofficial stoppage) or a row with management. When his children asked for a cat, he named it Arthur, after Scargill.

Telford took voluntary redundancy in 1987. He's felt bad about it ever since, but at the time he was under a lot of pressure from management: 'Their attitude was, we've got to start knocking some of the brainboxes out. I was told "if you don't take it, you'll be sacked in six months".'

Telford was forced to get on his bike. In five years he worked for more than a dozen construction companies in Scotland, Liverpool and London. But his wages dropped to the point where he couldn't pay for digs and keep a family back home. He took a job as a lavatory attendant at a Yorkshire glass factory.

Then Telford went back underground, taken on by Davy Mining, private contractors at Bentley colliery near Doncaster: 'waist deep in water, salt tablets to stop you keeling over from the heat, provide your own wellingtons and workwear.' Telford took the chance to 'mug on' to another contract, for Hollybank Engineering at Rossington pit. He was back in the coalfield he had left five years ago. But his working conditions were even worse than before, and he had no union protection.

Telford went to Rossington hoping for four years' work there - until Michael Heseltine announced the 31 pit closures. 'The Hollybank manager said he'd have to finish me. The pay-off was £180. I came home and Ellen said I'd never work again.'

13 per cent and rising

She may be right. By the end of 1992 Doncaster unemployment was over 13 per cent and rising. Pit closures and their knock-on effects will add almost 10 000 more to the total. In the South Yorkshire region, up to 7000 rail jobs are threatened. In Doncaster there are redundancies at Harvester's, ICI, and tractor manufacturers JI Case. The Labour council is shedding jobs. Measures to offset unemployment are pitiful. In 1993 the whole of the Yorkshire coalfield is due to receive the grand total of £2m in government aid.

At first, Telford was buoyed up by 'the groundswell of support' shown by the TUC-led demonstrations in October. When Heseltine was reported to have 'backed down', he even telephoned Hollybank Engineering hoping for reinstatement. But British Coal told the contractors to get out of the pit: the closure programme was going ahead as originally planned.

Anybody who hoped that the Hyde Park protests signalled the return of union power was quickly disillusioned. Management told the pit committee at Markham Main that union business now counted as absenteeism. The four committee members were sacked, then told they could have their jobs back - if they signed up for voluntary redundancy.

There are stories of miners enquiring about their entitlement, only to be told that their enquiry constituted an application for voluntary redundancy. Management has pushed some on to lower rates of pay, so as to reduce their pay-off. 'What union?' was the reply we received when we asked a Markham Main miner to show us the union office. We found an empty room and a desk piled high with the August edition of The Miner. The NUM was clearly in no position to stop British Coal demoralising the miners of Markham Main.

Although critical of labour movement leaders for 'fence-sitting' and 'a thousand miles of rhetoric', Telford says he believes the old trade unions will make a comeback and that Labour 'will go back to being a real Labour Party'. But his actions tell a different story. When Telford went solo down Markham Main with his toy gun, in a hopeless gesture of defiance, he was demonstrating the demise of the NUM and the sheer irrelevance of the old labour movement.

Lonely protest

When the TUC led 200 000 on the London march for the miners, its aim was not to organise a collective fight for jobs, but meekly to lobby a few rebel Tory MPs. Only two weeks later, Telford's lonely protest symbolised the sense of chronic isolation which is typical of the working class today - people without a movement to call their own, who can only lash out as individuals.

Yet Russ Telford is far from being a 'lone gunman'. In and around Doncaster there are thousands of people who share his desperation, and his frustration at the apparent lack of a way to hit back. Their ways of showing it are just less drastic than his.

Clutching at straws

Some are attending prayer vigils 'for a just and compassionate solution'. Markham Main mechanic Stephen Thompson is retiring to Argyll as chieftain of a highland clan. Some of his workmates are advertising their skills in the Doncaster Star's miners' jobline. Many are thinking of paying off the mortgage: they might never sell the house, but they'll lose benefit if they keep the money in the bank.

The villagers of Grimethorpe have written a book about the way 'they killed us but we fought back'. Former miner Michael Barnes sings a protest song: 'they're getting toe-jobs and we're getting no jobs'. The Grimethorpe colliery band released 'The Miner's Prayer', which zoomed into the national charts at number 109. The Citizens' Advice Bureau, mental health charity MIND and the local council's special advice centres are all geared up for the time when clutching at straws becomes unbearable for local people.

Russ Telford did it his way. Others are doing it their way. Isolated by the death of the old labour movement, with no sense of direction or collective purpose, the people of towns like Doncaster are left to follow the Sinatra doctrine and express their bitterness and frustration alone.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993

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