The end of the “superpit”

Submitted by Anon on 23 November, 2004 - 6:56

The last pit in the “superpit” coalfield of Selby, North Yorkshire, closed last month and with it went 1,700 mining jobs. The coalfield — which consisted of five pits and one drift mine — covered 110 square miles, an area the size of the Isle of Wight. It was started October 1976, at a time when British capitalism thought coal was a good alternative to oil. When it opened, the Selby coalfield was praised by then Labour government as a “striking symbol of the re-birth of coal as a major energy source”.

The closure means the number of UK mines has shrunk to just 11, employing 3,000 miners. Only three in Yorkshire remain: Kellingley in West Yorkshire, Maltby near Rotherham and Rossington near Doncaster in South Yorkshire. In the 1980s there were 175 coal mines in the UK, with nearly 60 in Yorkshire, employing more than 170,000 miners.

The British coal industry, unlike elsewhere in Europe, has always been run as a strictly “for profit” industry. Short-term profit that is. An alternative would have been to see coal as a long-term source of energy which is much less environmentally damaging than nuclear fuel and potentially a “clean” fuel. It is not of course a renewable fuel. However Britain still has huge coal reserves. As the National Union of Mineworkers put it last month, “There’s 100 million tonnes of untapped coal [at Selby], enough for at least 100 years, and we’re heading for an energy crisis.”

Elsewhere in Europe the coal industry is given a state subsidy. There is not much point giving a subsidy to a private industry. The money simply lines the pockets of the big share holders. But a subsidised state-run industry is a different matter.

This alternative view of the “economics” of the industry, the idea that an industry should be run for the needs and interests of British people, was at the heart of the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

The pit closure programme which led to the 1984-85 miners’ strike was also about reorganising the industry so that “high-tech”, and therefore potentially more profitable, developments like Selby were to be expanded and pits around South Wales, Scotland and Kent would be scrapped. Thatcher’s government wanted to smash the miners’ union and leave the communities that depended on pit jobs to rot.

In 1991 National Power, Nuclear Electric and Powergen were privatised. Major’s Tory government backed a newly privatised energy industry run on nuclear fuel and gas. The coal industry had to be downsized, the government said. The policy was short-sighted — a quick drive to privatisation and a cash bonanza for shareholders. Privatisation was the background to a second wave of pit closures: 31 pits, 30,000 jobs. No-one in government paid any attention to the future: How long would natural gas last? How long does it take to decommission a nuclear site?

By the end of October 1992 all that remained of the British coal industry was isolated pockets across the country and the Selby coalfield.

In 1994 all the key sites, including Selby were sold to John Richard Budge. He got everything for a bargain basement price of £900 million. Yet Selby alone was valued at £1.3 billion. From then on, the ups and downs in world coal prices and the bottom line of JRB’s balance sheet ruled. New Labour was never going to renationalise the industry, even though it was prepared to put some small subsidies into Budge’s pockets.

Up Sticks and a Job for Life, published by The Coalfields Regeneration Trust is an account of what it was like to work at the Selby complex before and after the 1984-5 strike, and what its closure will mean for the miners who worked in the industry and their families. It tells a story of everyday class struggle and solid trade unionist culture that survived the bitter defeat of 1985 only to be smashed up once more. Here are some of the accounts by miners, ex-miners, and their partners.

Sam Ruby

In the 1980s Selby was the largest coalmining project in Europe but no village was built close to it. Most miners came in by car from the Castleford, Barnsley and Doncaster areas. Or they lived in the Selby area.

“Sherburn in Elmet was as close as the mining communities got to the Selby coalfied. When the strike came along, in general people were supportive. Eventually our house became a magnet for the women. We would gather there and go off picketing. Unlike a lot of the men, who saw moving out to stop the movement of coal as a strategy, we saw things differently. We too knew this was a duty but we also saw it as fun, a laugh. Until the strike came along, many of us had no idea that there was a life after marriage. Remember we were women in our forties.”

“In the first two or three years after the Big Strike of 1984/85 some of the lads took redundancy. If you had been there a lot of years you could get up to £35,000. Today, 20 years later, the best on offer is £27,000.”

“In 1985 Selby equalled a long-term futre, and I couldn’t get to Selby fast enough. The worry for a lot of us was that all the jobs would be filled up before we came. Remember, it was not only people from our immediate area who were the competition. Some were going in from Peckfield and some from the Welsh and Scottish collieries.”

“People came from all over to work here, for this was the Promised Land, given to each after the uncertainties of our earlier jobs. Miners would come, like what they saw and stay. It is said that one busload came from Kent and never went back. All things considered the terms were good. It was only four years after the Big Strike, so we were grateful to be in work. The men realised that the 1970s would never return and got on with the job with few objections. The union was a shadow of its former self but at least, thank goodness, there was a union.”

The new technology included deep shaft working, highly mechanised work at the coalface, and sophisticated conveyor systems. The miner was seen as a technician, rather than a hewer of rock. By the last 1980s the Ricall mine was producing over 80,000 tonnes of coal a week. But geological problems were there from the beginning. And as in earlier times a miner is never far from danger and death.

“By the 1980s most pit bottoms resembled modern factories, they were well lit and the conditions were good. The pit employed fewer men. At Ricall, for all the good working practices, we found that there were more problems than we expected. In work terms this was not promised land.

“When there was an accident it was either very slight or very dangerous. This was partly because everything was so big. Lorries — six wheeled diesels with tyres that measured six foot across — were forever pounding down the roads... Because of the speed at which we were required to work — remember the unions had lost all their power and management could do everything they wanted - we were sometimes working in unsafe conditions.”

“Working so deep underground and in such a high seam meant that the pit was both gaseous and hot. The heat down there could have been reduced if the air threading systems had been more efficient. Conditions were primitive.

“On the other hand, a lot of the cutting gear was new, and everything was bigger than most of us had experienced on other jobs. When I started working we were using between 550 volts and 1,100 volts... when I got to Selby some of the retreat cutting machinery used 6,600 volts.”

Not only was the work more mechanised, with attendant dangers, it was also often done by contracted labour, miners who were “self-employed”, and had fewer rights. This reflected the defeat of the union in 1985.

“Contractors earn better money than the rest of us, but they can be laid off at any point. Men on normal contracts were paid even when a face was out of operation, but they were not. Most of use could not see the point of employing contractors, but this was a practice that had developed in the later days of British Coal.

“Specialist contractors were of course sometimes needed... When I got to North Selby it was still very much a contractors’ pit. The idea was even being mooted that this might become the first ever contractors’ pit. This was a period of experimentation.

“It was as if the butty system had been reborn. Contractors worked all the hours God sent and although they made good money they had no security... they worked on the lip of labour law. After one year eleven months they could find themselves out on their ear with no redress... They were the ideal workforce for a privatised industry.”

There is no romance working underground:

“Underground, it is a dog-eat-dog world. There is a lot of bravado and putting the elbow in, but there is also a wonderful sense of camaraderie as well as a lot of pillocking. You grow to watch what you say and do not even trust your best mates with too much information, for what starts off as a serious conversation can very easily become the subject of a lot of joking. Underground you learn not to reveal how you feel.

For example, you try not to show when you are scared and strength gets a lot of credit. I am still scared when I ride on the chair — at my first pit I knew that the man who was in charge of my life was one of the thickest men I have ever met. No wonder after twenty years I am still scared when I go underground.”

Whitemoor was closed in 1998. North Selby and Stillingfleet were closed in 2000.

“I can give you several reasons why North Selby was closed. One was greed — the owners wanted to make quick profits, so they used contractors to drive headers when they could have used their own men. I will be blunt, I call contractors job-selling bastards.

“It seems to me that this excited greed in our own lads. With bonuses and limitless overtime we were make the job profitable, but in many ways reducing our influence, going for the money and ad-hoc contracts rather than better systems. We were killing our long-term prospects. That’s when cronyism sets in and it becomes cheaper for management to bring in sub-contractors from Thyssen than to use people in their own workforce.”

“When Selby has gone there won’t be much left. Mining will have ceased to be an industry and from then on we will just be workers in a few underground factories. Those who have come through twenty years’ working in these environments unscathed are the lucky ones. My husband has white finger. These days he finds it impossible to open a jar. It’s not just the years the men have put into this industry that count, it’s also the effects that this dedication has cost.”

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