Underground Activists

Back in 1831, Welsh coal miners at the tower colliery invented the red flag as a symbol of rebellion. Today, miners own the mine, and they are focused on black ink — and producing lots of it.

Work is personal? No one knows that better than Tyrone O'Sullivan. The toughminded union leader turned entrepreneur wept the day that the British government closed the Tower Colliery — the last remaining pit in Wales — seven years ago.

"This has never been just a place I've come to work," says O'Sullivan, 56, a veteran of six strikes between 1969 and 1984. "My great grandfather and two of his sons were killed in mining accidents. My father died at Tower when I was 17. I've seen 14 men die within arm's length of me — more than many soldiers see in battle. But what else could I be but a miner? A cow gives birth to a calf, not a sheep."

So it was an intensely personal battle when O'Sullivan led an improbable employee-buyout effort in 1994, confounding former bosses and turning the condemned pit in Cynon Valley near Hirwaun into a commercial success. The story of the miners' takeover of the Tower Colliery has been celebrated in a Welsh opera, and British movie-production company Working Title Films (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill) has commissioned a script about how the underground rebel with a matinee-idol name inspired his men to one final victory against the odds. "We call him Geronimo," says Brian Loveridge, the gatekeeper at one of the mine's entrances, with a laugh.

Miners here trumpet their legacy of rebellion. The first time a red flag was used as a symbol of revolt occurred at the Tower Colliery in 1831, after a strike at a nearby mine spread to Hirwaun; miners and ironworkers soaked a flag in calf's blood and used it as a battle banner. The story stayed the same for the next 150 years: Low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions galvanized miner resistance, which continued long after the industry was nationalized in 1947.

But the most implacable opponent of the miners proved to be the Thatcher government of the 1980s. Pursuing an unrelenting privatization-and-closure program and leaving for dead whole towns built around mine shafts, British Coal shut Tower in 1994, claiming there was no longer a market for anthracite.

The workers didn't believe that, however, suspecting (correctly, as it turned out) that the managers wanted to buy the pit for themselves. And while none of the Tower miners had a degree in geology or an MBA, they knew their mine. Many, like O'Sullivan, had worked at the coal face for more than 30 years.

Within a week of the closing, the workforce had voted unanimously to buy back its pit, and it formed a buyout group, electing O'Sullivan, branch secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), group chairman. Each worker chipped in roughly $12,000 of his redundancy money to rescue the mine — and with the backing of local banks, coal buyers, and well-wishers, the miners secured nearly $16 million, beating a management-buyout bid. On January 3, 1995, O'Sullivan, a brass band, and 239 face workers, electricians, fitters, shot firers, and engineers — each one a shareholder in the new cooperative — marched back to the colliery to take control. Says O'Sullivan: "We were ordinary men. We wanted jobs. We bought a pit."

Today, annual sales are up 50% since 1995, to $42 million, and the mine has returned a profit in each of the past seven years by exploiting new markets for its coal in France, Germany, and Spain — countries previously ignored by the government managers. In addition, a $5 million plant has been built to generate electricity from waste methane gas produced underground during coal-cutting.

"We haven't made the coal any softer, but we're producing more coal per head than ever," says O'Sullivan. "I don't know whether giving workers the company adds 5% or 10% to productivity. What I do know is that as soon as your workers become shareholders, you immediately become more efficient — because you start talking to each other."

All employees at Tower have equal shares in the company and have the same number of holidays, unlike in the system under British Coal. The collective pays decent wages ($600 a week on average) to its 400 workers and contributes a flat fee into their pensions.

Also, the sick-pay policy has been improved, absenteeism has dropped, and shareholders have received dividends in four of the past six financial years.

How do such achievements fit with the early part of his résumé? O'Sullivan sees a natural progression. The NUM of the 1960s was Britain's strongest, most influential militant union, but offered the trained electrician a parallel career path.

"In British Coal, there was no leadership. Managers simply followed the dictate of the government," O'Sullivan says. "But when I joined the union in the 1960s, miners were the thought leaders at the vanguard of improvements for working people and society. Mining destroys your lungs, crushes your body.

"Working underground makes you crave improvement. A century before, it was the miners' dues that helped build institutes of learning, theaters, libraries, reading rooms.

"Our job in the union was not only to represent our workers," he says, "but also to explain to them what it meant to work together, share together, support the national health service, improve the education system. The world was what we were working with."

Though its standing as a national force was greatly diminished after the defeat of the national miners' strike in 1985, the NUM, in which O'Sullivan remains an active member, still plays a role at Tower. It even staged a 24-hour strike last year, although O'Sullivan points out that the strike was called on Monday, resolved on Tuesday, and by Friday the same amount of weekly coal had been produced.

Clearly, though, embracing both his management responsibilities and his role as a union member is a delicate balance. "Some people accuse me of having changed sides," he admits. "But I tell them that my job, whether calling a strike action or chairing a board meeting, is the same — to do the best for Tower and for those who work here."

Yet the dispute last year struck a nerve. O'Sullivan has since moved his office to beside the pithead baths and is having the connecting door cut in half. "I want to be in the firing line again," he says. "Perhaps I've been in danger of losing touch.

"Taking control gives you the opportunity to repeat the mistakes that were made before. We brought back a dozen of the original managers, and I hope we don't treat them as badly as they treated us. Some miners are still unwilling to forgive them, but we must never allow our past to destroy our future."

Visit the Tower Colliery on the Web (http://www.baynet.co.uk/colliery).

Sidebar: Paying Your Dues

Everything Tyrone O'Sullivan knows about leadership and management he learned at the coal face, at the pithead, and on the picket line.

Take your place in history. You've been given a unique part to play at a unique stage of your company's history. Make the most of it. "No one could write a history of the mining industry without the Tower experience. Now, as leaders, we are major players in that history."

Pat, don't kick. Create a workforce that is working with you — not for or against you. "If you've had nothing but kicks in your life, another kick will make no difference. What will make a difference is a pat on the back and being allowed to share in the good times."

First ask, then act. Always manage by consent with those in the know. "I don't care what industry you're in: All the knowledge is on the shop floor, not in the boardroom. If you don't mine the knowledge from those people, you're failing your company."

Know when to walk away. Always know your price; don't sell yourself short. "When we first bid for the pit, the power stations wouldn't give us the price for the coal that we needed. I told them that all my working life I'd fought to ensure my men had decent wages — and that I wasn't going to undersell them now. I walked away. They caved in. My problem is that I always think I'm right, but I don't consider it a weakness. I've got to have confidence in my judgment."

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