Coalfield landscapes (from The Shadow of the Mine)

There is an insert of glossy black photographs in the middle of our new book, The Shadow of the Mine. They illustrate thew story of the book: the overwhelming presence of mining, the strike to save to industry and the community response, the closures, the changing landscapes of decline sitting alongside the promises of new industry and a better way of life. The selection ends with the response from within – collective ownership of the mine at Tower and the continuation of the annual Big Meeting in Durham. We have brought them together here along with a couple of additions of our own:

Coalfield landscapes

Thanks to Kjell-Åke Andersson, Paul Reas and Keith Pattison

BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed – Coalmining & Luddism: What do we mean by progress?

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to talk with Laurie Taylor on his programme “Thinking Allowed” about our new book:  “The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain”.  Subsequently I  had lots of messages from old  friends pleased to know  that I was still alive and kicking! The interview concentrated on a time in this country when there were miners, and focused on the long story of  the mining districts of south Wales and Durham. It was this time that my old friends were pleased to be reminded of. If you are interested too it is available on the BBC website.

Buried Alive by the National Coal Board


Image of Aberfan cemetery

Copyright Stephen McKay licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Last week across the country but particularly in Wales we have been thinking of Aberfan and the terrible events that unfolded there fifty years ago. The main emphasis has been on the tragedy of it all and the terribly sad loss of all those children and the implications for their families and friends. In all this, in a way that mirrored the event itself, the National Coal Board has got off rather lightly. Occasionally though criticism has emerged. Midway through Karl Jenkins’ brilliant religious Cantata Memoria – for the children – Bryn Terfel sang: “Buried Alive by the National Coal Board”. Here he was echoing the words of the grieving father driven beyond limits by the coroner’s talk of “asphyxia and multiple injuries” This was not what he wanted on the death certificate of his child, he wanted the NCB to be held responsible. Others agreed and there were cries of “murderers”.

On the day of the catastrophe, it should be remembered, the ex Labour Minister Lord Robens, Chairman of the NCB, was being installed as the Chancellor of the University of Surrey. This event took precedence and he didn’t arrive in South Wales until the following evening. His subsequent behaviour revealed the same lack of care and concern. It was he who first stretched credibility with his claim that the existence of springs underneath the tip was unknown and unknowable. At the Inquiry in Mountain Ash he asserted that he was not a technician and could not be held responsible. After the NCB had been blamed by the Inquiry, he insisted that the organisation would not pay for the removal of the tip. Neither would the Labour Government, this was made clear by the Secretary of State for Wales George Thomas – Lord Tonypandy. The cost would have to be borne by the Disaster Fund set up by the local council, and in an act of dubious legality the fund was raided for £150,000.

Thirty years later another Secretary of State – Ron Davies – fulfilled a pledge to return the money. This was paid without interest, a further slight which was later made good by a donation from the newly devolved Welsh government. In all this time the people of the village were left to deal with things as best they could – with the support of each other, with looks and tears, sometimes in silence, by not talking about it at all. Bereft.

It’s hard to see beyond the tears but in Aberfan we can also find a touchstone to people’s loss of faith in the established institutions of Labour. The Report of the Aberfan Disaster Tribunal spoke of “bungling ineptitude by many men” but no direct blame, no disciplinary action, no prosecutions. Today a charge of corporate manslaughter would certainly have been considered given the chronic disregard for safety that preceded the calamity of 21st October. The events that followed, by adding insult to injury, eroded any meaning from the claim that the NCB was an organisation being run “on behalf of the people”. For many who worked in the industry it was the last straw. The Labour Party too: in 1966 it had polled 60.7% of the vote in Wales but four years later it fell to 51.6% continuing downward to the current low of 36.9%.

Huw Beynon

Publications Update 2016

Here are a few publications that have been published recently. We’re currently working on updating the publications sections:

When all Hell Breaks Loose: Striking on the British Coalfields 1984-85” in M. Dawson, B. Fowler, D. Miller and A. Smith (eds) Stretching the Sociological Imagination: Essays in Honour of John Eldridge, 2015 Palgrave Macmillan, pp 65-82

Beyond Fordism” in S. Edgell, H. Gottfried and E. Granter (eds) The Sage Handbook of the Sociology and Work and Employment, 2016 Sage, 306-328

Book Review Symposium on Working for Ford – “a Response”, Work Employment and Society, 2016, Vol 30 (1) pp181-191

The Performance of Power: Sam Watson and Miners ‘ Leader on Many Stages” (with Terry Austrin) Journal of Historical Sociology, 2015, Vol 28 Issue 4 pp 458-490


This paper draws on the biography of Sam Watson, a miners’ leader in the North East of England, to examine the ways in which power relations operated within the British labour movement in the forties and fifties. At that time the Marshall Plan and the concern by the US government to control the spread of communism in Europe provided a critical backdrop with the CIA’s labor attaché programme providing links between the AFL and the CIOand the British TUC. Recent research has identified the significant role played in the development of these arrangements by Watson.

The reliance of the Labour Party on the networks of national, regional and local trade unions has not been a central concern of students of this period. Certainly in accounts of the Marshall Plan, national figures like Ernest Bevin predominate. The “unveiling” here of Watson suggests the possibility of more fruitful investigations on a wider canvass. His relationship with the US mission in itself raises questions as to the social and political processes that made it possible for a middle ranking trade union official to occupy such a significant position of power and influence.

The article draws on archival research and, most significantly, upon interviews conducted by the authors in the late seventies with key trade union officials and politicians. It explores the different ways that Watson dealt with communism and with members of the Communist Party, and the key role he played during critical struggles within the Labour Party. The detail of the “insider” accounts reveals the complex ways in which power was performed across and within different arenas – in North East England as regional secretary of the NUM; in London on the national executive committees of the Labour Party and NUM; and abroad as a member, then Chair, of the Labour Party’s International Committee.

Liverpool: victory over repression

Three years ago at the annual  Durham miners’ gala the speakers included the General Secretary of the TUC, and the customary trade union general secretaries joined by  Kevin Maguire of the Mirrors and also Rickie Tomlinson representing the struggle for justice for the Shrewsbury Pickets and Margaret Aspinal speaking of the twenty five years struggle of the families of those who died at  Hillsborough.  At that time I wrote that  “it seemed that we were seeing in embryo the new kind of labour movement made up of trade unions, social movements and single issue campaigners, capable of engaging civil society, and challenging the power of the new political elites”.

Image of Justice 96 Campaigners

Image by Feggy Art, Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Certainly this is what has happened in Liverpool as seen in  the tireless organisation and struggle of families determined to get justice for loved ones  “unlawfully  killed” and whose memories had been so horribly traduced by the police and the mass media. Aided by the football club, local trade unionists, churches  and a broad swathe of the city’s population they have achieved justice and a major victory over repression.

The end of deep coal mining in this country

So after the news of Redcar, Kellingley Colliery has closed and with it the end of the deep mining of coal in this country. The news  accounts create an impression of a gradual natural process of decline and one in which brave men who worked underground will now have to adapt to another way of life.

In the years since the miners’ strike was defeated, privatisation and  market forces and not nature has been determined the shape of the industry. In 2001 for the first time we imported more coal than we produced, and it is these imports rather than any green agenda that has closed collieries like Kellingley and Thorseby. When they were strongly organised in a union and fighting against the closure of their industry these men were seen as  “the enemy within”.

Now, in the curious way in which things work in this country, they are almost sanctified  . . Sanctified but on the scrap heap, searching for work  as call centres and the warehouses of companies like Sports Direct take over the “coal fields”.

The Line Never Stops

“In the last couple of years there has been a renewed interest in Working For Ford , the book I wrote over forty years ago, with many people seeing it as having contemporary significance. The journal Work Employment and Society is carrying a symposium on the book later this year and in
relation to this I came across a very interesting blogpost by Owen Hatherley – “The Line Never Stops”. Owen has generously agreed to make this available for this site, and I hope you enjoy reading it.”

SUNDAY, JUNE 13, 2010

The Line Never Stops

A post in which I basically just quote from Working For Ford by Huw Beynon. This was a chance purchase in a Glasgow bookshop a few months ago (the bookseller previously mentioned here was a big fan). It is the best book I’ve read in a very long time, a brilliantly ambitious survey both of Ford and Fordism and its particular application to Halewood in Merseyside in the late 1960s and early ’70s; it moves from the abstract and structural to the bitterly concrete with an ease you seldom get with Marxist writers today (Mike Davis certainly, a few other exceptions…Ivor Southwood’s forthcoming Non-Stop Inertia for Zero among them..but nonetheless. I presume there’s someone somewhere doing something similar in Shenzhen? ). You should all go and read it, but it’s especially interesting if read today with certain recent developments in mind. Firstly, the ‘end’ of Fordism soon after he wrote it; the representation since then of the hard union politics Beynon writes about as something macho and self-defeating; and the partly justified nostalgia for the Fordist era most eloquently represented by Judt. We find here on the one hand a kind of organisation which has ended, partly for better, partly for worse, and also something which has continued in the most malign fashion.

‘I can see the time when the bomb goes up, you know. I can see myself leading the lads off my section and just destroying this place. I can see that happening. But you’ve got to cope with the plant as it is now, you’ve got to come in every day and represent the lads…sometimes I think ‘what the hell are you doing? You’re just doing management’s job.’

Halewood shop steward

Rather than a ‘settlement’ that could have gone on indefinitely, the book depicts the era of Fordism and social democracy as a war of attrition, in which one side was absolutely bound to eventually win over the other. One of the Halewood shop stewards interviewed in the book comments ”You don’t go in there and say ‘this is a bloody war and if we don’t get it we’re going to smash you.’ We don’t say that but I think we ought to now and again. Because it is a bloody war.’ The sense of explosive tension is palpable throughout the book, the sense that something is absolutely bound to give way. The book features some of the most vivid descriptions of Fordist work outside of Celine – ‘working in a car plant’, writes Beynon, ‘involves coming to terms with the assembly line. ‘The line never stops’, you are told. Why not? ‘…don’t ask. It never stops.” While Ford or Taylor may have considered this suitable work for an illiterate and unthinking proletariat, here the Ford workers have to force themselves to temporarily become the automaton demanded by the Taylorist method – ”when I’m here my mind’s a blank. I make it go blank.’ They all say that. They all tell the story about the man who left Ford to work in a sweet factory where he had to divide up the reds from the blues, but left because he couldn’t take the decision making. Or the country lad who couldn’t believe that he had to work on every car: ‘oh no. I’ve done my car. That one down there. A green one it was’.

Beynon also uncovers how the temporary settlement between the unions and the automobile manufacturers emerged in 1930s America precisely through each side agreeing to compromise – but what they actually compromise over reveals something instructive. He quotes a GM executive, who explains that the company has no quarrel with unions as long as they don’t ‘invade basic management prerogatives’. Earlier, ‘our right to determine production schedules, set work standards and to discipline workers were all suddenly called into question…it is easy to understand why it seemed to some corporate officials as though the union might one day virtually be in control of our operations’. But as soon as the AFL-CIO – and later the TUC – made quite clear that pay and conditions were their concern rather than any Syndicalist extremism, they calmed down and institutionalised the union. The fact that the militancy of the ’70s led to a new hostility to the very idea of partnership with unions is telling – they were fine as long as they knew their place. So any intervention into, say, the use of Taylorism would be considered stepping on management’s toes – ‘they decide on their measured day how fast we will work…they’ve agreed to have a built-in allowance of six minutes for going to the toilet, blowing your nose and that. It takes you six minutes to get your trousers down’. As in the assembly line, so in the call centre.

‘Rightness in mechanics, rightness in morals are basically the same thing and cannot rest apart’.

Henry Ford

In Americanism and Fordism, a rather odd, intriguing and occasionally disturbing partial celebration of what was then the most advanced form of capitalism, Antonio Gramsci praises the moral discipline created by the Taylor system and Ford’s sponsorship of the nuclear family, leading to a stability and sobriety which is politically useful for the proletariat itself, as it finds itself able to attack from a position where everyday life is no longer a chaotic struggle. But activism of this sort is usually remembered as a very macho thing indeed, where women were either considered peripheral or an active impediment to militancy. Beynon depicts the women workers at some of the plants as some of the most militant unionists, but for the shop stewards ‘the wife’ is usually a distrusting figure in the background, for fairly obvious reasons – ‘one senior steward claimed to have never had a Sunday dinner with his family since he took up with the union (….) The fact that trade union activity is voluntarily undertaken for other people’s benefit does cause strain in a society where self advancement and self interest are the dominant values. ‘You’ve got to have a very understanding wife in this game”.

“No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist,”

William Levitt

Now that the few workers who could agree with the Halewood worker quoted as saying ‘you need two weeks to call it a real strike’ can be found in fairly ‘feminised’ jobs rather than heavy industry, this seems a relic – but what is more interesting is the suspicion the Halewood stewards have of domesticity – not in terms of ‘the wife’ in the background, but through a deep distrust of the incipient ‘property-owning democracy’, recognising that it’s a form of transparent and dangerous bribery – and it’s here that the book is at its most prescient, where it shows Ford using subtler strategies than beatings or sackings. One steward comments – ‘you see what happens to supervisors. They get made up, earn a lot more money and then the company starts encouraging them to buy a house, to get a car on the company’s scheme. I know this for a fact. Then when they’re up to their neck in debt they put the screws on them, and they’ve got no chance. A shop steward should never be in that position, where he can’t afford to go on strike pay. I’d never buy a house when I was a shop steward. I don’t think any steward should.’ What has happened since is that most of the population fell for it, with catastrophic levels of household debt coinciding, surprise surprise, with low levels of strikes and high levels of exploitation.

The disdain for the domestic here leads to one of the book’s most apposite passages: ‘the middle classes are afraid of ‘falling on hard times’, of falling into the working class, but even more afraid of the working class rising up to challenge their rightful place in the sun. In coping with this, they have tended to interpret the working class through their own, specifically middle class, images. They find the ‘warmth’ of working class communities attractive. Homely workers are nice. It’s when this ‘warmth’ comes on to the streets that it causes problems’. Over the last few decades it’s this Uses of Literacy version of the working class that has dominated the media – a friendly, simple people, whose placid lives were upended by town planning and immigration, who only occasionally converge with the force that scared the middle classes witless in the 1970s. Finally, Working for Ford reminds that the process of decentring industry, moving it to the peripheries and the areas where abuses could not be seen, was something practised by Ford long before Post-Fordism took it and ran with it. Halewood was built in the first place because, with its history of casual labour on the Docks, its workers were considered easily exploited, unlike the unionised workers at their Dagenham plant. The book profiles the hyper-exploitation of these early days at Halewood, before unions instituted some sort of order. One worker claims ‘I didn’t have any relations with my wife for months. Now that’s not right is it? No work should be that hard! They wouldn’t stop that fucking line. You could be dying and they wouldn’t stop it.’ It hasn’t stopped yet.



Below are comments that were written in reply to the blog post by Owen


Markasaurus said…

“A shop steward should never be in that position, where he can’t afford to go on strike pay. I’d never buy a house when I was a shop steward.”

The difference today is that Ford employees (or any other production workers for that matter) don’t want to buy houses because they are so scared their jobs will disappear, and the odds of even making even close to the same money somewhere else are next to nil.

As bad as the production line seemed to those doing these repetitive, monotonous tasks under Fordism, the alternative (or lack thereof) now seems worse. When I was a child growing up near Buffalo, NY, our neighbour was laid off from the steel plant when it closed in the early 1980s. He drifted through a series of low-paying part-time phases of employment but never worked a steady decent-paying job for the rest of his life. Fear of never finding work again makes striking almost off the table- it is impossible for the workers to gain the upper hand when production can almost always be moved somewhere cheaper.

It’s funny in a way that the Taylorist/Fordist method could be seen as oppressive when reviewing the opportunities left for workers in a post-industrial economy. I remember people fighting to get interviews for almost minimum-wage jobs at call centres that had sprung up in vacant factories. The work is certainly not much more clever or intelligent than an assembly line, yet at the same time so low-paying the possibility of buying a house (or doing almost anything) on the wages is pretty much non-existent (even in Buffalo). The idea of setting up a union at a call centre is pointless, as there is so little investment on the part of the owners there is very little incentive not to just shut the office down and move elsewhere. What a sad dead end we have reached.

12:49 a.m.  


ChrisG said…

Thanks for this – echoed many of my own thoughts on rereading this book recently, especially the sections on domesticity.

11:37 a.m.  


owen hatherley said…

Mark – yes, that’s true enough, and in some parts of the ex-industrial UK things are like that – but having a more serious Welfare safety net than the US (the dismantlement of which was achieved with the partial assistance of those it once helped), plus the expansion of the service industry and local govt jobs means that things are fairly different here.

There’s a huge amount of people who have completely bought into the fantasy of ‘property-owning democracy’ – the way in which house prices are a national cult is not solely limited to the middle classes by any means. The Right to Buy council housing was an astoundingly astute policy, both in destroying public housing, reinforcing an ideology of privacy and privatisation, and in tithing many of those who bought (and then sold, then bought again) into a lifetime of debt. In every respect, it served to very effectively prevent any kind of collective political consciousness, which is one of the reasons why we’re so screwed – people couldn’t see that they were being tricked, precisely because they wouldn’t see these things in the distrustful terms the Halewood stewards (or at least those quoted in the book) did.

3:56 p.m.  


Markasaurus said…

If only the average person were half as astute as those stewards!

4:46 p.m.  


owen hatherley said…

But then re: Taylorism…I’ve written a fair bit about it elsewhere, and in some ways it’s more interesting a phenomenon than simple machine-enslavement; the way it prefigures robotics suggests a method that had as its destination the abolition of labour completely; which I suppose is what happened at many Ford factories. A saner economic system might have used that method and that technology for something more constructive than robots building cars and humans marshalled into the (still decidedly Taylorist in their organisation) call centres.

5:02 p.m.  


yorksranter said…

Interestingly, the line never stopped, until it as good as killed Ford and GM.

One of the consequences of never stopping the line was that their quality control was dire, and that dodgy cars would pile up and have to be expensively and imperfectly reworked by people with exactly the multiple skills they were trying to engineer out of the main line. Another one was that tooling-up to make one kind of car and one only with minimal user skill meant that it took a year to 18 months to change anything. Toyota took a very different approach – at one point they were actually paying a bonus for anyone who stopped the line.

I spent a significant chunk of last week listening to call-centre software vendors talking in terms that would have been very familiar to the Halewood workers, FW Taylor, or Friedrich Engels. It really was as if lean production, neo-craftsmanship, social democracy, etc, had never happened.

Call centres are interesting social institutions because they combine being really dreadful workplaces, being drastically inefficient, and providing a really horrible customer experience. It’s a sort of strange attractor of all-round crapness, an evil Nash equilibrium.

A telling point is how crappy the tools are – the UI for the latest product from the company I was being propagandised by would have been laughed out of Google, and not even shown at Apple. Compulsory software is always dire because there is no selection pressure to be less dire, of course.

(Captcha: Carph. Carping or Carphone?)

9:38 a.m.  


owen hatherley said…

Well, yes – although just-in-time is every bit as bonkers as Fordism in its own way, and while the Line may get stopped in car manufacturing, perhaps, it sure as hell doesn’t in call centres.

My Mum (it’s family history week here at SDMYABT), who currently works as a radiologist’s assistant, recently tried to get promoted; one of the things she had to do was compose an essay on lean production/Toyotaisation and its possible application in the NHS. I shit you not.

10:54 a.m.  

yorksranter said…

it sure as hell doesn’t in call centres

My point.

I can certainly imagine the NHS benefiting from poka-yoke design. Apparently doctors don’t use things like checklists.

(captcha: prebedyl. a pharmaceutical product, or a model village in Wales?)

5:21 p.m.  


Anonymous said…

Making your mind go blank—

To a far far lesser extent, this is precisely what let me survive four years of six month contracts fixing indexes, checking footnotes, confirming proper names, checking stylesheets, and so on, with ever tightening deadline pressures.

Everything had to become just a matter of patterns and routines and racing against myself to be faster. I couldn’t let myself really read anything I was working on.

Now that I cannot stop thinking about what I am doing, I find doing it increasingly difficult.

Oh well.

2:06 a.m.  


DiSCo said…

Thank you for sharing a nice article.

4:53 p.m.  


ekle paylas said…

nice blog Thanks for sharing. voicesohbet was really very nice.

2:44 a.m.  


Rah7899 said…

Truly interesting ideas you shared in the post! Very meaningful and interesting to many people. Quickly! Have a good day!

“Close-up” radio programme with Huw Beynon

Five trade unionists who were Ford shop stewards from the time of the book “Working for Ford” discuss the books findings with the author.  Visit the “Close-up” page to listen to the program.

“The meeting took place at the Garston Hotel and was chaired by Tony Lane of Liverpool University and then Professor at Cardiff. Two of the stewards (Frank Banton and Ronnie Walsh) have since died and I spoke at Frank’s  funeral. I found a copy of my oration just  yesterday. Eddie Roberts and Gerry Flaherty became officers of the union”.