ONE of the biggest success stories of the Co-operative Movement in recent years is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month.
It was on January 2nd 1995 when the 239 miners of Tower Colliery in Hirwaun, South Wales, marched back to the mine that had been closed the previous April. They went back not just as miners but as the new owners of the business.
Ten years on and their mine is still working and looking ahead to the next 10 years. Such success has more than vindicated the miners' decision to take on its running, refusing to accept British Coal's analysis that it was uneconomic to continue.
It had not been an easy decision to make, with each of the miners investing ? and risking ? £ 8,000 of their redundancy payments in the employees' buy-out proposal.
One of the miners' leaders in 1994/5 ? and today the Tower Colliery chairman ? is Tyrone O'Sullivan. He told the News that it is a frightening thought to consider what the Hirwaun region would be like today if Tower Colliery had remained shut: "In 1994 unemployment in our valley was 24 per cent. Had Tower closed, that figure would have risen to more than 30 per cent. I don't believe communities ever recover from that ? they fade and die away, so I thank God that we saved it."
Mr O'Sullivan says the success of the mine is about much more than keeping people in work: "Our success has had a huge impact locally. It's regenerated the feeling of pride in the local community. Tower Colliery is a real David and Goliath story, one that proves you can succeed against all odds."
When the pit re-opened in 1995 the aim was to mine 400,000 tonnes of coal a year. It currently mines 650,000 tonnes, has a turnover of £ 26 million (up from £ 20 million in 1994), runs two coal distribution centres and employs 400 people. It is also reintroducing apprentices to the pit ? 15 locals are currently being trained as mechanical and electrical fitters.
The colliery also invests heavily in the local community, supporting everything from the silver band to a disabled riding school.
Mr O'Sullivan is delighted but not too surprised that Tower Colliery is still open today: "We thought that the known reserves would guarantee coal for at least 10-15 years and we already have a new five year plan in place.
"Having said that, very few jobs last for 10 years these days, so it's incredible that we've reached this landmark."
However he is far from confident of the long-term future of coal mining in the UK: "The Government really needs to make up its mind about what it's going to do. It should either give mines proper subsidies or take the industry back and develop three or four mines a year ? otherwise we won't have a coal industry. And coal is more in demand today than at any time in the last 20 years."
Mr O'Sullivan plans to retire in two years, on what will be the 40th anniversary of his joining Tower Colliery: "People say I won't be able to leave but I will. It's been a tough career so I'm looking forward to putting my feet up."
By the time he leaves, Mr O'Sullivan is likely to have been immortalised in film. Plans for a film of the Tower story ? following on from the opera and many documentaries ? are ongoing. So who will be playing the part of Tyrone O'Sullivan, I ask, suggesting Brad Pitt as a possibility: "Not him ? he's nowhere near big enough. You'd need two Brad Pitts.`
There will be few in the Co-operative Movement who would argue that Tyrone O'Sullivan and his colleagues at Tower Colliery are worth more than two Brad Pitts. Their story has been an inspiration for many people and their success is well deserved.
by Kevin McGrother