Activities outside Parliament

Remembering Tower's Struggles

28th January 2008

The personal is the political and the inspirational Tower story is testimony to that. I have many personal Tower stories which touch the lives of so many people in Wales and throughout the world.

I remember being at the Bryntirion Labour Club early in 1973. I was one of the organisers of a NUM youth school when it was reported (by my late father Dai Francis) that the national miners' strike ballot had narrowly failed. A young miner announced he was so upset there would not be a strike (strikes seemed to be annual in those days) he would not be able to eat his dinner! That was the young Tyrone O'Sullivan. For 'strike' read 'collective struggle for our working class communities'.

That little story reminds us of Tower's long and distinguished industrial and political history over the two centuries. As a workers' co-operative this last deep mine of the South Wales coalfield has prospered for over a decade in the Cynon valley where the very first co-operative society in Wales was established in 1864. And now Tower closes in the year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the death of Robert Owen, the founder of the co-operative movement worldwide.

And my second personal memory is being invited to write the history of Tower in 1997. It was a privilege to retell their local, national and international struggles, always struggles of solidarity, from the 1831 Merthyr Rising, through to campaigning for nurses, quarrymen and against apartheid and finally their own successful struggles for survival in the 1990s. The slogan on their banner of 'Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Freedom' – attributed to President Benjamin Franklin – was typical of Tower's universal values. After all, there are not many union branches which can claim an International Brigader, Tom Howell Jones – a 'working class hero' and 'martyr' in the anti-fascist struggle in the Spanish Civil War as its chairman.

It was typical of Tower that they persuaded the Co-operative Bank to mark the publication of my 'Tower Story' by launching an educational fund to help students at the Community University of the Valleys at the nearby DOVE Workshop women's co-operative training centre.

And my last memory is appropriately about the future. A young friend, Carwyn Donovan, visited me recently to tell me that he had secured an apprenticeship at Tower and would soon be transferred to the newly expanding Aberpergwm mine. As ever, Tower was committed to skills training and a long term future for the coal industry in Wales.

In all the nostalgic celebrations about the 'last deep mine in Wales' the real lesson may be missed. The age-old Welsh and indeed universal and eternal values of humanitarian struggle, collectivism and educational self improvement have been sustained into the future.

These are the true legacies of Tower.

Dr Hywel Francis is the author of The Tower Story (1997), the Labour Member of Parliament for Aberavon, and Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee.

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