The retired miners and factory workers at the working men’s club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. “Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months,” one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.
When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe’s biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust.
Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. “Opencast is lorry driving, not mining,” is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from taxi rank to chip shop.
Just as the town’s fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. Last year coal generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s and the need to decarbonise looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December’s Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C – are already being felt: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.
The club’s secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside Merthyr. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. “If someone tells you they’re against the mine, they’re probably from England, not Wales,” says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw.
The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr’s thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.
185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr’s history afresh. Up on the hills above the town – beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs – around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.
Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.
On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests – from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.
Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have fought the mine’s planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine’s headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.
“I don’t want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you’re not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate – we’re going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”
In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners’ history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities – which now spurs them to action against new mines.
Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke
Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up coal’s decline. But he also believes that British coal has an important role in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a role that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. “If you’re going to phase out an industry, you’ve got to put something in place to limit the damage.”
For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.
Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining but the government has yet to act. This may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday’s elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.
Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal’s main customers – the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw – is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde” – “Only brotherhood is strong”.
Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.