American coal mines are closing. Do the miners have anything to learn from their British counterparts who lost their jobs in a wave of mine closures 30 years ago?
There’s nothing left of Cortonwood coal mine. All traces of the mine, which had thrived for more than a century, sustaining the small village of Brampton in Yorkshire, in the north of England, have been erased.
Today there’s a shopping center and office complex on the site where the pithead and the slag heaps used to stand. Cortonwood was where one of Britain’s bitterest labor disputes - the national miners’ strike - erupted in 1984. And Cortonwood was one of the first mines to be shut after the strike against pit closures ended in failure one year later.
There may be no physical trace of the pit, but the village still apparently bears the psychological scars of the loss of the mine.
“Coal was this community, it was that important,” says Denise FitzPatrick, whose husband and son worked in the mine. “Coal was the community. Not just here, but in all mining villages. Everything revolved around the pit. It was a terrible loss.”
Financially, as well as socially. 1.200 men worked at Cortonwood. Denise FitzPatrick’s daughter, Denise Lelliott, says when the pit closed, those who could find work usually made barely half what they earned underground. Many others languished on welfare.
“It’s ripped the soul out of this community,” she says. “I love my community. And it absolutely destroys me what it’s done to it. People says it’s recovered. It hasn’t. And I don’t think it ever will."
Even today, nearly 30 years after the pit closed, and after many of the pitmen have retired or died, the unemployment rate among the ex-miners of Cortonwood is still 12 percent. Andy Lock, who works for a charity which has tried to mitigate the effects of mass unemployment caused by the shutting of coal mines, says too little was done by the government to soften the blow of the pit closures.
“In my opinion there was a lack of support at the time," he says. "So when you have over 100,000 people becoming unemployed, with the lack of infrastructure and lack of support, you get problems.”
Belatedly, the British government did pump money into places like Cortonwood. The shopping center and office complex on the site of the mine opened for business some 15 years after the pit closed. It has been a big success. It has brought prosperity to the village and it is a significant employer, but not, says Denise Fitzpatrick, for the dwindling band of ex-miners.
“There isn’t a miner I know in this village or any other village that would be content to go and stand at the back of a counter –in a shop– because their life were down the pit, working, laboring, very hard down the pit,” she says.
To the outsider, this enthusiasm for deep pit coal mining is not easy to understand. Why did the British miners fight so hard to save such a difficult, dirty and dangerous job?
“Because it were my job," says Mike Clarke, who worked at Cortonwood for 29 years. "That’s what it were. It were my job. That’s the most important thing when you’re a working man. You’ve got pride. You’ve got your family. And you look after them the best you can. And coal mining was the best way I could.”
Since Cortonwood closed Clark has thrived in the very different career of nursing. But he still misses the camaraderie of the pit, doesn’t regret resisting the closure and urges American miners to do the same.
“Yeah there is life after coal,” he says “Because you’ve got to make a life after coal. But just don’t lay down and die. Go down fighting, go down kicking and screaming. Make it as hard for them as you possibly can."