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South Wales Miners' Federation

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In the 19th century, one element in the domination of the coalowners over the miners was the difficulty the miners faced in establishing a meaningful trade union. An attempt was made in 1831 to set up branches of the Friendly Society of Coalmining, consisting of coalminers and ironworkers, but the owners soon broke the organisation up. In the 1870s, the Amalgamated Association of Miners built up a membership of 42 000 but after two bitter disputes in 1871 and 1872, this organisation was also abolished. Following its collapse several separate and weak District Unions were established, many however, were simply token organisations set up and controlled by the owners.

A strike took place in South Wales in 1898 against the method of calculating wages. Wages were linked to the selling price of coal, known as the Sliding Scale method, making them volatile and unpredictable. Although the strike was defeated, it did result in the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF), known as The Fed, being formed. Its basic aim was to unite the miners and oppose the strength of the local coal-owners and coal companies. In the years before World War 1, the basic philosophy of The Fed was one of moderation and conciliation, which mirrored the personal creed of its first President, William Abraham (known as Mabon). These ideas were however, challenged with the emergence of a younger, more radical group of leaders wedded to the ideas of socialism and syndicalism. These were to make their presence felt in the aftermath of the Cambrian Combine Dispute in the Mid-Rhondda and its accompanying Tonypandy Riots in 1910, and the Hunger Marches of the 1920s and 1930s.

The 1930s was the decade of resistance, social cohesion, communal self-help and identification with those suffering similar and greater trials in other nations, most notably South Wales’s support, for the Republican cause in Spain. The Fed was actively involved, along with the National Unemployed Workers Movement, the Labour and Communist Parties in stimulating protests, marches and demonstrations against the situation and the inadequacy of government response. The Fed was however, facing a situation where its membership was dwindling. It also faced a challenge from the South Wales Miners’ Industrial Union, a company union supported by the owners to destroy the Fed. From 1934, the Fed concentrated on removing the “scab union”, as it was known, from its strongholds in pits such as Taff Merthyr, Trelewis, Treorchy and Bedwas, by raging a propaganda war through leaflets. Some members also held the “stay-down” strike. Secret members of the Fed at these pits would refuse to come up at the end of their shift until the owners granted the men a secret ballot to decide which union they wished to represent them. This tactic was successful and by 1938, the company union was defeated.

In 1944, as the coal industry in Britain advanced towards nationalisation, the Miners Federation of Great Britain (formed in 1888, with the intention to represent the interest of the miners throughout the nation, and therefore gain strength in its unity), changed its constitution to become the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1945. The SWMF became the NUM (South Wales Area), which has included the Forest of Dean since 1940 and Somerset since 1960.

 

FURTHER READING:

Arnot, R. Page. South Wales Miners – Glowr De Cymru – a history of the South Wales Miners Federation, vol.1, 1894-1914. (Cymric Federation Press, 1967).

Arnot, R. Page. South Wales Miners – Glowr De Cymru – a history of the South Wales Miners Federation, Vol.2, 1914-1926. (Cymric Federation Press, 1967).

Edwards, Ness. History of the South Wales Miners` Federation, Vol.1. (Lawrence and Wishart, 1938).

Gorman, John. Banner bright: an illustrated history of the Banners of the British Trade Union movement. (Allen Lane, 1973).

Francis, Hywel and Smith Dai. The Fed: a history of the South Wales Miners in the twentieth century. (Cardiff, 1998).

All items listed in the further reading are available for consultation in either the South Wales Miners’ Library or the Library and Information Centre, University of Wales Swansea. Click here to link to the library catalogue. 

 

 

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