COLLECTION ÉTUDES THÉORIQUES
The Board is comprised of 6 directly elected ‘working’ Directors two of whom have to stand
for re-election each year. Only two of the existing Directors are members of senior
management and all have to account for their actions at the company AGM. Annual elections
to the Board and the extensive formal and informal work consultation processes serve to
sustain an open discourse and democracy in all the dimensions of relationships within the
It is important to emphasise the significance of this break with past social practice. The
continued usage of such traditional terms as ‘Directors’ and ‘the Board’ should not be
permitted to obscure what is a radical shift in power relations with respect to the ownership
and control of economic capital, for the organisational decision-making processes outlined
above indicate a quite fundamental shift to bottom up democracy and accountability. The
members’ votes decide operational policy and the collective enjoys direct responsibility for
decisions and their consequences; the possibility of blaming distant bureaucracy is a luxury of
the past. Thus, collective ownership, control and democratic accountability are the source of a
different social space and community, enabling a redistribution of economic, political, social
and cultural capital resources.
For many producer cooperatives, the most troublesome spatial location they need to occupy
successfully is ‘the Market’ for their goods or services. In this respect, Tower is fortunate for
their product – anthracite – remains a valuable commodity and, because all the potential
competitor mines have been closed, there are no effective alternative suppliers in their prime
market. This product is the foundation of Tower’s power resources both in contract
negotiation and in the consequent strategic freedom to choose how to deploy the revenue
stream. The cooperative has been financially successful over its 10 years of operation.
Perhaps the most ‘novel’ space now occupied by the members is their direct responsibility for
financial decision-making. Although there is some limited profit distribution (but not every
year), the vast proportion of the revenue goes on reinvestment and member rewards. The
balance between these respective needs is not uncontested. More generally – reflecting
Tower’s symbiotic relationship with the local community – the cooperative supports a range
of local projects, including rugby, opera, motorcycle racing, schools, a children’s hospice and
community regeneration. The leading figures are acutely aware of the socio-economic
significance of all revenue being returned to the locality and, unsurprisingly, many of the
Tower employees are allowed time off to support these activities.
Although the provision of jobs was the main aim in establishing Tower, members were also
determined that this would not be achieved without the provision of the best possible terms
and conditions of employment. The initial workforce of 239 has expanded to 299 cooperative
members with a further 100 employed as contractors in face development, the bagging plant
and in security. Employees enjoy well above average terms and conditions of employment.
Pay, basic conditions, welfare and safety are comparable with those in other UK mines.
A complex cooperative ‘work culture’ can be seen to be emerging with distinctive tensions
and trajectories. There is an emerging process of joint working and joint problem solving.
Several respondents remarked on how ‘they’ are now responsible for their own destiny. Work
issues are discussed at the start of shifts, there are regular informal meetings in the single
canteen, weekend maintenance work is planned collectively and there are fortnightly meetings
between the underground shift captains and surface managers. These practices are engendered
and sustained through the power shift stemming from collective ownership and reflect the
wider democratic structures and accountabilities.
Thus, the creation of the worker-owned colliery has permitted those involved to nurture and
develop a range of social practices which constitute a persistent, coherent and significant
challenge to the existing socio-political and economic order. The analysis of the data involves
an assessment of the extent to which the cooperative can be seen to be an autonomous,
different and alternative space. In terms of social movement theory, our suggestion is that the
Tower venture can be seen as a ‘repertoire of contention’ and that the ‘autonomous
geography’ created by the activists represents a significant challenge simply because it opens
up a range of possibilities which permit workers and their communities to take control of their
own socio-economic destiny.
What are the contours of Tower’s ‘autonomous geography’? The terrain we are concerned
with relates, firstly, to the available and potential organizational socio-economic space and,
secondly, to workers effective influence and control within and over such space. All social
space is bounded by history, context and culture (Lefebvre 1991). Of course, space itself does
nothing: it is always mediated by social action and different spaces are articulated and
constructed through interactive social processes. Our data suggests that social actors can
develop and deploy different discourses which ‘imagine’ alternative (or competing) spaces
which other actors are then persuaded or cajoled to occupy and enact. It is not that ‘new’
spaces (which did not “exist” before) have been created but that social actors have refocused
attention away from one ‘dominant’ space to an alternative possible space which, for a variety
of reasons, has become visible, available and, perhaps, necessary. In this sense we have