Wednesday 13 February 2013, 09:25
Very few organisations have ever achieved legendary status or found themselves in iconic positions where they are admired and looked up to with wistful eyes by everyone who knows anything at all about their role and history. The Fed - the South Wales Miners' Federation to give it the full name - is one of the few.
Founded on 11 October 1898, the Fed was a union of south Wales miners, founded with the aim of uniting pit workers across the region and opposing what was then the seemingly limitless power of the mine owners.
There had been several attempts to form a miners union before the Fed came into existence but, in the early and middle years of the 19th century, these had invariably been defeated by the strength of the owners.
Then, in 1898, miners in south Wales went on strike, unhappy with the way that wages were both calculated and paid - the money was linked to the price of coal the owners could get in the open market in what was known as the "sliding scale method." The owners, naturally enough, thought it a fair system; the men who hewed and dug the coal certainly did not.
The strike, like most withdrawals of labour in the 19th century, was defeated but miners finally realised that, if they were ever going to improve their working conditions, they would have to work together. And so the South Wales Miners' Federation was born.
The Fed was a separate entity from the Miners' Federation of Great Britain, which had been formed 10 years earlier. For some reason Welsh miners had never truly identified with this union and by 1898 fewer than 50,000 out of the 120,000 men employed in the Welsh coalfields had become members. The creation of the Fed changed everything and gave Welsh miners a sense of purpose and direction.
By the outbreak of World War One the Fed had a membership of 200,000 and was the largest single union of any kind in Great Britain. And this was despite the fact that, in these early years, the union was a fairy moderate organisation, reflecting the personality and politics of its first president, William Abraham.
After the Tonypandy Riots of 1910, however, things began to change. A new form of radicalism began to seep into the union's activities as new leaders with different agendas began to come to the fore. The Fed was actively involved in the protests and hunger marches of the 1930s, working with the Labour Party and the Communists in a brave but often futile attempt to alleviate the problems of the hungry Depression years.
The Fed was also active in offering support to the left wing forces during the Spanish Civil War - again, with little success as Franco's Fascists eventually achieved victory. More than one Welsh miner found himself fighting against the Republicans, however, in what soon became a prelude to World War Two.
The Fed was rather more successful in fighting off the rival South Wales Miners' Independent Union, a company union set up by the mine owners. This rival puppet union was defeated by a number of "stay down" protests when miners simply remained down the pit once their shifts were over. By 1938 the SWMIU had been well and truly put in its place.
In 1944, with the nationalisation of mines already on the cards, the Miners Federation of Great Britain changed its name to the National Union of Mineworkers. And the Fed became the NUM (South Wales Area).
Many miners mourned the passing of the Fed, which lost a great deal of its autonomy in the change, but as its leaders had always preached the importance of working together - and with nationalisation promising better conditions for everyone - the move undoubtedly seemed the right thing to do.
Over the years the Fed had championed the rights of Welsh miners whenever it had been felt necessary. There were many great leaders on the union, but it was the strength of the membership, at grassroots level, that really gave the Fed its power base. The miners understood what the Fed was trying to do and gave the organisation undying support.
Without the Fed the privately owned coal mines of south Wales would have been far more dangerous places than they actually were.
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