Unite members at the Penrhyn Slate Quarry are following in a long tradition of land based trade union activity on the North Wales site. A union was first organised there in 1874 and the start of the last century saw the longest dispute in British industrial history. Today, Unite is working closely with the owners of the quarry and has been successful in reducing accidents to virtually zero. This is a remarkable feat considering the difficult working conditions.
Located just outside the small village of Bethesda, the quarry was first developed commercially in the 1770s. It went on to become the world’s largest slate quarry in the nineteenth century and remains Britain’s biggest. Welsh Slate Ltd, which also includes smaller quarries in North Wales, manufacture on site each week around 125,000 roofing slates as well as decorative aggregates for paths and gardens. This provides jobs for around a hundred people on processing and twenty plus in the actual quarry itself.
The quarry is enormous and the main pit is a 1.6 km long and 150 metres deep. This provides some unique safety challenges.
|Thanks to Paul Box for permission to use this photograph.|
There are 15 metre benches or terraces on open galleries on each mountainside. The slate itself starts 60 metres below ground. Removing the overburden is an ongoing process and in the last year contractors have stripped 2 million tonnes in order to widen the quarry and free up more slate. The slate’s colour depends on the chemical composition of the mudstone, which was deposited at Penrhyn around 500 million years ago. Most slates from Penrhyn are heather blue in appearance.
Extracting the slate involves taking advantage of the natural weaknesses in the rock through planes and joints to take out large blocks. The word slate is derived from the French verb esclater, meaning to split.
Since Irish businessman Kevin Lagan purchased the quarry in 2007 there has been major investment. A new machine has been purchased that uses wire impregnated with diamonds in cheese wire fashion after probes have been employed to link the vertical and horizontal cuts.
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Although explosives are then employed to bring down the loosened rock the process has lessened the danger of falls as the quantity of shot required is considerably less than in the past. Nevertheless in the last few years there have been two major rock falls in the quarry, including one that released six million tonnes of rock. Fortunately, both falls were at night and no one was injured.
Quarry manager Dafydd Williams said, “The skill is to understand the geology of the quarry. It could be very dangerous as the cleavage of the slate is vertical but you’ve got sub joints that are parallel. If you don’t understand those joints and recognise that by moving one block it will impact on those near to it then you could find yourself with problems.”
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3,000 tonnes of productive slate a week are taken from the quarry. Huge loaders and massive Volvo trucks are used to carry giant blocks of stone for processing.
Once the slate blocks reach the processing plant a hydraulic splitter is employed to split the slate to a size that can be sawed. Not so long ago this breaking down of the stone was done manually with a sledgehammer and chisel. It would have been back breaking work.
Forklift trucks transport the smaller blocks to the sawmill, where four saws further reduce the size of the stone to various sizes of which the most popular for customers is 20 by 10 inches.
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The remaining stone is deposited with the splitters, whose job it is to determine the thickness of the finished slate. This depends on the quality of the slate as well as the skill and experience of the worker. Wayne Eccles started work on a training scheme in the early 90s and was given 32 weeks training on splitting. He said, “The skill is in the eye as you always split slate in half. Some people use their thumb to decide on what thickness the slate will be.” The splitters are the only employees whose contracts include bonus payments – which can vary from £50 to £150 a week – and they make more if they can create roofing slates that are thin rather than thick. As we are talking millimetres in difference then that is no easy task.
Eccles followed his father into the quarry industry as did Neil Roberts, whose sister has examined the family tree and discovered the link to quarrying goes back six generations to 1823. Both men are aware of the famous strike that started at the quarry in November 1900 and ran for almost three years.
Quarrymen were being forced to endure extremely hard and dangerous work for low levels of pay. The Quarrymens Union was established in 1874 and achieved success that year in disputes at Penrhyn and Dinorwic Quarry. Aristocratic families owned all of the quarries in North Wales with Penrhyn in the hands of Lord Penrhyn. His family had at one time owned thousands of slaves on their Jamaican sugar plantations. They won huge compensation for ‘loss of income’ when slavery was abolished. They invested this in developing their slate quarries and building Penrhyn Castle.
In 1900, its owners informed 2,800 Penrhyn quarry workers that trade union contributions were to be ended at the site. Conflict with contractors who had taken their jobs led to 26 men being taken to court. After taking solidarity strike action the quarrymen returned to work only to discover that 800 of them no longer had any work after eight banks had been closed. Every worker left the quarry and despite the hardships, which were made worse as there were insufficient union funds for strike pay, an improved company offer was refused at Christmas 1900.
On 11 June 1901 the quarry was re-opened with the company inviting selected quarrymen to break the strike by offering them increased wages. Only 242 initially returned to work and were joined by a similar number of newly recruited employees.
Those who returned were considered traitors and cards with the wording ‘Nid Oes Bradwr yn y Ty Hwn’ (There is no traitor in this house) were displayed in the strikers’ windows. Taking down a card was a sign that a worker had returned to work. Lord Penrhyn then built new homes for strikebreakers away from the centre of Bethesda. The strikers complained of ceaseless persecution by the police and a committee of inquiry appointed by Caernarvonshire County Council found that the police acted without regard to the liberties of those on strike.
After three years on strike the suffering of the strikers forced them to return to work on Lord Penrhyn’s terms. The victorious owner refused to re-employ the strike leaders and many subsequently left the area permanently to find work elsewhere.
Although the workers were defeated the landmark dispute nevertheless played an important role in the subsequent emergence of radical politicians across Wales.
“I think the workers were right to strike. I joined the union when I became employed, as you need representation at work,” said Roberts, who, like Eccles, is an elected Unite safety representative. Both are rightly proud that there has been no lost time due to accidents in well over a year.
“We have a proper safety committee that meets regularly with management to discuss how to make the workplace safe. There are high explosives used in the quarry and we are working with heavy blocks of stone. Safety is therefore very important. We have worked closely with management on raising awareness of previous injuries. The use of trolleys has reduced manual handling and as a result reduced back injuries. There is also proper safety equipment in the workshops including ear plugs and dust masks,” said Eccles.