WHITEHAVEN, England — “People from outside the area say Sellafield is unsafe and coal is bad for the environment, but it’s an issue of jobs,” Patrick Stamper, a former scaffolder at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site, told Peter Clifford, the Communist League candidate for Manchester mayor, in a supermarket parking lot here.
Clifford visited the area after the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson put on hold plans by West Cumbria Mining to open a coal mine here, claiming concerns about greenhouse gas emissions. The opening of the Woodhouse Colliery, the first underground mine in the U.K. in 30 years, is now subject to a public inquiry.
Over 11,000 people work at the nearby Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing site, which dates back to the beginning of the British rulers’ nuclear weapons and energy program in the 1950s. It’s a major employer in the area.
“Without Sellafield there would be nothing here,” Stamper, now a social worker, said.
“The working class needs to be at work where we can organize together with fellow workers,” Clifford responded. “Without that we have no power as a class. But we can’t depend on whether bosses open a coal mine or keep a nuclear facility running. We need a fight by the unions for a government-funded program of public works to put millions back to work at union-scale pay to build the things working people need.”
In the face of the government’s refusal to do anything to reverse unemployment, many workers told Clifford they supported opening the mine. Coal bosses say it would directly provide 500 jobs.
Rail worker Gillian Halcrow said there were plans for the transportation of coal from the mine to steel plants elsewhere. “There would be jobs upgrading the rail line and trains would run 24/7, creating more jobs,” she said.
“The government’s decision has nothing to do with caring about the environment,” Clifford said. “It’s just posturing ahead of the U.N. conference on climate change that it’s hosting later this year.”
The government’s March 11 move to shelve plans for the mine came after objections from environment groups and the opposition Labour Party. Among liberals speaking out against the opening of the mine was Greta Thunberg, renowned worldwide for shaming people who use air travel.
National Union of Mineworkers General Secretary Chris Kitchen backed the mine opening.
“This area needs jobs,” Stephen Ward, a former van driver now caring for his ill wife, told Hugo Wils, the Communist League’s candidate for Manchester City Council. The coal from the Woodhouse Colliery “wouldn’t even be for burning, but for steelmaking.” Coking coal, along with iron ore, is used as an ingredient to manufacture steel. A decision not to open this mine wouldn’t mean less coal being mined in the world because steel manufacturers will continue to find coking coal they require elsewhere.
“I agree with the mine opening, provided it’s done safely, not just for the workers, but also for the environment,” Michael Morgan, an unemployed landscape gardener, told Wils. “There are ways of cleaning the pollutants out of the air from coal fires, but many of these technologies are patented and costly.”
“To make workplaces safe, workers and our unions need to fight to take control of production from the bosses,” Wils responded. “If workers decide how production is carried out we would find ways to protect the environment.”
Clifford told former Sellafield worker Stamper he would like to return to Whitehaven soon to discuss the CL’s campaign with him and others. Stamper responded enthusiastically. They agreed to do it when pubs reopen after the government eases its lockdown. “After 58 years I’ve finally met communists!” Stamper said.