John McCormack, socialist and trade union leader: An appreciation

JOHN “Cory” McCormack was not a big man in physical stature but he had a big heart and an abundance of courage.

In his pit village of Fallin, Stirlingshire, he was a legend who devoted much of his life to the service of other people. He also made his mark nationally as a socialist and trade union leader.

Cory was born in the miners’ blocks in Fallin on October 18, 1933, the oldest of four brothers . He left Fallin Public School at the age of 14 to work at Polmaise Colliery, where he was employed until his retirement in1985.

He was a lad o’ many pairts: Master of Ceremonies at Fallin Miners’ Welfare Club, singer, dancer, fiery orator and raconteur extraordinaire. He was also a nifty professional footballer with Falkirk and Alloa Athletic and used to attend training sessions at the former’s Brockville Park in the morning before starting back-shift down the pit in the afternoon.

I first came across Cory in 1974, shortly after I was selected as Labour Parliamentary candidate for West Stirlingshire.

Polmaise Colliery in Fallin was the only pit left in the constituency and Cory was Chairman of the Polmaise branch of the National Union of Mineworkers(NUM). Cory bluntly told me that, if I wanted to earn the miners’ support, I would have to get up at 5am to address pit-head meetings at the start of every shift then go underground and crawl along the coal-face to get some experience of the miners’ working conditions.

In Cory’s eyes, I must have passed the test because it was largely due to his influence that I won the backing of the mining communities.

Cory and his fellow workers were shocked when, in 1977, the National Coal Board (NCB) announced a proposal to close Polmaise Colliery, which at that time employed about 700 miners.Virtually every household in Fallin had a connection with the pit, which also employed people from Cowie, Plean, Bannockburn, Stirling and further afield.

Cory immediately organised a mass meeting of the workforce. Also in attendance were Jimmy Cowan, Scottish Director of the NCB, Mick McGahey, President of NUM Scotland, and myself. Cory chaired the meeting and his speech was a virtuoso performance.

He pointed out that Polmaise had hundreds of thousands of tons of workable coal reserves and every effort must be made to save the pit because closure would have a devastating effect on the local community.

When one man in the audience asked a question about redundancy payment, Cory almost jumped down his throat, making it absolutely clear that redundancy and closure were not on the agenda. There was no way that his members were going to be “bought off “. Jimmy Cowan got the message and the closure was stopped.

For many families, Cory’s victory meant bread on the table for some years to come, but it would not last forever.

When Margaret Thatcher appointed Ian McGregor as Chairman of the NCB, the writing was on the wall.

In early 1984, McGregor announced the closure of Polmaise and, when the NCB refused to negotiate, Cory and his colleagues felt they had no alternative but to take strike action.

Under Cory’s leadership, Polmaise was the first pit in Britain to go on strike in the prelude to the national strike of 1984-85. During that prolonged dispute, the local miners’ support for the strike was so solid that there was never any need for a picket line at Polmaise. Even Mick McGahey found that difficult to believe.

Donald Cameron, the Polmaise manager, was probably relieved that there were no pitched battles on his patch as there were at many other collieries during the dispute. Cory and Cameron were on opposite sides, of course, but it is to both men’s credit that, some years after the strike, they met up for amicable discussions about their working lives. Cameron shared Cory’s hostility towards Thatcher’s treatment of the coal industry.

Cory always maintained that the strike was a courageous effort by the miners to save their industry. Today there is no deep coal mining left in Britain. Cory went to his grave believing that Thatcher deliberately killed the industry, but she would never succeed in killing the spirit of the mining communities.

After nearly 40 years at Polmaise, retirement gave Cory a well-earned opportunity to spend more time with his beloved wife, Elspeth, until her death two years ago.

He is survived by his daughter Coreen, son-in-law Jimmy, grand-daughter Charlene, great granddaughter Erin and his brothers, James and Angus.

Even after he stopped work in the mining industry, Cory’s instinct to help others never ceased. A few years ago, he was involved in the rescue of a mother and her young children who were trapped in a fire at their home in Fallin.

By all accounts, Cory was the hero of the hour who came on the scene before the Fire Brigade arrived. He sustained serious injury as a result of the incident but it was typical of his modesty that he was reluctant to speak about it.

His character was hewn out of the coal face: courage, solidarity, comradeship, leadership. They are values which will live on in the spirit of John “Cory” McCormack.