Translocal Solidarity and the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike
In the recent film Pride about the 1984-5 miners’ strike there’s a conversation in the South Wales countryside between Dai Donovan from Dulais and Mark Ashton, the founder of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), who is visiting from London. Donovan talks about an old, local NUM lodge banner with two hands grasped and says: ‘that’s what the labour movement means, should mean. You support me, I support you, whoever you are, wherever you come from, shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand’. It’s a powerful and welcome message for a mainstream British film.
But it’s also a little lacking. It can’t help but imply that Ashton was a stranger to the labour movement. As the historian Lucy Robinson has written: ‘In Pride Mark Ashton needs to go to the Welsh hills to be told what socialism is.’ There is a particular geographical imagination at work here: South Wales is synonymous with a labour movement rooted in histories and traditions, whereas London means the new politics of lesbian and gay liberation. Yet when we get a glimpse of a hands-clasped trade union banner in the climax of the film, at the 1985 London Lesbian and Gay Pride march, it is not from South Wales but the Brent National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO).
Brent NALGO was, alongside LGSM, one of the London groups that twinned with Dulais during the miners’ strike. Dai Donovan’s brother-in-law worked for Brent NALGO, and the day after he first met LGSM in London Donovan was brought along to a big meeting of the union in Brent town hall where he appealed for support. Personal relationships could play an important role then in developing solidarity connections between the capital and the coalfields. But Brent had a more political link with mining areas. One activist in the borough told a local newspaper that during the 1984-5 strike ‘we had people, the Indian community in particular, saying they were supporting the miners because of the support they gave at Grunwick’.
The 1976-8 Grunwick strike in a photo processing plant in Brent was led predominantly by women of South Asian origin, most prominently Jayaben Desai. The dispute over workplace conditions and union recognition received significant support from other groups of workers and the broader left. In the middle of 1977 the strike committee noted that ‘miners, dockers, engineers and building workers swelled the picket to 3,000 strong.’ The miners, who came in particular from Kent, Yorkshire, South Wales and Scotland, are probably among the best remembered of the supporters.
Jayaben Desai surrounded by police during the Grunwick strike (Pic: Phil McCowen)
In The Wheel’s Still in Spin, the radical miner, trade unionist and historian Dave Douglass wrote about how the iconic image of hundreds of miners arriving at Grunwick, led by Arthur Scargill looking ‘like Jesus at the last supper’, was used on a Yorkshire NUM Area banner. Kent NUM hung in their offices a painting donated by Grunwick strikers who visited them in the aftermath of the strike to show their appreciation for the support. The material cultures of the coalfields didn’t only commemorate local histories, therefore, but also memorialised solidarities between diverse places.
Among the strongest supporters of the 1984-5 miners’ strike in London were the Fleet Street workers who raised huge sums of money and food, and took industrial action against the worst excesses of the anti-union press. This solidarity was again commemorated on banners and other objects. Jim Douglas from The Sun newspaper chapel of the electricians’ union EEPTU wrote at the time that they had recently constructed a ‘Museum of Struggle, containing miners’ memorabilia, [which] will long serve to remind those who come after of the struggles that have taken place. In the past The Sun electricians have supported the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, the Pentonville Five, health workers and many more’.
Some of this culture was of course lost in the defeats and re-organisation of the labour movement in the 1980s and beyond. NALGO and EEPTU have been swallowed by larger unions; the NUM still exists but the last deep coal mine was closed in December. The history is still alive however. For example, the South Yorkshire Community section of Unite, the union which now contains most of those print unions, commemorates the 1984-5 strike on its banner while organising from NUM offices in Barnsley. It’s a recognition that this history of solidarity and struggle can still inspire. In referencing the battle of Orgreave, the banner is also a reminder that the campaign for truth and justice continues.
As Ewan Gibbs has argued, ‘rebuilding the trade union movement cannot be a period costume drama’. History can be a weapon, but that doesn’t mean simply attempting to recreate the past. I made my own small contribution to the material culture of the miners’ strike when I recently worked with the TUC Library Collections on a portable exhibition commemorating the solidarity of that year. The exhibition has already been shown in venues in London and the Miners Community Arts and Music Centre in Manchester. The concluding panel of the exhibition acknowledges the destruction wrought by the defeat of the miners, but argues that remembering the spirit of solidarity in 1984-5 is a way of saying that there is an alternative to the market individualism that was central to Thatcherism in the 1980s, and that is central to the Tory government that we suffer today.