Category: Trade Unions

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.

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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’.

Wappingbanner

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.

Diarmaid Kelliher, University of Glasgow

The Glasgow Shipwrights Society 1884 3rd Reform Act Banner

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© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

This banner measures 1803mm x 2692mm. William Gladstone stands on the right of Justice, who holds the House of Lords and the Franchise Bill on scales, and to her left stands a small Punch like figure urging “Billy” to “pass the bill”. In the Victorian and Edwardian periods Punch and Judy shows could be seen in all major towns and cities. The storyline for these shows extended well beyond the nowadays more recognised story of infanticide, violence against women and murder to encompass, in a satirical manner, the topical political stories of the day. In this context Punch would have been a celebrity figure famous for mocking figures of establishment. Master Puppeteer and founder of ‘The Punch and Judy Fellowship’ Glyn Edwards describes punch as ‘the lord of misrule’.

Very much an object of public and political performance the Shipwrights’ banner, like many other craft and trade banners of the popular reform movement, appeals to our sense of socio-political drama. The wider material culture of the popular reform movement (i.e. posters, pamphlets etc) and its radical processions “served to visualise and thus realise the dignity, skill and respectability of labouring men, and, by extension, their fitness for the franchise” (Nixon et al 2012).

Scottish reformers throughout the reform politics of 19th Century Britain could often be seen at galas and political processions holding aloft banners and fasces with the motto “Unity is Strength” or slogans of similar sentiment (Pentland 2005). Unity here often referring to British national unity. Pentland (2005) argues that by presenting themselves as a British movement the reformers pitted their democratic ‘crusade’ against the plotting and intrigues of a narrow faction of parliamentary elites. Text along the bottom of the Glasgow Shipwrights’ Society banner reads “United together in freedoms great cause we are determined and must have equal rights and equal laws”. Pentland points out that while the 1707 Acts of Union had given Scotland “access to expanded commercial horizons … her political system had been untouched by English freedoms” (ibid: 1003). With this thought in mind notions of unity and equality expressed in the banner speak to an emerging class politics but also a wish to nullify the still potent residues of feudalism in Scotland by accessing English liberties.

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Richard Leonard (2015), Political Education Officer for the GMB tells us about the lineage of the Shipwrights Society. "The Shipwrights [...] represented [...] a constituent part of the GMB. But its lineage goes back to the early part of the 19th century. The Shipwrights’ Societies were established in most of the major shipbuilding areas. The Mersey, the Tyne and the Clyde were principally the areas where the Shipwrights organised. They were largely founded on artisanship and kinship.

There was then, as there can be now, a certain aristocracy of the working class and the Shipwrights saw themselves fairly near the apex of that aristocracy at that time. During the course of the 19th century the Shipwrights, who were principally carpenters and woodworkers and were therefore responsible for making ships of wood and masts and sails, saw those skills diminish with the advent of steam powered boats made of iron and steel. So there were a series of demarcation disputes in the shipyards, especially with the Boilermakers’ Society – which was in the ascendancy – in those jobs associated with the Shipwrights.

Partly in response to that and partly in response to changing trading conditions the Shipwrights tried to build an amalgamated union. But it wasn’t until 1882 that they finally moved from a series of local societies to having a national trade union structure. Even then it was quite loose compared to some of the other unions. This union of Shipwrights, which was known as the ‘Association of Shipwrights’ was founded in 1882. [T]his banner is from 1884, so the national union is just two years old when this banner is commissioned and displayed.

The national union was set up with eleven societies, eight of which were from Scotland, three were from the Tyne. Eventually they joined with the Boilermakers and in 1963 the Blacksmiths also joined and it became one trade union. In 1982 exactly 100 years after the birth of a national union for Shipwrights this union joined with the General and Municipal Workers Union (GMWU) to form the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union (GMBATU)."