UNITE members were well represented in a crowd of well over 100,000 people at the 130th Durham Miners Gala on 12 July 2014. The sheer spectacle of the occasion increasingly makes this annual event, first held in 1871, one not to be missed. The ancient cobbled streets of Durham City and its magnificent Castle and Cathedral were a fitting background for an impressive display of well over a hundred trade union and labour movement banners that were accompanied on the march to the Racecourse rally ground by booming brass bands.
The continued existence of the gala is something of a minor miracle. With Durham’s last mines having closed two decades ago it means there have been no contributions since 1993 to the gala organisers, the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA), which still continues to represent at industrial tribunals those made unwell by harsh working conditions.
With the DMA having lost a lengthy, highly expensive court case in defence of former miners suffering from osteoarthritis on grounds that the three-year time limit for claims had been exceeded then the future of the gala has been left in doubt. It currently costs in excess of £60,000 for what is the biggest union event in the country. Friends of the Durham Miners’ Gala was launched last year and asks people to make a minimum donation of £2 a month or £24 a year. Over a thousand people have so far signed up. Meantime, major unions and UNITE in particular have contributed generously to the organising costs.
When UNITE was formed in 2007 it was felt that the Gala should be a key event in the North. The Tolpuddle Martyrs festival has been a focus for trade unions to celebrate in the South and UNITE wanted a similar show of solidarity in the North.
Unite has also helped expand the Gala into almost a week of events with various national education courses taking place around the occasion. This year, UNITE commissioned the Red Ladder Theatre Company to present a Musical Play about the 1984/85 miners’ strike. We’re Not Going Back – was very well received when it made its debut in the main council chamber of the DMA headquarters at Redhills on the Thursday before the Gala.
The NUM and UNITE have been working closely together on a number of projects such as the joint establishment in the last year of two advice support centres at NUM buildings in Durham City and Barnsley. Professionally trained volunteers from amongst UNITE community members provide welfare and employments rights advice, whilst also co-ordinaing campaigns against welfare benefit cuts and workfare. On Friday 11 July UNITE community members held a demonstration outside the Durham DWP Jobcentre plus office to ‘highlight the Coalition Government’s unfair and unjustified attacks on the benefits system and on the unemployed, the sick and disabled and their families who rely on these benefits.” Around 150 people participated in the protest.
Around a thousand times as many turned up to the Gala the following day. On display were 80 miners’ union banners including new ones from Fenhall Drift mine in Lanchester, which operated between 1954 and 1963, St Hilda Colliery from South Shields, where on 28 June 1839 a fire damp explosion, ignited by a candle, killed 51 men and boys; and New Brancepeth colliery which closed in 1953.
West Rainton Primary School also ensured that West Rainton and Leamside community was represented at the Gala again with an Adventure Colliery, closed in 1978, banner on display for the first time. Following the successful collaboration between UNITE and the DMA there was also a first proud carrying of a UNITE community membership Durham banner. FIGHT FOR OUR FUTURE – celebrate our past was its slogan.
UNITE members from other branches also marched with their banners. They included members at Leeds City Council, fresh from their participation in the public sector strike of 10 July, and the Welsh region, who were celebrating the recent victory at the Supreme Court that paves the way for the creation of a Welsh Agricultural Wages Board to replace the one scrapped by the Con-Dem Government last year.
Tyneside Safety Glass UNITE members, who were also in high spirits after their recent successful pay strike, marched behind their banner with workplace rep Mark Robertson saying, “I came for the first time last year and I was intent on bringing my branch and its banner this year. I love the Gala as it is about working class solidarity and whilst it is sad that there are no working collieries represented it is great to see working class people coming along to maintain the tradition of this unique event.”
Tunefully accompanied by the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside (NEY&H) UNITE brass band, members waited patiently as the huge crowds made it difficult to move more than a few yards every ten minutes. A blistering hot day added to the carnival atmosphere and when the UNITE contingent, headed by the giant swaying highly decorative regional banner, was able to march past the assembled dignitaries on the overhead balcony at the impressive County Hotel a huge cheer and the applause of the packed watching crowds was a moment of real joy.
Arriving at the Racecourse rally ground the sheer size of the assembled crowd, the banners on display and the noise sent a shiver down the spine. The sight of the UNITE marquee and accompanying facilities were a welcome relief for tiring limbs and served as a meeting point for members to sit and relax.
There were also dozens of trade union and labour movement stalls including one for the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, which UNITE has supported, that has led the fight for justice for miners arrested and brutalised during the 1984-85 year-long strike in defence of jobs and communities.
One of the speakers, Paul Kenny of the GMB, remarked that if some newspaper reports were true and the trade union movement was really dead “then looking at this gathering then the after life is brilliant.” Kenny spoke of how he wanted a “normal” Labour Government with policies that prevented tax dodging, racketeering landlords, zero hours contracts and provided for a living wage and security at work.
Prison Officers Association general secretary Steve Gillan warned that if the Tories win next May’s general election they will introduce legislation similar to the one introduced in 1984 that makes it illegal for his members to take industrial action.
NUT general secretary Christine Blower was at pains to point out, “a housing bubble in London and the South East doesn’t mean people are seeing a recovery in their living standards as evidenced by the increasing numbers forced to rely on using food banks.”
Dennis Skinner, MP for Bolsover, has long been a favourite at the Gala. He pointed out that new proposals by the Tories to only allow strikes if there are huge ballot turnouts is at odds with the fact that hardly any MPs are elected with a 50% voting threshold. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has pointed out that: “Britain’s anti-trade union laws are already amongst the most restrictive in Europe.”
Skinner also received warm applause and raucous laughter when he said he had been prevented by the Commons speaker at Prime Minister’s question time from asking David Cameron if “he intended visiting his close friend and former communications director Andy Coulson in prison.” The largest cheer, however, was reserved for Jane Lofts of the Communication Workers Union when she said: “Workers should unite with every refugee and asylum seeker.”
When the rally closed at just after 3 pm the local pubs were packed and the nearby fairground was buzzing. Dave Hopper, the DMA general secretary, had told the departing crowds that “the Gala will be on next year” and such is its growing appeal that what was the largest attendance in many years may again be exceeded in 2015.
“I’d recommend anyone to consider coming to the Gala at anytime,” said Karen Reay, UNITE NEY&H regional secretary, “as it is a colourful, special sharing occasion in which the trade union values of solidarity are upheld. Long may it continue.”