Monday, October 13, 2014

Another Empowering Story from the UK Miners Strike on its 30th Anniversary

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the UK miners strike. The singular watershed event in U.S. labor relations in last the 50 years is arguably the illegal Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike in 1981. President Ronald Reagan’s firing of the 11,000 striking air traffic controllers is often cited as the event that made it acceptable for private sector companies to aggressively fight unions in organizing drives, at the bargaining table, and by using replacement workers for strikers. In Great Britain, the analogous watershed event is the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) 12-month strike against the government-run National Coal Board (NCB) in 1984-85, often now referred to simply as the Great Strike.

The strike was extremely divisive. Hard line bargaining stances spilled over into numerous violent clashes between miners and police, with an estimated 10,000 arrests, 1,700 injuries, and a couple of deaths. Politically, the strike highlighted north (poor) – south (rich) divisions within Britain, created fissures within the labor movement and the Labour party, and questioned the fabric of British society. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s opposition was so intense that she labeled the miners “the enemy within.” It was later revealed that MI5, Britain’s domestic CIA, led a widespread surveillance effort which included infiltration of NUM, bugging restaurants frequented by NUM leaders, and tapping the phone of every NUM branch. [For a collection of powerful images, see this Daily Mail retrospective]

Any yet, empowering stories emerge (and not just fictional ones, as in the movie-now-musical Billy Elliot). In stories that parallel the women’s brigade in the General Motors sit-down strike in 1935-36, women became actively involved in the NUM strike in running soup kitchens, speaking to groups around Great Britain to develop support for the strike, and picketing. A daughter, mother, and ex-wife of South Yorkshire miners captured this significant change in a later interview:

The NUM, as far as I can see, put all its eggs in the picketing basket, as they traditionally have, and made no particular provision for dealing with destitution amongst the families. So the women began to see that as well as campaigning there was a need to support the families. That meant going far beyond the traditional housewife role of the mining women. There has been large-scale catering, feeding five and six hundred people in a day; having to raise the money for that, learning to argue for it, to earn it in all sorts of ways, by speaking at meetings and rallies, by collecting on the streets. What they did was to set up an alternative welfare system, and an effective one at that. And these women who had never done anything outside the home before, learning to speak on public platforms to enormous audiences. The change in those women is tremendous. [Source: Vicky Seddon (ed.), The Cutting Edge: Women and the Pit Strike (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1986), p. 229.]

And now there is a movie, Pride, based on another empowering true story from this strike. A group of gay and lesbian activists in London from a group “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners” (LGSM) to raise money to support the strikers. One can easily imagine the culture clashes that result when LGSM members travel to a tiny Welsh village (Onllwyn) to personally hand over the donated money, as well as during subsequent reciprocal visits, such as for the “Pits and Perverts” benefit at a London rock club.

I highly recommend this movie to anyone who has the chance to see it. It is a very powerful and uplifting story. Individual struggles among activists and miners as well as the evolution of various relationships are captured with a deft blend of realism and humor. Within the domain of work, the film is a visual reminder that the labor movement can be a champion of social change, but it can be difficult to overcome traditional attitudes. Human resources professionals should also see this movie as a reminder that “diversity” should be very powerfully about human dignity, not superficially about broadening employee demographics to better serve a diverse customer base or enhancing creativity through a mixing of diverse perspectives. But you don't just have to be professionally interested in the domain of work to find this a very good movie. It has it all: human rights and dignity, identity, labor, caring, stunning Welsh scenery, an entertaining soundtrack, and many laughs.

To get you in the mood (or recall it, if you've seen the movie), here is the closing song: Billy Bragg, There is Power in a Union. Which reminds me of Jimmy Barnes, Working Class Man. Though one is British and the other Australian. But I digress. Just go see Pride.

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