On the 9th of July 2022 over 200,000 trade unionists flooded into the cobbled city of Durham for the Miners’ Gala, one of the world’s largest political festivals. Although attendance had been declining since the defeat of the miners in 1985, more recent Gala’s have been buoyed up by the rise of the Labour left. After a two year pause during Covid, the festival was back for the first time since the 2019 election, with a massive turnout and untrammelled collective joy.
I was in Durham with several younger trade union members (below 35) from Unite and Unison who’d also never been before. The speeches on the Racecourse at 1pm were the main event, and this year were defined by the new sense of confidence articulated by trade union leaders. Stephen Guy, Chairman of Durham Miners’ Association, a former miner and now a trade union official, was the first chosen speaker, and had the unfortunate task of having to historicise the last fews years and narrate the ebbs of flows of hope and despair through the 2019 election and ravages of the pandemic.
Guy lamented that for the first time in its history a Tory coalition currently controlled the County Durham Unitary Authority, and was one of the few people to directly reference that in the last few years we’ve lost hope of attaining much better and fairer society any time soon, but far from being bitter and defeated, Guy set the tone of rediscovered purpose.
The significant shift in the union landscape could perhaps best be exemplified by the appearance of Patrick Roach – general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT). Roach not only came to the gala for the first ever time, but also sounded like a militant. Historically NASUWT was derived from a split from the National Union of Teachers (which recently merged to become the National Education Union) and rightly or wrongly has broadly been known as more politically conservative than NUT/NEU. From the stage Roach spoke about above-inflation pay rises, and the national strike ballots possibly needed to achieve them – but also alluded to flaunting Tory anti-trade union laws if necessary. Whether this was all talk remains to be seen, but it still marks a confirmed shift for a NASUWT general secretary to be talking like this.
Yvette Williams – a campaigner from Justice for Grenfell – was a powerful speaker who explicitly linked miners’ struggles with the Grenfell disaster. She also spoke proudly of how her Dad was a train driver who went out in solidarity with the miners, who taught her why solidarity action is essential, and she concluded by saying emphatically by saying “we’re in a war now”, and that we need to fight not for the sake of it, but to win.
Despite the travails of UCU in recent years Jo Grady also sounded optimistic and defiant, and of course did not allude to the recent internal clashes in her own union around strike strategy. Grady instead directed us to “be proud of our class and its rich history”, and like many confirmed the main theme of the possibilities of this juncture: “friends we are living in a moment… let’s make it our moment.”
While she’s yet to achieve many of the reforms she wants to, to be fair to Sharon Graham, Unite under her leadership seems to have led the charge on winning disputes and initiating industrial action when necessary. As of this July, over the last 7 months workers in Unite have been involved in 362 disputes covering 63,000 members, resulting in over £50 million being won for Unite members. Like many present on-stage and off, Graham has mining ancestors – her Great uncle died of a broken spine in a Durham pit, leaving behind a wife and two young children, and she lambasted this corporate greed that kills our loved ones. She very much laid her agenda out, saying that she was determined to bring trade unions back to their core role of building industrial and political power in the workplace. Excitingly, Graham also alluded to how she wants to build new kinds of power in the age of finance, stating we need to “move the share price as well as the picket line”, suggesting some of her groundbreaking work from Unite’s Organising & Leverage Department may also become more prominently a part of Unite’s industrial strategy.
The biggest cheers of the day were predictably for Mick Lynch, who dominated the newscycle in June during the RMT’s rail strike, and became a figurehead for more wide-spread renewal of industrial militancy. His overriding message was clear: we must celebrate our class and celebrate our history, and it’s time to announce to the world “we are back, the working class is back!” But as well as exhorting the hundreds of thousands gathered in the boiling sun on the Racecourse in Durham to believe in the working class, and believe in our movement, he explicitly instructed people to join up everyone in their workplace to get active in their union, their union branches, at regional level, and even “chip the full time officers into activity” if necessary. This kind of explicit call to internal action within ossfied union structures is one of the reasons why the RMT has sometimes been seen as an enfant terrible by some general secretaries and union officers.
After the speeches concluded, four or five selected bands and banners march to Durham Cathedral for the Miners’ Service, where new banners are blessed. This was a touching event, featuring as it did praise Mangrove Street Band from Nottinghill Carnival – who are doing an exchange with the Gala – and the out-going Bishop explicitly linking the Gresford Mining disaster with Grenfell. It was, however, notable this year that no Labour MPs officially featured on the main stage, and were only to be found wandering around as punters like myself.
There is immense potential power in our current political and economic relations. Even this Tory government, faced as it is by climate breakdown and energy supply inflation, recently announced subsidies for 10 new onshore wind farm projects, and an upgrade of the national grid to support more off-shore renewable energy, meaning an expanding (and unioniseable) domestic energy sector is a real possibility regardless of how much the new leader kicks and screams about Net Zero. The new vanguard of the union movement could be there for us to discover, recruit and train, and in Durham we found a whole movement who could be up to the task of building a more hopeful future.