WAPC movement still going strong

Despite Britain’s coal mining industry having been reduced to five deep mines, the Women Against Pit Closures movement is alive, well and campaigning nationally and internationally, writes Peter Lazenby

July 31, 2012
5 min read

Photo by Joan Heath

When Durham Miners’ Association staged its annual ‘Big Meeting’ – Durham Miners’ Gala – a new banner joined the 80 or so there which keep alive the spirit of the county’s former pit communities and its coal mining industry – the banner of the Women Against Pit Closures movement (WAPC). Accompanying the banner were four of the original activists involved in the epic 1984-85 miners’ strike against closures – Anne Scargill, Betty Cook, Bernadette France and Georgina Chapman.

When the strike started, there were 180 deep coal mines in Britain and 180,000 miners. Today there are five deep coal mines and less than 2,000 miners. Britain has not stopped using coal, it simply buys it from abroad – nearly 50 million tonnes a year, the equivalent of 50 deep mines and 50,000 miners’ jobs.

Britain sits on an estimated 300 years of coal reserves, and the WAPC, like the National Union of Mineworkers, hopes and believes that the development of Clean Coal Technology (CCT) and the world energy crisis will mean the country one day turning again to its natural indigenous fuel supply for its energy needs.

Anne Scargill, one of the WAPC founders who has been an inspiration for the power of women’s action around the world, said: ‘WAPC is as relevant today as it was when it first started. We have an energy crisis and there are millions of tonnes of coal beneath our feet. We have to campaign for the case for coal.’ That is one of the reasons for the continuing existence of Women Against Pit Closures. There are others. Anne’s long-time friend, comrade and fellow-campaigner Betty Cook said: ‘One of the things we do is raise medical aid for Cuba. North Staffordshire WAPC have been working on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees. We fought struggles in the 1984-5 strike and the 1992-3 closures programme. Our relevance today is that we are still fighting struggles for working collieries, and the repeal of anti-union laws.’

The women are active locally and internationally. Betty said: ‘We maintain links with other unions, particularly the Fire Brigades Union.’ WAPC women were in action during a recent FBU strike in South Yorkshire, picketing Barnsley fire station. The group maintains international links including with women coal miners in the United States, and with mineworkers in Australia. The group is also looking for ways to help miners and their families in Spain where a bitter struggle is taking place, with miners pitted against armoured riot police, as they try to defend their industry and their communities. The struggle is reminiscent of 1984-5 for the two women.‘We have to spread,’ said Anne. ‘Women in other countries are struggling like we struggled. We have got to get involved with the women in Spain. We have expertise to pass on.’

Both Anne and Betty are aware of the need for a new generation of women from mining communities to carry on the work. Betty is particularly in touch with the National Union of Mineworkers at Kellingley colliery in Yorkshire, a relatively modern mine. Betty’s link is very personal, as her son Donny was killed at the pit three years ago. ‘We hope there will be another generation of women coming through,’ she said. Anne echoed the feeling. ‘We are getting older,’ she said – Anne is 70 and Betty 74. ‘I would like to see younger women coming along and campaigning, people coming up after us.’

And so to the new banner. It is the work of artist Andrew Turner, son of a miner from West Lothian. His uncle was a founder member of the Scottish Communist Party. While creating trade union and campaign banners is only part of his lifetime’s artistic work (he was born in 1939) he has created two dozen banners, which have caused controversy. His banner for the last new colliery in Britain, North Selby in Yorkshire, was made in the late 1980s. It depicts mounted police forcing down a gravestone on miners, who are resisting. It shows the forces lined up against the miners – politicians, police, judiciary, media.

When the pit’s NUM branch planned to raise it at the colliery’s annual open day management refused to allow it, saying the banner was ‘too provocative.’ Decades ago Turner deliberately broke away from the mainstream, traditional style of British trades union banners. His banners represent the reality of class struggle and conflict. The WAPC banner is one such. It is full of symbolism – Turner says his banners have to be read, not simply looked at. The impact of the banner at Durham appeared in line with his intentions. The banner was welcomed rapturously by the crowds lining the streets. Women from former pit communities were drawn to it the moment it was raised. Many examined its detail.

The banner will next appear on 8 September at the unveiling of a memorial to 86 men and boys killed at Allerton Bywater coal mine in Yorkshire, during the pit’s 110 year existence. The women of WAPC will be taking it there. Their work goes on.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry

Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram


26