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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.