Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Durham Miners' Gala 2011

The Durham Miners’ Gala is fast becoming a must do annual event for Unite members and thousands of their fellow trade unionists.

Held on the second Saturday in July since 1871, this year’s brought 130,000 people onto the cobbled streets of the ancient City whose Castle and Cathedral provides a fitting background for such an impressive display of banners - around a hundred - brass bands and those who had gathered in solidarity.

All the more appropriate therefore that the brand new Unite regional banner depicting the merging process that created Britain’s biggest union was given its first public showing. And nobody was more delighted than John Chilton, convenor at Boulby Potash mine near Whitby that is the last working mine in the North-East, Yorkshire and Humber: “ This is a very special day combining history and heritage with a vision of a better world that everyone can help build.”

Including - miraculously - Carlos Bugueno Alfara, one of the 33 Chilean Miners who survived being trapped underground last year, and who was given a heroes welcome when he joined Len McCluskey [Unite General Secretary], Bob Crow RMT General Secretary], Labour MPs Cathy Jamieson and Dennis Skinner, Dave Prentis [Unison General Secretary] and Chris Kitchen [NUM General Secretary] on the speakers platform - at the rally [*] which rounds off the earlier march - to be promised support in their fight to be paid for the 69 days they survived.

Chilton and his 20 mates from the mine were almost in tears and so too was former coal-miner and NUM activist Dave Douglass. Dave had helped carry one of seven new Miners banners. Follonsby colliery may have ‘disappeared’ when it merged in 1959 with nearby Wardley, that itself closed in August 1974, but its banner clearly had a big impression on the young Douglass when he started his working life at Wardley.

The new one was doing something similar for the dozens queuing up to photograph it. The banner had first been displayed in Ireland at a Mayday festival in County Meath, an appropriate location, as it’s the only banner to have featured the portrait of James Connolly, the Irish revolutionary socialist and leader of the Citizen’s Army who was executed by the British after the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916.

Close by Sam Scholey, treasurer of the Unite First Direct branch, was keen to tell as many marchers as possible that ordinary finance workers shouldn’t be blamed for the financial mess caused by the City, and investment bankers, Sam was “soaking in the fantastic atmosphere” of her first gala and was delighted to see “so many trade unionists from different workplaces coming together.”

Kevin Donnelly had travelled from Bradford. A youth worker for 14 years he’s the branch secretary for the Leeds Unite branch of community and youth workers and is worried about the future of the youth service under the current government saying: “it could easily be the first public service to disappear, which is why youth workers need to continue to recruit their colleagues and collectively resist to maintain a service on which many working class young people depend on and need.”

Although he’s an ex-military man Donnelly called on the government to switch funding from the military campaigns being waged in Iraq, Afghanistan and now, Libya to public services including the NHS and education. On a weekend when the News of the World was set to disappear Donnelly was also hoping to purchase a copy of Bad News [go to June section for more details] that were being sold by some Printworkers sacked by Murdoch in 1986.

Dave Allan, a Sunderland Labour councillor, has attended dozens of previous Gala’s. He wouldn’t, despite the torrential rain, and the fact that the numbers attending means it takes over four hours to move just a mile, have missed this years for the world saying: “This is an enjoyable day, but one which also carries a serious message. Because by remembering the past you project into the present and future and strive for a government that seeks to protect the most vulnerable in a period when capitalism is in crisis.”

“It’s fantastic to see such a strong turnout and I seem to be saying this every year but the Gala or Big Meeting, as its known amongst many, seems to go from strength to strength and this year the Unite delegation is the biggest so far” said plumber Pat McCourt, who represents the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside on the Unite Executive.


Dedicated to Joseph Charlton, aged 42, and Robert Noble, aged 45, relatives of mine who perished in the Easington Colliery disaster sixty years ago this year.

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