Saturday, 30 July 2016

Coal Not Dole

The coal mining industry has a special place in working class history and culture.  The hardships and dangers of the miner's life feature in the literature of social reform, with DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and Emile Zola's Germinal both featuring the hardships of the miners life and in Zola's case, the devastating, life and death struggles to unionise and negotiate a fair wage.

It has an even richer tradition in folk song.  Here's one of my favourites, 'Coal Not Dole', written in 1984 at the height of the British miners' strike by Kay Sutcliffe, who was married to one of the strikers.  It's sung here by veteran English folk singer Norma Waterson.

It stands so proud, the wheel so still,
A ghostlike figure on the hill.
It seems so strange, there is no sound,
Now there are no men underground.

What will become of this pit yard
Where men once trampled, faces hard?
Tired and weary, their shift done,
Never having seen the sun.

Will it become a sacred ground?
Foreign tourists gazing round
Asking if men once worked here,
Way beneath this pithead gear.

Empty trucks once filled with coal,
Lined up like men on the dole.
Will they e'er be used again
Or left for scrap just like the men?

There'll always be a happy hour
For those with money, jobs and power;
They'll never realise the hurt
They cause to men they treat like dirt.

You can find many versions of this on the internet - the Oyster Band do a lovely one which segues into Bells of Rhymney, another coal mining song written by Welsh poet Idris Davies in the 1930s and first recorded by Pete Seeger.  Other mining songs are even older.  'Blackleg Miner', made famous by Steeleye Span, originates from the north of England in the 1840s and delivers a blunt warning to strike-breakers, who would stain their legs black to journey to the mine at night unseen.

The mining industry was always fertile ground for unionism.  The work was hard and dangerous, and in the early days of industrialisation often poorly paid.  The workers not only worked together but lived together in specially provided housing near the mine.  They had the motivation to organise, and their proximity made it easy.  Of course they faced opposition but the stakes were high - not only their livelihoods, but their very lives, were often at issue.  Over time they succeeded in extracting better pay and conditions from their employers.  In addition, unions were at the forefront of social initiatives - working men's clubs, hardship funds for injured miners or widows and orphans, and so forth.

By the third quarter of the 20th century the British coal industry was being run by a government owned corporation which, while a model employer, was not especially profitable.  The industry was sustained on the basis that it was in the national interest to have a local energy source even if the prices for British coal, dug up from old fashioned pit mines, struggled to compete with product from sources like Australia.

In early 1984, Maggie Thatcher decided to change all that.  The British coal industry involved three things she despised - government ownership, the prioritisation of social goals over profit, and a strong union presence.  She announced that a large number of marginal mines across the country would be closed.  The result was a bitter industrial dispute which lasted into the early part of 1985 and at its height saw over 140,000 miners out on strike.  The miners knew that their livelihoods and way of life were at stake, and they fought hard.  Ultimately it was a fight they couldn't win - when your only weapon is to withdraw your labour it is not very effective against an employer who doesn't particularly want it.  Thatcher got her way, the mines closed, and today there is little coal mining anywhere in Britain.

It was a defining moment for British society, a moment when battle lines were drawn.  The left was firmly in the miners camp - the mines should stay open, it was better than putting the men on the dole.  Folk singers, always on the left, sang "Coal Not Dole" up and down the country.  Other songs were written too.  Even Sting, famous for his environmentalism, wrote one called "We Work the Black Seam" because not only was the closure of the mines an attack on the working class, Thatcher's preferred alternative was nuclear power.

One day in a nuclear age
They may understand our rage
They build machines that they can't control
And bury the waste in a great big hole
Power was to become cheap and clean
Grimy faces were never seen
Deadly for twelve thousand years is carbon fourteen

Sting has his substances mixed up, but his point is a valid one - Thatcher's strategy was to pursue private profit at all costs, and the future be damned.  And of course the closure of mines was only part of a wider process of de-industrialisation in the western world as factories of all sorts closed down, shifted offshore in search of cheap labour or mechanised to the point where hardly any labour was needed.  In each case the process was fought tooth and nail by unions to no avail, and mourned by singers, as in the Oyster Band favourite, "Another Quiet Night in England".

Where is the pit and the mill
Where is the skill and the sweat from their hands?
Gone with the smoke and the heat
The noise and the beat of the heart of the land.

Anyhow, I live in Australia, it's 2016 and haven't times changed?  Coal mining is a huge industry here.  It is still unionised to a large extent and it is still somewhat dangerous although, thanks to those generations of union activists, nothing like it used to be.  But there are not that many actual miners any more, and they are no longer wiry men with picks and shovels.  They are highly trained, well paid machine operators.  Sometimes they still live near the mine, but once they quit the job they head for the coast and more and more of them fly in and out on a weekly basis.

These days the left is unlikely to fight to keep mines open.  In fact, we are engaged in a bitter and high-stakes struggle to have them closed.  Coal mine closure is no longer an attack on the working class and a Trojan horse for the nuclear industry.  Now the shoe is on the other foot.  We are in a desperate fight to avoid dangerous levels of global warming and shift rapidly to safer renewable sources, resisted tooth and nail by greedy mining companies who want every dollar of profit they can get and the future be damned.

The other thing that has changed is that to a large extent, Thatcher and her likes have won the battle with the unions.  In the end, the battle wasn't won by confrontations like the miners' strike and Murdoch's lock-outs of striking print workers.  Instead, it took place gradually through the shift to a post-industrial economy.  Unions remain strong in traditional industries like mining and manufacturing, but these have become less and less important.  The emerging powerhouses - information technology, retail and service industries, aged care and so forth - are largely non-unionised and it shows in the levels of casualisation, low wages and repeated examples of exploitation.

Unions have struggled to adapt to this new world, their rhetoric and models of organisation still based on those developed in the factory and the mine.  Nor have they coped well with globalisation - while employers and investors skip freely across the globe searching for low wages, unions remain firmly within national borders, arguing for protectionism and limits to immigration rather than making common cause with exploited brothers and sisters in the factories of Asia or South America.

"Coal Not Dole", "We Work the Black Seam" and "Another Quiet Night" are all beautiful, emotive songs.  They make you want to go out and fight for the workers who are losing their jobs, to resist the heartless machinations of capitalists intent on nothing but profit.  But their fights are over, the battles lost.  The battles of today often look the opposite although greed and short-sighted self-interest are the same in every generation.  Are there songs for our age and our battles?  None spring to mind that have the same power and resonance but perhaps, although rap is not my thing, this one might be a good place to start?

No comments: