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Durham Miners Gala

A very large turnout by Unite members helped make the 129th Durham Miners’ Gala on July 13 the biggest in many years.            

Over 150,000 people of all ages packed out the ancient City, whose Castle and Cathedral provided a fitting background for such an impressive display of banners - around 80 - and the booming brass bands that were cheered all the way by applauding onlookers.              

The region’s pits have long since disappeared. But the miners fight for better pay, improved working conditions, equality and social justice live on through the participating unions that represent workers in other industries and occupations.              

Unite members came from all parts of Britain and Ireland. They were led by the colourful North East, Yorkshire and Humberside (NEYH) regional banner and accompanied by the highly-entertaining Unite brass band. Miners who were present from the Boulby Potash and salt mine near Whitby included former coalminers recently employed there. All of them have joined Unite.

The rally at the Racecourse gala field was a truly magnificent sight and the speakers - Owen Jones, Margaret Aspinall, Kevin Maguire, Frances O’Grady, Bob Crow and Unite general secretary Len McCluskey - all attracted applause from the huge crowd. Maguire, the associate editor at the Daily Mirror, came armed with a £1,000 cheque from MP Dennis Skinner as funds are urgently needed to keep what is now the biggest union event in the country going. O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, urged people to “defend the NHS.”

McCluskey attacked the government for hypocrisy by scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board, that protected pay and conditions for low-paid agricultural workers, whilst raising MPs salaries and cutting taxes for millionaires. He noted that each year £40 billion is lost in tax avoidance and called on corporate giants and the super rich to pay their taxes.

The former Liverpool docker defended Unite’s fight for more working-class representation in Parliament saying: “The Parliamentary Labour Party does not look like, or think like, the working class communities it is supposed to represent. That is a problem as the Labour Party can only exist if it remains the voice of ordinary working people.”

McCluskey was not against re-examining the link between unions and Labour as “let’s face it, the block vote has not brought socialism. But if we are to convince thousands of working class people to join they will want to know if the next Labour government will reverse the coalition’s disastrous policies and will also be different from the Brown-Blair years as well. If Labour has learned then this scheme will work.” He drew the largest applause on a blistering hot afternoon that many Unite members will remember fondly for many years to come.

They include Callum Stanland, a Unite community member aged 19 from Grimsby, who said: “This is a fantastic event that remembers the past in order to give hope for a better future in which the current high unemployment levels are slashed and we have decently paid work for all.” Callum has been active in many campaigns with Unite, including the fight against the bedroom tax.

Ian Gent had travelled to Durham to attend his first Gala. The convenor of the staff unions at BAE systems has been at the forefront of the Unite campaign to save jobs at the Brough plant. He was bowled over “with the colour, the sounds and the phenomenal numbers that are here.” A view that was echoed by Jenny Tolman, a Unite workplace Sainsbury’s rep from Craigavon, Northern Ireland who said: “what a fantastic turnout and the solidarity is inspiring.” No surprise therefore that Steve Chivers, the Unite senior steward for street cleansing at Southampton City Council, was already looking forward to returning next year when he “hopes to persuade my branch to organise a coach to come here.”

This raises the possibility of the 2014 Durham Miners’ Gala being even bigger. That is certainly the aim of Karen Reay, the NEYH regional secretary, who said: “It’s lovely to see so many people collectively having a great day and sharing trade union values that can help create a better world in the future. Unite fully intends to ensure the Gala continues for many years.

“We are also committed to working with former mining communities. Following our recent opening of Unite/National Union of Mineworkers community advice centre in Barnsley we are moving ahead with a similar venture at the NUM headquarters in Durham City. There will be numeracy, literacy and IT courses, and the centre will also be a base for community campaigns.”