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THE pits may have gone, but the spirit of Britain’s mineworkers, their families and their communities lives on — and nowhere more so than at the Durham Miners’ Gala.
Today we mark the 135th Durham Miners’ Gala, the Big Meeting, with a day of celebration and solidarity of the trade union movement and the working class.
It is our movement’s biggest event in Britain, and one of the biggest in Europe.
But throughout the year the work of the National Union of Mineworkers and its areas also goes on.
Tens of thousands of former miners rely on the union and its activists for help.
The diseases associated with the coalmining industry still affect our members — respiratory ailments such as emphysema, pneumoconiosis and bronchitis, and the painful condition vibration white finger, caused by the long-term operation of machinery.
Claims for compensation are made on behalf of members by the union.
The union continues to push for changes to the prescription of industrial diseases through the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) to ensure a level playing field for our members and former members.
It is appropriate that today’s Morning Star is accompanied by a special section, “Coal Face,” which has been published by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign (OTJC).
Orgreave is an unhealed wound for mineworkers, our families and our communities.
We should congratulate those dedicated comrades who continue to campaign in the face of Tory denial of justice for the miners who were battered, beaten and falsely arrested at the Orgreave cokeworks in June 1984.
The National Union of Mineworkers stands with them, and will continue to do so until that justice is achieved.
Other issues on which the union continues to campaign include the scandal of the mineworkers’ pension funds.
When the coal industry was privatised in 1994 the Tory government said it would underwrite future pensions, meaning that if ever there was a shortfall in the returns from the pensions investments the government would make up the shortfall.
In return the government would take 50 per cent of any annual surpluses from the investments.
The deal with the government was struck by the trustees of two pensions schemes, the Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme (MPS) and British Coal Staff Superannuation Scheme (BCSSS).
It was not agreed by the National Union of Mineworkers.
Since then there has not been a single year in which the pensions have received government support.
The result is that successive governments have creamed off £4.4 billion from the MPS alone and a similar amount from the BCSSS. It’s been a one-way street passing money from the pension funds to the Exchequer.
The £4.4 billion is four times the amount the Tory government of John Major anticipated it would make over a 25-year period (£2bn from both schemes).
The National Union of Mineworkers has repeatedly pressed for the rip-off to stop through a renegotiated agreement between the government and the trustees, but successive governments have refused — including three Labour governments.
The two pension schemes have 430,000 members, many suffering work related ill-health including the respiratory ailments mentioned earlier.
Miners and their wives and widows struggle to get by on pensions which could so easily be enhanced if the government were to reach a new agreement. But they refuse.
The National Union of Mineworkers will continue that campaign until we win on behalf of our 430,000 retired members.
We also now know that not “all earned pension up to privatisation” is covered by the guarantee as the Guaranteed Minimum Pension (GMP) element has not been increased by RPI.
There is also our responsibility towards sacked miners.
It’s hard to believe that today, 35 years after our strike against pit closures, there are still mineworkers who were sacked and blacklisted for their activities during the strike.
Their numbers are dwindling. Only a handful remain, but they deserve our constant support for as long as they need it.
The Durham Miners’ Gala is not a nostalgic look at the past, though we do celebrate the traditions of socialism and solidarity which have been the bedrock of our industry, our communities and our union for more than 100 years.
It is also about continuing those traditions as the struggles of our class and our movement continue today.
Who would have thought in the days of the Thatcher government that the situation of working people in Britain could get even worse. But it has.
Since 2010 our people have been subjected to an onslaught the like of which we have never suffered before — and it gets worse year after year.
Public services are being decimated. Cut upon cut has been made against our health service, education, social housing, support for those most in need including disabled people.
We have the obscenity of foodbank Britain. Workers suffer increasing exploitation through the so-called gig economy and zero-hours contracts.
Worse is yet to come, including the handing over of even more of our NHS to privateer healthcare operators.
Companies in the United States are poised to swoop if the government signs a new trade deal with the US after Brexit.
The trade union movement and our party, the Labour Party, must continue and intensify our struggle against the Tories and their capitalist paymasters.
What heartens me is the knowledge that working people are fighting back. Across Britain there are strikes — successful strikes — by workers across a broad range of industries.
NHS ancillary staff out in Bradford this week, victory for McDonald’s workers who went on strike, victory for striking guards at Northern Rail — the list goes on.
Remember our old slogan: “The workers! United! Will never be defeated!”
Chris Kitchen is general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers.
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