“Educate, Agitate, Organise”
150 people attended the grand opening of the Durham Miners Association (DMA) and Unite Community Support Centre on Friday 15 November 2013 in Durham City.
This is the second joint initiative between miners’ and Unite Community members. Earlier this year the National Union of Mineworkers and the country’s largest union set up a similar centre in Barnsley.
Unite has also established a further four support centres across the UK including in Tower Hamlets in London. The City of London may see £billions of pass through it every day, but many parts of England’s capital city remain blighted by poverty. Liane Groves, Unite Community national coordinator, is currently examining if similar centres can be opened in many more locations to help counter this government’s sustained attacks on the unemployed and working people.
In each centre a body of professionally trained volunteers provide welfare and employment rights advice, whilst there are multi-skills courses for unemployed people plus opportunities to join Unite as a community member and get active in campaigning against the likes of the bedroom tax.
The support centre in Durham is located in the DMA’s Redhills building. This was opened in 1915 and is a handsome, impressive building that stands as a fitting tribute to the Durham miners’ struggles for decent pay, safe working conditions, justice and equality. The building is a masterpiece both architecturally and in the materials and craftsmanship. When miners met coal owners there to negotiate over wages and conditions it placed them on an equal footing.
Today, the grandeur of Redhills stands in direct contrast to the situation facing the former mining communities in a region which urgently requires regenerating in order to boost employment opportunities.
Once proud locations such as Easington Colliery now have over half the shops on the front street boarded up. Easington survived after the tragedy that killed 85 miners in May 1951 and the small town was the scene of heroic resistance during the year-long miners strike in 1984-85. John Major’s government made people pay for fighting for their communities when the mine was closed in 1993 with the loss of 1,400 jobs. The brief media attention, which followed the filming of Billy Elliot there in 2000, failed to halt the inevitable decline with young people facing a future without work. Many people have relocated and there are now a large number of empty houses. Sadly, the example of Easington Colliery is not unique in Durham.
Which, as Dave Hopper, the DMA general secretary, said is “why it is great to be opening this support centre. We have got tens of thousands of people who are being denied benefits they because they don’t know what or how to claim even if they are working. Many infirm people also need help as they are wrongly being classified as fit for work and thus denied what are already meagre benefits.
“There is a lot of despair in our communities, especially amongst young people. Even those who manage to find work are on zero hours contracts where if they don’t jump to the employers’ demands they get sacked. We want to make sure they join a union. We are organising a series of meetings across Durham and want people to get much more active in campaigning to protect services and for jobs to be brought to the region. The DMA and Unite can do a lot of good work together through this support centre.”
Initially, the centre will be open between 10am and 5pm every Wednesday and Thursday. Amongst the ten volunteers is Aurelia Smith, a former civil servant and activist in the PCS trade union, and John Kelly, the Unite branch secretary for the Durham geographical branch and part-time lorry driver. Both have a wealth of experience in providing welfare and employment rights advice and wish to introduce people to trade unions as organisations that can help them. The hope is that someone who comes into the centre for benefits advice and/or to enroll on one of the many skills courses will also become a Unite community member. Then, once they find work they will switch to becoming an industrial member of Unite.
The skills courses that are planned under the direction of Unite learning organiser David Condliffe include english, mathematics, information technology, public speaking, graphic design and new media. These new skills will improve people’s employment prospects – thus boosting their confidence – as well as being able to help them in any campaigning initiatives they may wish to get involved with locally. “We have put on media courses in the Barnsley support centre and by the end we have had people designing their own posters as part of campaigning against the bedroom tax. The blogger courses we have organised have seen people design their own blogs in order to involve friends in fighting to protect a local bus route,” says Dave. The support centre has a suite of computers and is newly decorated. A visitor will pass along corridors packed with history including old miners banners and a plaque to those from County Durham who fought in the Spanish Civil War between 1936-39.
The struggle against fascism is an ongoing one. The weekend prior to the opening of the support centre witnessed the English Defence League march in nearby Shotton Colliery and opposition was limited. “That is an example of why we cannot allow our communities to be left to rot. We must fill them with progressive politics and restore the old socialist values of the trade unions. We need the Labour Party to then recognise it must support the communities that back them.”
The local Labour Euro MP, Stephen Hughes, was one of many dignitaries at the opening and he “warmly welcomed this new initiative in these troubled times.” Ian McFaul from Thompsons solicitors did the same whilst Howard Beckett, head of legal and affiliated services at Unite, said, “we can learn everything from this initiative. What we are doing is nothing more than what the DMA has done historically in providing services, including housing, to its members. Which is why it can still bring out tens of thousands of people each year to its Gala despite there being no working mines locally.”
It was left to Karen Reay, Unite regional secretary for the North East, Yorks and Humberside, to sum the day up: “What a great turnout of local trade unionists, elected representatives and members of the local community. We are sure we can utilise this great building to help rebuild our local communities.”