I was a schoolboy the first time I elbowed my way through the crowd on Old Elvet Bridge to glimpse the brass bands of the Durham Miners’ Gala. The “Big Meeting”, as it is affectionately dubbed in the NorthEast of England, is an annual trade-union rally dating back to the nineteenth century. This July, the Gala held its 129th observance and nearly 100,000 activists descended on the city.
Two months before I first attended the Gala in 1997, the British general election had soundly ended the Tories’ eighteen years in leadership. Organizers from the Durham Miners’ Association welcomed the newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, as a guest-speaker. He was the old-dog unionist in a ‘modernizing’ “New”-Labour movement that had already begun to harbor skepticism among working-class constituents.
But it was not the podium-thumping speeches by Labour dignitaries and union leaders that left the greatest impression on me. It was the sight of prideful young workers marching behind their trade-union banners. And this year was no different.
The featured speakers of 2013 consisted of union leadership, such as RMT General Secretary Bob Crow, UNITE leader Len McCluskey and Trade Union Congress (TUC) General Secretary Frances O’Grady; left-wing London journalists Kevin Maguire and Owen Jones; and English actor Ricky Tomlinson. Bob Crow and keynote speaker Len McCluskey both made headlines for goring the Labour Party at a time when union ties to political parties are central to Westminster reform discussions. But none could upstage the voice of the rank-and-file.
Workers marched to the Old Racecourse not only in celebration but also in collective resistance. Since the miners’ strike of 1984-5 and the closing of the last County Durham mine at Wearmouth in 1993, those who once saw their march as a purely political expression have found new reasons to attend: to thwart the loss of industrial heritage and reinvigorate their towns.
In doing so, the Durham Miners’ Gala remains true to its leftist roots in the face of neoliberal economic models. Attendees display unabashedly socialist and communist sentiments of old miners’ unionism. In the parade, Marxist and Leninist regalia abounds, dutifully crafted trade-union lodge banners are carried with honor, and there is no shortage of revelers selling alternative press and Socialist newspapers from the curbstone.
The Gala also embraces its heritage as a jovial family outing. The “Big Meeting” is a term rooted in the neighborly, ‘get-together’ atmosphere. It is an event for friendship, family, and solidarity—a mix of radical brash and community charm.
This year, the Durham Miners’ Gala also continued its greatest tradition: It provided an opportunity for post-industrial mining communities to reinvigorate themselves and consider their place in the context of global-labor capital, electoral politics, and cultural heritage.
The Durham Miners’ Gala is, first and foremost, a celebration and enlivening of local mining heritage. But the Gala also considers the workers’ place in transnational labor-capital relations. The “Big Meeting” has a history of bringing together guests from around the world to share outside perspectives on local battles and common global struggles.
In doing so, the Gala has undertaken the daunting task of building solidarity beyond nationalism and regionalism and toward more conceptual notions ‘workers’ solidarity. During apartheid, for example, Durham families welcomed black South African miners into their homes and neighborhoods. There, the South Africans witnessed white miners performing sweated labor for the first time. It built a sustained relationship, and on the tenth anniversary of apartheid’s end, South Africa’s High Commissioner in London, Lindiwe Mabuza, spoke at the Gala. Events in 2011 also paid homage to the 32 Chilean copper miners trapped for 69 days in 2010. And last year, two Spanish miners spoke to an enthusiastic crowd about their strikes against the administration of Mariano Rajoy.
This year, the Gala continued to ‘look outwards’ by quickly distancing itself from anti-immigrant movements, such as the English Defence League and British National Party that have attempted to build inroads with an economically disillusioned white working-class in the North East. These movements have preyed on the racial, religious and immigrant “other.” Gala organizers fought to ensure that the working-class were not duped and deluded by racist and protectionist groups, even reminding attendees that the BNP had sided with Thatcher during the Great Strike and were no ally of working Britons.
This sort of mobilization, with an acute awareness of a workers’ place internationally, addresses the limits of working-class communities in post-industrial towns that often remain inward focused. International solidarity can feel artificial, but it is necessary in an era when industry and employment are infused with trends in transnational labor law and corporate globalization. Crossing political, geographical and cultural boundaries to democratize global governance is never easy, but begins with building awareness. This is especially true among a fairly homogenous white working-class such as the centuries-old Durham mining community.
The Durham Miners’ Gala also organizes a working community beyond the confines of a party establishment. Labour Party leaders were regular Gala attendees for much of the twentieth century when a trek north was just as symbolic as US Democratic presidential candidates speaking at the Labor Day rally in Detroit. During that period, Labour Party leaders often succumbed to the pressure of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers. In 1987, however, Neil Kinnock broke with the tradition by forgoing a trip to Durham. Prior to Ed Miliband’s attendance in 2012, it had been 23 years since a Labour leader had addressed the miners.
This year marked another Labour leader no-show. But as in years past, the Gala thrived without the fanfare of Labour Party dignitaries. And it continued to push political-insiders toward more worker-conscious policies, as it did in the nineteenth century for shorter working hours and safety in the industry (especially for children). In the face of lingering Thatcherism that has characterized the “New”-Labour governments, Gala attendees have grown more agitated and immediate in their push.
Last year’s highlights included activists John Hendy and Mark Serwotka challenging the positions of Ed Miliband on collective bargaining and labor law while he shared the stage. This year, vendors sold “Old Labour” t-shirts and Bob Crow called for an “alternative party of labour” rather than “[c]linging to the wreckage of a Labour Party that didn’t lift a finger to repeal the anti-union laws despite 13 years in power.” Many in the audience nodded and applauded as Len McCluskey cried out that the Labour Party has no “God-given right to exist” without the voice of ordinary working people.
The Gala’s ability to endure without the buttress of party politics is a testament to its viability as a workers’ assembly. Each year, Gala attendees notify their politicians that they demand real change, not the political expedience pushed in Westminster. And each year, “Third Way” MPs feel uneasy in their rapport with Gala leaders who hold the true loyalties of the Labour-base. It is a showcase of the peoples’ power, and working-class economic priorities.
The Gala also provides workers an opportunity to reflect on their values and heritage. The strength of this reflection is rooted in the celebratory atmosphere. Too often we see workers united only in times of plight (strikes, protests, boycotts, etc.). As an example, the US has witnessed large-scale labor unity in 2013 mostly during OUR Wal-Mart protests and low-wage fast-food strikes. The Gala, on the other hand, has no specific dispute at-hand. It is an uplifting atmosphere free from the fear that always haunts those with jobs on the line.
For much of its history, the Gala wasn’t such a festivity. It was a serious political gathering forgoing the carnival buzz. In the mid-1970s, however, strike victories in 1972 and 1974 had promoted a more jovial atmosphere. That has endured. This year, rambunctious crowds on Old Elvet Bridge were treated to brass band renditions of Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” and Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”
But with no operating pits in the county, the Gala also has created greater sense of cultural memory. It shows how communities have coped and survived after their capital and industrial ‘purpose’ has passed. This year, former miners downed their heads to the solemn brass dirge of Gresford (the site of one of Britain’s worst coal mining accidents) that led attendees into the Durham Cathedral for an Anglican worship and blessing. Such sounds are reminders of past fights and those to come.
Arthur Scargill, the former president of the National Union of Mineworkers was right years ago when he said that “what we need is not marches, demonstrations, rallies…what we need is direct action.” But the “Big Meeting” holds greater significance than a typical rally. It huddles the working-class together to regroup and discuss the challenges that lie ahead. At a time of strained relationships among working-class people once united by a town, a community, a job, and a way of life, a “Big Meeting” is a good start. And the questions it asks, and concerns it considers, are on the right track.
 Kevin Maguire, “Durham Miners’ Gala: A Time to Celebrate, A Time to Remember” in Durham Miners’ Gala: A Celebration of Trade Unionism and Community Spirit, A Special Issue, HOPE Not Hate Newsletter (May-June, 2013): 3.
 Paul Meszaras “Communities Under Strain in Durham Miners’ Gala: A Celebration of Trade Unionism and Community Spirit, A Special Issue, HOPE Not Hate Newsletter (May-June, 2013): 8-9.
Ryan Driskell Tate is a PhD student in history at Rutgers University. His research interests include 20th Century US social and political history; labor and working-class history; and women’s and gender history. A native of Illinois, he grew up in Durham, England.