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A celebration of working-class culture, community and history

Get involved in a revival of trade unionist values at the fourth annual With Banners Held High event on Sunday May 20, says organising chairman MARTYN RICHARDSON

IN 1932, following a gap of over 20 years, the Yorkshire Mineworkers Association (YMWA) with some difficulty revived the Yorkshire Miners’ Gala demonstration which took place that year in Locke Park, Barnsley. 

The organisation of this event was met with hostility from some coal owners who threatened workers with prosecution if they attended and also a degree of disinterest from a large number of YMWA branches from the offset. 

This, I believe, was a symptom of the relentless struggle the country’s miners and broader working-class faced during the inter-war period against their capitalist rulers. 

Working-class identity had been eroded by the morale-squashing weapons of widespread poverty and unemployment. Nevertheless, YMWA area officials recognised the need and importance of such an event and further calls for solidarity were launched. 

Among many of the issues discussed on the podium, the president of the YMWA, and one of the greatest miners’ leaders in history, Herbert Smith, discussed in-depth the issue of non-unionism. It was suggested that there were some 40,000 non-unionists among the Yorkshire miners alone. 

The invited speaker and MP for Rothwell William Lunn commented on this statement and retorted with: “Today will do more in the way of propaganda than anything we have had for a long time past.”

Born just before the 1984-85 miners’ strike, I’m slightly too young to remember miners’ galas but their legacy is firmly entrenched into my identity.

In 2015, with the closure of Kellingley Colliery, we bid farewell to an industry which supported generations of families, my own included, and one which formed a cultural identity which helped shape the British trade union movement. Parallels with the miners’ union and non-unionism in the 1930s are clearly visible with that of issues facing trade unions today around the growth of membership numbers.

The intermittent work of the inter-war period is replaced today with zero-hours contracts which guarantee nothing but insecurity and exploitation. 

Restrictions on trade unions and industrial action brought in by the 1927 Trade Disputes Act following the General Strike bear strong similarity to trade union legislation implemented by this Conservative government in an attempt to erode collective bargaining power and union effectiveness.  

The trade union movement has been broad and far-reaching and at the heart of collective bargaining and our communities for generations. 

Trade unions need us now more than ever. February 2017 saw the number of days lost due to labour disputes as low as 21,000 compared to 781,000 just 40 years earlier in February 1977, according to the Office for National Statistics. 

Such levels have not been seen since 1893. Since 1979 trade union membership has fallen from 13.5 million to six million. 

This is not because workers are not being exploited, underpaid or unfairly treated any more but because, alongside draconian legislation, generations have grown up without heavy industry where traditionally an education of trade unionism underpinned awareness of working-class history, protest, trade union history, class consciousness and all of their relevance. 

Our history is as relevant now as it ever has been and it is events like With Banners Held High and others around the country such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs celebration, the Durham Miners’ Gala, and the Chainmakers’ Festival, which are playing a pivotal and profoundly important role in promoting a collective identity in an era where the Conservative ideal of individualism appears to reign supreme.

This year marks an important turning point for With Banners Held High as we embark on an ambitious vision to make it Yorkshire’s fastest-growing event of the trade union calendar.

Originally organised to mark the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike of 1984-85, the event now encompasses the entire trade union movement. 

The focus of the event this year is “The Fight for Consciousness,” where we intend to absorb some of the energy which has developed behind Jeremy Corbyn and his socialist vision for the Labour Party into the trade union movement. 

Ambitious, I know, but, try we must. Growing up in the aftermath of the miners’ strike in Barnsley, I experienced first-hand the devastating effect Thatcher policies had on working-class communities. 

Further to the attacks on industry, I now look back in hindsight fully aware of the lack of a political education designed to deny myself and entire generations of working-class children a political identity. 

Attacks on trade union power and non-unionised workplaces meant that I had my first political class at Northern College, Barnsley, in 2012 at the age of 28. 

I am not alone. My generation and after have had to fight for a political consciousness and not succumb to apathy. For the first time in my lifetime we have a real grassroots-driven movement which is attractive and exciting to be a part of and it is the task of both stalwarts and new members alike, to appeal to our broader communities. 

As many of you are probably now aware, our usual venue, Unity Works in Wakefield, went bankrupt in late 2017. The event was fully organised by this point and the news came as a shock to everyone involved. 

After a period of consolidation it was decided to turn the situation to our advantage. The date for this year’s event is Sunday May 20 on Wood Street, Wakefield. 

With Banners Held High will continue to offer a varied and thorough educational element along with an array of local talent providing entertainment throughout the day. 

This year’s event will be free for everyone and will open with its first-ever march and parade gathering at Wakefield Cathedral from 9.30am.

Marching with banners is a symbol of pride in the movement, the cause and the culture and we are keen to get the streets ablaze with banners, noise and proud members of the movement. 

Community groups, activists, unions, campaigns and former miners and their families are all encouraged to take part and contribute to making the event a community success. 

We are also delighted that the TUC will be hosting an anniversary lecture as part of their year-long programme of events to celebrate its 150th anniversary year. 

In conjunction with the TUC we will also be running a variety of events under the name “Collective Spirit” which will be taking place in venues throughout Wakefield city centre during the week prior to With Banners Held High (May 13-20).

So be aware of events taking place before With Banners Held High — check our social media for details. 

This year’s event promises to be huge but to make this happen we need your support. Come and enjoy Yorkshire’s fastest-growing trade union event. We are on the verge of a new wave of trade unionism. Get attending, get organised, get unionised. 

If you would like further information about any aspect of With Banners Held High please contact withbannersheldhigh@outlook.com.

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