Archives for posts with tag: Strike

My latest Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine article (this is the submitted, unedited edition – expect the print edition to probably include different photos).

A review by C. Spiby of the photographic exhibition ‘Coalfaces: A Mining community in photos – Bargoed in the 1970s’ at the Winding House, New Tredegar, Newport, Wales (to Spring 2014).

Unlike the immediacy of photojournalism, the photo essay requires a photographer to immerse himself within his subject’s community. To even hope of capturing a real sense of social documentary, he must mine the spirit of a place and that of its people. Only the best photographers achieve this. Fewer still can present art over mere representation. But that’s exactly what Kjell-Ake Andersson has managed to achieve in this humbling collection of 1973 photographs exhibited under the title ‘Coalfaces’.

Moved by Eugene Smith’s 1950’s work on the subject, Andersson spent months living in the Welsh mining community of Bargoed. He rented a room with a local miner and with his host departed for work each morning to the pit. Eventually the young Swede was accepted by his subjects, thus allowing him to capture them at their most natural. In the evening he and has family mined the pubs and clubs in much the same way, embedding himself into their trust.

The collection, very simply but sympathetically and respectfully presented in this charming museum in New Tredegar, Newport (barely miles from Bargoed itself), is a masterful example of social realism of the highest quality. Consider the composition of ‘Marleen Wilkins in the family home, serving tea’. Andersson could not have predicted how kitsch the patterns of the carpet, wallpaper and tabard would be in the eyes of today’s viewers, but it is in this detail that Andersson proves a master of construction: the patterns – busy as they are – don’t clash at all; rather they flow in perspective and to me speak volumes of grace under pressure, pride, hospitality and fortitude.

‘Interior of George Pub, Arbergoed’ is equally arresting, whereas others remind me of Don McCullin’s British social documentary work. Then there’s his character study of Les Hughes; Andersson is multi-talented. Only the rugged beguiling landscape that surrounds his subjects is missing in his portfolio.

Life is clearly not easy at all, but neither is it hopeless. In virtually all the photographs based in social settings there is laughter and a real community spirit. At home it is peace, family responsibility: the day to day graft of making ends meet. At its core, of course, are the pits, the workers and the baths – the relentless before and after shift faces. The ghost-like whites of miner’s eyes and the dirt of labour.

The Winding House and Caerphilly Borough Council deserve recognition for bringing us this free exhibition, but also widening its appeal with a range of 1970’s commodities, National Coal Board paraphernalia (you can almost smell that distinctive odour of the NCB donkey jacket) and a selection of artefacts from the pit itself as well as Andersson’s original 35mm camera and that edition of LIFE magazine which featured Eugene Smith’s photos which gave Andersson the push to move his family to Wales.

A real treat is the family photo album with a wider range of Andersson’s photos from his time in the area. What we might use to store of shoddy family snapshots, Andersson offers as a wider portfolio, simple and unabashed. Such a pity those included don’t feature in the otherwise well-produced catalogue, let alone in the exhibition itself.

Yes, the whole thing is crude (especially the way the photos are framed) but this only adds to the charm of an unmissable exhibition of the heritage of a nearby area, and near history.

‘Coalface’ shows what Thatcherism destroyed. The 70’s is nostalgia for my generation and beyond, but driving around on a fine autumn day trying to find the venue (not the easiest!) I couldn’t help feel that today the place seemed soulless. That sense of community eroded by out-of-town supermarkets, let alone the general malaise of modernity which has closed public houses all over the country, took Bingo out of the social club and into massive megaplexes. Andersson’s photography does that rare thing and captures the soul. And it does so in all the black of coal, and the innocent white of the wedding veil.

This FREE exhibition runs until the Spring of 2014. Find out more at – for sat nav use post code NP24 6EG


from the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley  Clarion magazine

THE LEFT INSIDE column by C. Spiby

Things are getting a little ugly. Especially in Falkirk where the CLP is in a fizzle thanks to UNITE the union bombarding the local party with its members in an attempt to get the next Parliamentary candidate to be their preferred candidate.

While I see that, theoretically, an infiltration of any kind is dangerous, an infiltration of working class-conscious trade unionist is – SURELY – what Labour needs right now.

In fact, I wholeheartedly support it.

But there is a split of opinion as to Ed Milliband’s plan to re-boot the role Labour has with the Trade Unions. Even Len McCluskey endorsed the idea that the scheme might mean thousands of new official working class members paying their way in the Party ‘officially’ (rather than paying by default). The doom-mongers, however, see the move as an attempt to sever the historic link (which is probably why it got the support of Tony Blair!) and in doing so lose the Party millions in vital funding.

If the doom-mongers are right, then this leaves the door wide-open for the Party funding machine to head out and woo more donations from big business and the rich.

What started as a call for ‘8 hours for work – 8 hours for our own instruction and 8 hours for repose’ spawned a workers movement. Workers coming together in union to end the tyranny of employers. The call went out in 1868 for the first Trades Union Congress.

The struggle for workers’ rights commenced and gathered pace with the rise of each challenge, each success and every knock-back. As Billy Bragg calls ‘There is power in a union’ and as is the popular noise of each and every protest the world-over: ‘The workers united, will never be defeated.’

But there were defeats, so we must take the latter as a rallying call – a call to metaphorical arms. For it soon became clear that to really change things, representation in Parliament was necessary. And thus the move toward a social democratic socialist party gathered pace. In the wake of the 1906 general election the Parliamentary Labour Party is born.

This history lessons informs us that something on both sides of the link has failed. The Unions has weakened their relevance (mostly through the actions of Tory Parliaments), but also the in the Labour Party has swung rightward for fear of militancy. Strikes – never popular – have ceased being the tool and call of the downtrodden worker as the right and the media present it as one massive, self-indulgent inconvenience for the rest of society. And in doing so breaks society.

Without Labour there’d be no welfare state. Without Trade Unionism there’d be no Labour.

The question is one only of relevance.

Now is the time for those Trade Unionists to re-embrace their Party. And to do it through the front door.

OTHER MATTERS But then there’s murkier water ahead with nuclear power and nuclear weapons. My personal beliefs seem out of kilter with my Party, although I will reserve full judgement until the final General Election manifesto is ready. So it is up to us to make sure they hear our voices on the topics we are moved by and join in at (the Party’s policy development platform).

So it is with relief that our leader e-mailed to remind us that…

“Only One Nation Labour will repeal David Cameron’s Health Act and put NHS values, not Tory values, back at the heart of our NHS. Our NHS is at the heart of what makes Britain great. Labour will always make safeguarding its future a priority. [a]”

Previously he let us know about some of things his leadership had on the agenda…

We all know Labour in 2015 will have less money to spend, because the Tories have failed on the economy. So we are going to take action on the big problems our country faces to control spending:

  • Cut costs by helping the long-term unemployed back to work
  • Make sure jobs are well-paid to reward work, so the state does not face rising subsidies for low pay
  • Get the cost of renting down by ensuring more homes are built – thereby reducing the welfare bill
  • Cap social security spending by focusing on the deep-rooted reasons benefit spending goes up.

This builds on an earlier message from Ed Balls, of the shadow Treasury. He said…

Tory economic policies aren’t working. On living standards, economic growth and on deficit reduction – they’ve got it wrong, and millions of people are suffering the consequences. It doesn’t have to be this way.  [c]

My worry is that these messages are being overtaken by noise from Labour vs the Unions. What the movement needs is a united voice and united message.

[a] E-mail from EM 2/7/13.

[b] E-mail from EM 6/6/13.

[c] E-mail from EB 3/6/13.

Today Royal Mail postal workers are striking. For many people strikes are about as popular as shit’n’chips.

But strikes are the tool of last resort for the organised worker.

It is only through strikes that workers can assert some power over employers and the way we are governed by them and their whims at the altar of capital.

The reputation of strikes, however, is not one of worker power in the face of exploitation or unjust management but, thanks to the media coverage of a series of stoppages in the 1970’s, it is a despicable act denying customers of their products and services. How dare they!

And that reputation has never recovered despite this perspective being wrong. Fuelled by the right-wing and the media the attitude towards striking that prevails today is, as Mark Steel put it…

Strikes, everyone agreed, were bad. The question was never whether they should be supported or opposed, but always how they should be opposed.

If someone on TV has said ‘well, I support the strikes’, it would have sounded as odd as if there was a discussion about how to deal with a fire, and some had said ‘I support the fire, and hope it spreads to the basement.’

This particular strike action is further fuelled by some irrational affront by being denied our junk mail. Most of the important correspondence I’ve needed to conduct has been via e-mail or landline telephone or that rarer breed: face-to-face human interaction.  But this does not mean the postal service holds no value for me. I recognise that for many people, mail and post offices can be their only window on the world. So it is for me to understand the demands and choose to support the workers or oppose them.

The media present union concerns in the modern keep it simples for the people shorthand, defining the demands as i) resistance to modernisation and ii) un-realistic petitions on pensions.

On the latter, I have heard that last year Royal Mail made its biggest profit in 20 years – £320 million, but at the same time the pension deficit is so crippling a burden it can only be solved by savage cuts at best, and part or full privatisation at worst.  Management value the deficit at £10 billion. With such a deficit it is strange then that they took for themselves a ten years pension holiday while the workers continued to pay their way. I wonder how many hundreds of millions of that money refers to directors and executive pension? And, finally, how come we can bail out bankers but not the social welfare of workers? This is truly appalling when we are already hearing that upon the return to ‘normal business’ from their self-made economic disaster sees bonus culture already creeping back in. Switch some of these ludicrous bonuses to the national pension deficit, after all, it was probably those same financiers who gambled away the value of private pensions on the stock market in the first place.

As for the former, the mass media presents the misconception that postal workers oppose modernisation.  Yet their union, the CWU, agreed to and, indeed, helped implement the 2007 pay and modernisation agreement.  This included mechanisation AND more work for the same pay.

The action also seems to have beckoned the charge that the CWU does not put customers first. The supposition implied here is that they ought to, but this denies the very essence and point of a Trades Union which is to look after its members – the workers – not customers. Businesses are the ones charged with customer care, not unions. And businesses that really care about customers need to learn that you don’t achieve good customer service through ill treatment of one’s most important resource: your workers. Systems Thinking shows us that the most efficient business reduce waste by empowering workers, not setting targets and building the back office.

To me, another part missing in the news coverage and wider debate is that, fundamentally the problem with Royal Mail isn’t modernisation and pensions at all. It is the opening-up of the market which has revealed the lack of brutal competitiveness required to exist in the modern economy.  This is the elephant in the room.

Services like mail and post office are not ordinary businesses and neither is the pension earned by workers. While we can’t really class Royal Mail as an essential PUBLIC service (as we might with health, law enforcement or welfare), it does exist within a long-established public sector framework and does offer social gains the likes of which private carriers like TNT have no interest in or conception of. Only by halting privatisation plans and closing down competition in this sector will Royal Mail truly return to deliver value-for-money services in a framework where postal workers can enjoy employment justice and the recognition they deserve. Right now Royal Mail is fighting a losing battle trying to exist as a public service in a free market environment where social and worker welfare ride second to profit.

And be warned: what happens now with Royal Mail is a roadmap to what might happen with other public services, especially health, already overburdened with business consultants and targets, where the customer has moved from the patient to the Secretary of the Department of Health.