Originally posted on January 8, 2016
by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
In 1984-85, coal miners throughout most of the United Kingdom went on strike, protesting the Thatcher administration’s attempts at controlling trade unions. The biggest and longest strike in the history of the UK, it followed successful strikes in the 1970s where unions used successful tactics such as leveraging their control of the power grid. The Enemy Within (released in the UK as Still the Enemy Within, Dartmouth Films, 2014) tells the story of the miner’s strike from the perspective of the miners. Thirty years after their struggle, they reflect in this film on their reasons for striking, the impact of the strike on their families and communities, and receiving the label “the enemy within” from their prime minister while receiving popular support at home and abroad. The strike ultimately failed due to police tactics verging on the paramilitary, and media portrayal of the miners as enemies of the state.
Along the way, the miners received expressions of solidarity from many other marginalized groups, however, including gay and lesbian groups, students, and communities of color. Other working class families posted signs saying, “They will not starve,” and donated funds and food to the mining families during the strike. These bonds of solidarity meant a great deal to everyone involved.The miners, working class men, found a sense of power, solidarity, and strength in their experience. Women exercised political activism, as wives of miners received a speaking platform and an entree into their husbands’ worlds that they previously could not access. The government ultimately broke the strike, but did not break them.
In some ways, this is an unusual film for us to review on the Whole Terrain blog. These were coal miners, after all. Due to the anthropogenic overuse of coal and other fossil fuels, our climate is changing in ways that are not healthy for us and other life on Earth. Would we not want the miners’ strike to fail? If the strike had been against a reduction in fossil fuel use, then perhaps we would want the strike to fail. As it is, the UK reduced its use of domestic coal drastically, but they did this through coal imports rather than through reduction of coal use.
The miners’ strike, however, can teach those of us in the environmental movement at least three things, and by listening to the stories of these miners, our lives and our work can improve.
- Tactics for nonviolent resistance. These miners describe some incredibly creative and courageous strategies and actions for gaining leverage in the political, practical, and social arenas of their day. Are those of us in the environmental movement willing to commit to enacting strategies with this depth of commitment? Although this strike failed, the tactics used were inspiring and would likely be effective in other political climates. Also, if the strategies were implemented on a worldwide basis or using a more systematic approach regarding a particular environmental concern, they could be effective if activists were willing to show this level of commitment. With the added power of social media available to us today, it is likely that activists could also win popular support more effectively, as we have, for example, in the protest of a Shell drilling fleet attempting to leave Portland, OR in July 2015 when activists hung from a bridge in hammocks while other “kayactivists” set up a blockade in the water.
- Solidarity, even with unusual allies. Sometimes, if we look for it, we can find common ground even with individuals and groups who seem far away from our cause. But if our environmental cause is really for the sake of all people and other entities on this planet, finding that common ground should not be too difficult with most people, right? Being willing to truly see the plight of others and look for common solutions can lead toward solidarity and reconciliation. Perhaps focusing on what and who we are forcan help us more justly fight against the ideologies that seek to use up our planet’s resources unwisely.
- Jobs. While those in the environmental movement may be against the concept of mining coal, we can agree that all of us need to be able to make a living in a way that we feel valued and supported. The miners’ strike, first and foremost, asked for their government to recognize them as individuals worthy of the right to feed their families through their own labor, rather than reliance on government charity. Thirty years later, many of their families are still “on the dole” due to the privatization of their industry, shutting down most of the mines in the UK, and the lack of similar labor opportunities these men were qualified for. The country’s profits may have increased, but was it worth it for the sake of the families who could no longer support themselves? Likewise, when environmental activists attempt to shut down industries that are not healthy to the environment (or to those who work in them, for that matter), it is important to think through the consequences and initiate alternatives. What will people do for work? How can we create sustainable communities with the kind of solidarity these men experienced in the mines? What will provide the most longterm benefit, but also, how can we help fill in the gaps, ensuring that working class families can still support themselves in ways leading to dignity and self-respect? In order to move in the direction of public support of environmental causes, creating these alternatives will go a long way toward showing support for actual people who need to pay their bills. When these individuals feel cared for as human beings, the work of points 1 and 2 may become much easier.
The Enemy Within would be an interesting film to show in a classroom. It can be shown in two parts of 56 minutes each, which could work in a classroom setting. With the reduction of influence of labor unions in the United States in recent decades, showing the perspective of union members could provide a powerful entryway into a different perspective that students may not have encountered. That said, these working class British men are sometimes difficult to understand and use British terms that may be difficult for American students to follow. However, with helpful debriefing by an instructor, this film could provoke interesting classroom conversations about the power of the people, appropriate power of the state, and the rights given to corporations. Students and community groups can also learn much from this film about tactics for nonviolent activism and its costs and rewards. The Enemy Within is available for educational and community groups to rent or purchase through Bullfrog Films.