Whose Pavements? Our Pavements! Workers' Memorial Day Co Durham
As well as run the bookshop, I'm heavily involved and wholeheartedly committed to the trade union movement, as some of you will no doubt have noticed. Towards the end of last year, I became secretary of a new Trades Council, based in Durham. The County Durham Trades Union Council represents unionised workers across County Durham and aims to build links with community groups in order to campaign for a better society, both within and outside work. This is my report on our latest collaborative event - Workers Memorial Day, held on the 28th April each year:
Workers' Memorial Day and the Right to Protest
Like every April the 28th since 1992, Saturday was Workers' Memorial Day. It was also the first in the lifetime of the new County Durham Trades Union Council, formed in November 2011. As a new trades union council, we decided collectively that it was vital that we be involved in Workers' Memorial Day as committed, grass roots trade unionists. That feeling was cemented by the visit of Linda Whelan, of Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) to one of our regular meetings in Durham. Linda explained how, through the negligence of the company he worked for, her son was killed while working on the 200ft chimney at Carnaud Metal Box in Westhoughton, Greater Manchester, just under 10 years ago. In addition we were all aware that Workers Memorial Day has taken on a particularly acute significance since the coming to power of a Coalition in 2010 hell-bent on “cutting red tape” – and in this context, you can read this as undermining the health and safety of the UK’s working population. Over the last year, there have been 171 direct workplace fatalities - and that merely scratches the surface, as the figure does not include those working on the roads, the sea and the air, as well as those who have died from work-related illnesses over the last year. Including all those other deaths, Hazards Magazine estimates the figure to be well over 20,000.
Over the past five years, Stanley Crook village has been the location for events to mark Workers Memorial Day in County Durham, helped by the support of trades councils such as Wear Valley and Derwentside, the North East Shop Stewards Network (NESSN) and the Durham Mining Communities Banner Groups Association. St Thomas’ Church in the village has had a central role to play in Workers' Memorial Day and dedicated a workers memorial window in 2002. It made sense to put our efforts into this event again in the hope that the extra impetus given to it from the involvement of the now much larger trades union council in Durham would generate fresh interest and highlight the issues involved further. In 2011 and in previous years, the Stanley Crook event had gone without a hitch, with 40 people marching through the village to a service at St Thomas’ Church at the top. Durham Police and the County Council have been aware of the nature of the events over the years and have taken a relaxed view of proceedings in the knowledge that this is a community event based around remembrance and awareness-raising.
For some reason, in 2012 things had changed. On the afternoon of Friday the 27th April (yes, indeed, the day before), one of our members was informed in the course of a conversation with the police that not only would we not be allowed to march through the village, but that anyone attempting to do so would be breaking the law and would face arrest. To march legally, we would have to have asked for road closures – something that had never been deemed necessary before. When it was suggested that we could take a walk up the pavement to the church, the answer came that we would also be facing arrest by so doing. My personal reaction on hearing this was that it was a joke, in more ways than one. Surely they wouldn’t arrest people on a Workers' Memorial Day march? Even more ridiculously, they were suggesting that they would arrest people walking up a hill to church, on the pavement, in a quiet County Durham village. Without the time to get the message out, we informed people as they arrived on the Saturday at the east end of the village, prepared to march as they had done without incident in previous years. I think it’s safe to say that everyone’s reaction was incredulity mixed with anger.
When a bit of further information was received, the story became depressingly familiar. How could we have resolved this situation? Apparently by applying for a road closure with traffic lights to the tune of £3,000 (nice job for the private contractor if you can get it!). What about the budget option - a simple police escort? Well, apparently that might have been possible in previous years, but with all these cuts, you see – the squad car couldn't be spared. Some more cynical amongst our crowd suggested that this was a great money spinning wheeze – making money out of the democratic right to protest. In any case, if we want to mark the deaths of our friends and colleagues and march to highlight the issues that led to these deaths, it's going to cost us. Welcome to Con Dem Britain.
In the event, some people did march, with banners, up to the church – along the pavement and were applauded by those that had gone straight to the church. Aycliffe and Brancepeth Band, who should have marched proudly through the village to the tune of Gresford and others, were confined to the St Thomas Church grounds. Nevertheless, they did a great job. Over 60 people came to St Thomas', to hear a number of speakers hammer home the significance of Workers' Memorial Day. Dave Harker introduced the afternoon with a little story about a George Ridley's own crushing work-related injury, asking 'where would we be without Geordie Ridley?' at which point the band answered by striking up the Blaydon Races. Linda Whelan spoke about the death of her son very movingly, whilst stressing the need to campaign against the cuts in health and safety. Derek Cattell, of the GMB, talked about the myth of this “burden” on business arising out of the health and safety legislation of the 1970's. Shirley Winter abandoned her reading from the Book of Jobe to remind people, in her customary forceful manner, of the need for solidarity in the face of these relentless attacks from the government upon working class communities. And just in case you're thinking that the church might be a bit embarrassed about this show of trade union strength at St Thomas', Ian Zass-Ogilvie (former chaplain in the Coal industry) not only concurred, but suggested, in the light of the refusal to allow a march, that we all engage in a bit of 'civil disobedience' and take a stroll down the road with banners , just to show “that we still stand for something”.
So that is how it ended. Despite the setback of not being able to march, the sun shone on us up there in Stanley Crook. We marked the day, we laid wreaths, we released a balloon for each of the workers killed in County Durham over the last year and we showed that we will fight the Coalition every inch of the way on health and safety. For them it is about red tape, burdens and costs. For us, it is about our lives and working futures. One thing is certain, we are now planning for next year, when we will be back, stronger and more strategic. Here at the County Durham Trades Union Council, we have also picked up a new campaign over the course of the weekend – I believe it is called Defend the Right to Protest.
For more details on the facts and figures behind Workers’ Memorial Day, see here