Sunday, October 07, 2007

Ken Loach - Which Side are You On?

The Rochester Labor Council and the George Eastman House's Dryden Theater ( have been running a series of labor films this fall. Laura and I went to see Ken Loach's (biography/filmography) "Which Side Are You On" - an account of the 1984 UK miners strike that lasted for over one year. For me the film was quite moving.

The miners and their families were fighting for their jobs as Thatcher proceeded with completely destroying the entire coal industry in the UK. At least 190,000 (one hundred and ninety THOUSAND) jobs were lost in under 5 years time. Hundreds of communities were destroyed, schools closed, towns and factories demolished and, of course, the lives and futures of over a million people ruined.

Loach tells the story through the songs and poems of the people who were affected, the mining families themselves. He also captured on film the brutal police actions against the 100% legal pickets with many strikers being beaten with clubs and subjected to massive police terror tactics. One scene shows hundreds of police occupying a small village night and day with shields, and clubs on the ready. Every bit of pavement was covered by police.

Other scenes show the police breaking up pickets to let scabs into coal pits. Every tactic was used to incite riot. To the credit of the miners there was little hostility form their quarter. Nevertheless they had to suffer brutal attacks, terrorism and even cavalry charges.

The film was made all the more poignant since many of the miners and their families were so hopeful of victory, even as they lived in poverty, faced eviction from their homes, had their belongings repossessed by creditors, and were eating most of their meals at soup kitchens.

Still they put on a brave face. Ultimately they all lost their jobs, the industry was dismantled, and the union destroyed.

(scene pictured in the photo appears in the film, the policeman doesn't miss; it is displayed here courtesy of

When all was said and done, Prime Minister Thatcher had declared a victory over socialism in the UK. But it was a very narrow victory indeed:
The Tories later admitted that it cost nearly £6bn to win the dispute, which they saw as a political attempt to break the power of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). In the ten years following the end of the strike, the continued war against the miners cost a further £26bn in redundancy and benefit payments, keeping pits mothballed and lost revenue from coal.

Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet were desperate for victory and prepared to go to any lengths. For the first time in a post-war national strike the police were openly used as a political weapon. Agents provocateurs and spies were deployed and the state benefits system used to try and starve the miners back. Former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson subsequently admitted that preparations for the strike were, "just like rearming to face the threat of Hitler in the 1930s". Evidence emerged – after the event – about the role of MI5, MI6, the CIA and ultra-right wingers like David Hart and Tim Bell, who advised Thatcher during the dispute.

Yet despite the extraordinary lengths the Tories went to, by October 1984, six months into the strike, the future of Thatcher’s government hung in the balance. The proposed strike by the pit supervisors’ union, NACODS, threatened to close down all working pits in the Midlands – when there were less than six weeks’ coal stocks.

03/04: Socialism Today: Miners strike revisited
The Dryden will be showing a number of Ken Loach's films over the next few weeks including Cathy Come Home and the US premier of Its a Free World, both on October 10th. Ken Loach also released an excellent film in 2006 called The Wind the Shakes the Barley.

Note: Anarchist pop-group Chumbawamba was actively supportive of the miners strike as were other groups. A tribute album to the miners is available here.

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