In 1984, coal miners around the world felt under attack. Both in the U.S. and Great Britain, they went on strike under the watchful eye of their national governments. Now, nearly 40 years later, many of the miners and allies involved in that struggle have retired or passed away. Women miners and queer allies in particular, who played an important role in that moment, worry that their stories are at risk of slipping into obscurity.
Former Pennsylvania-based miner and historian Kipp Dawson says the miners on either side of the Atlantic weren’t going to survive long without each other’s help. “Women were natural builders of solidarity across national borders,” Dawson says. “They came together.”
Dawson and her peers say that for too long, mining history has belonged to the men who sometimes led its strikes, overshadowing the history of women miners and miners’ wives. Reviewing the events with women who were there reveals innovative, globe-spanning collaborations that could hold continuing relevance for today’s labor movement.
“The beauty of these struggles needs to be recorded and revisited,” Dawson said.
A Historic Moment in Labor Conflict
Describing the coal miners’ strikes of the ‘80s as “struggles” is an understatement. At the time, the National Union of Miners (NUM) in Great Britain was going up against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who believed she should “neglect no opportunity to erode trade union membership,” according to a 2013 report by The Guardian. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) were going head-to-head with President Ronald Reagan who, the Washington Post reported, fired more than 11,300 air traffic controllers on strike in 1981.
Both groups went on strike in 1984, pulling miners away from their paychecks to bargain for better wages, benefits, and safer jobs, and neither could have done it alone.
Dawson says that building solidarity between the two countries, and between women and queer people, was of vital importance to their efforts. She says the Coal Employment Project (CEP), an American nonprofit organization for female miners, was particularly interested in working with miners at home and abroad. When British miners went on strike it was natural for women miners in the U.S. to reach out to offer support; this was especially true because many U.S. miners were fighting the A.T. Massey Corporation the same year British workers were striking.
“I was one of the women miners who visited South Wales and England to learn from the strikers and [their] wives, to bring solidarity to them, and to bring their stories back to our brothers and sisters in the U.S.,” Dawson said.
Dawson visited many coal conferences and even traveled to El Salvador during the ‘80s. She wanted to learn from and support workers trying to organize unions, like Febe Elizabeth Velasquez, who Dawson says was a beloved and enthusiastic union leader before she was killed at union headquarters in a bombing.
Dawson wasn’t the only one who traveled either; journalist and former miner Marat Moore first cut her teeth as a cub reporter covering a double mine explosion. She went on to contribute to the Sandy New Era alternative weekly publication, where she covered the United Mine Workers of America and community struggles. Moore was eventually hired by UMWA and began investigative reporting on unsafe mines and working conditions. She coordinated the organizing of women and families during the UMWA strike at Pittston Coal Company in southwest Virginia, and was a founding member of the Daughters of Mother Jones at Pittston.
Later, Moore traveled to England, along with Pittston strikers’ wives and a fellow Coal Employment Project sister, for the centennial celebration of the U.K.’s National Union of Miners. She was fired from UMWA in 1994 for her involvement with CEP, and filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the international union; ironically, her book “Women in the Mines: Stories of Life and Work” released the day her 1996 trial began. She won the trial.
Reflecting on the rift, Moore says that thanks to CEP, women in UMWA had access to training, organizing and opportunities that men in UMWA did not.
“Women miners in the U.S. were traveling everywhere—China, Russia, India, the Philippines, South Africa, Mexico,” Moore said. “There was so much going on and male coal miners didn’t have access to that.”
Moore says one of the first grants the Coal Employment Project received was from the Ms. Foundation, newly created by feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who empathized with female miners. Steinem even invited a woman miner to sit next to her at the L.A. premiere of PBS’s “Makers: Women Who Make America,” which documented the women’s movement and the role of women miners.
Moore says CEP women also went beyond coal mining, reaching out to hard-rock miners on Minnesota’s Iron Range to help them push back against unsafe conditions, traumatizing sexual harassment and assault, and death threats. The struggle of women miners in Minnesota was profiled, though sanitized, in the film “North Country.”
Solidarity from the Queer Community
During one of her early trips to Wales, Dawson, the Pennsylvania-based miner and historian, met with Welsh miners’ wives to talk about how they could work together; it was on this visit that the mining community in South Wales told her about an unexpected group supporting the ongoing British miners’ strike—the LGBTQ+ community.
In the ‘80s, young queer leftists raised thousands of dollars to support miners, collecting donations outside gay bars and clubs and decking out a van with their logo, “LGSM: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.” They protested with banners like “Lesbians Against Pit Closures,” a vital stance at a time when the National Union of Miners was estimating that a proposed plan to close 20 British coal mining pits would put 20,000 miners out of work.
As much as Dawson was a novelty—being the only female miner many had met in a Britain that didn’t allow women underground—gay and lesbian supporters were also new to many Welsh miners. The LGSM group drove the van out to deliver donations, but they weren’t sure what kind of reception to expect. As the short, homemade documentary titled “All Out! Dancing in Dulais” shows, their fear was unfounded and they were met with welcoming and understanding.
“The things that made us similar were far more important than our differences,” said Siân James, a former Member of Parliament who is married to a miner. “We chose not to treat LGSM in any way different. We opened our homes to them.”
James, who left government in 2015 after a decade of service, is a close friend of Dawson’s.
The pair met during Dawson’s solidarity travels, but in the ‘80s, James wasn’t a politician. She was a miner’s wife and an activist. She says the mining community opened their homes to a group of people they didn’t fully understand, and found themselves with new family members.
“In that exchange of histories we [found] out about their experiences, and the shocking thing was most of them were like us, from working class families,” said James. “They told us about their lives… families rejected them, they had lost jobs.”
James grew up in a family of miners and says the LGBTQ+ community’s struggles and the struggles of the mining community felt similar. For instance, when James’ mother was a newborn, her grandmother would go down to the local shop. All they had left during one trip was a tin of peaches, so that’s what the family survived on for a few days. Many of the miners in “Dancing in Dulais” share similar hardships, and the documentary was later made into a feature-length film called “Pride,” which is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. James, who is depicted in the movie by actress Jessica Gunning, says LGSM friends and leaders later died in the AIDS epidemic, devastating the miners who’d become close with them.
On March 3, 1985, special delegates voted to end the British miners’ strike, just after more than 50 percent of miners had returned to work. Dawson said that only months before, the U.K. government had seized more than $3 million in union funds, and miners had just celebrated Christmas despite going nine months without pay. According to The Guardian, secret documents were drawn up and approved by Thatcher’s government with a plan to defeat the strike and starve out future union threats. It would take until 1990 for the American UMWA members to vote on a contract with Pittston, but the U.S. strike eventually came to an end as well.
Working to Preserve a More Complete History
Although some reports say U.S. salaries and union strength never recovered after the strikes, Dawson and others are working to preserve a history that includes the queer and feminist elements they feel have been omitted. Dawson has assembled detailed timelines of both the NUM and UMWA strikes during the ‘80s and says friend and former CEP director Betty Jean Hall is accumulating all the old CEP newsletters and making them available online. All three women are working with journalists on both sides of the Atlantic to tell readers about their ongoing and past work, as well as actively rebuilding ties with colleagues from their organizing days.
In the U.K., James knows of histories being written about the British mining strikes, but they’re mostly from a male perspective.
“We, the women supporting the strike in Wales were seen as important but not important enough to allow us affiliate membership of the NUM,” James said via email. “We got presented with a very pretty miners lamp brooch in South Wales. Mine’s in my jewellery box somewhere. If we don’t keep telling the story, then history will be written from the perspective of men and those women who got a platform (myself included).”
Moore, the former UMWA miner, journalist, and author, says it’s impossible to see how important or big a piece of history is when you’re actively involved, and it’s only in retrospect that these women recognize the part they played in labor history. After the Coal Employment Project closed its doors in the 1990s, it took 15 years to plan the first reunion in Tennessee (it finally happened in 2013). They picked Jonesborough, because of its close location to East Tennessee State University, where the CEP archive is housed. Moore says 65 miners, including friends from Navajo reservations and the U.K., came to that reunion—and their bonds were still just as strong.
“That’s ‘why now,’” Moore said via email. “We have more clarity. An era has clearly ended with the death of Richard Trumka, who was the president of the United Mine Workers of America during all our time at CEP and the UMWA. This time of clarity in our older years is happening before we’re all dead.”
Lessons for the Labor Movement Today
Dawson says organizers today could stand to learn a thing or two from the labor conflicts of the ‘80s, particularly about coming together in times of trouble.
“The struggles themselves won the kinds of solidarity and sisterhood and brotherhood that we still need as we take on the battles of today and tomorrow,” she said.
Today, as UMWA miners at Warrior Met in Alabama enter their fifth month of strike, miners’ wives there are running strike pantries to make sure families have food and children have school supplies. Meanwhile, miners in West Virginia are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the largest armed labor uprising in America’s history, the Battle of Blair Mountain, over Labor Day.
Looking at the fights miners and other labor groups are trying to win in 2021, it’s hard not to believe these women are on to something, when it comes to learning from the past and crossing boundaries of all kinds in search of solidarity.