Unity that spanned the sea

Originally published in the Morning Star.

The miners’ strike of 1984-5 sparked an international solidarity movement not seen since. Daniel Dernancourt of French union group the CGT spoke at Saturday’s With Banners Held High festival in former coalmining heartland Wakefield. Here we reprint his speech.

THE solidarity with British miners shown by the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) in France during the miners’ strike will always be an exceptional moment in the history of the international working-class movement.

Its scale was unique, with the active involvement of nearly all the CGT organisations in France, particularly the miners of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

The roots of the miners’ solidarity in this area go back further than 1984-5, and I remember meetings we had in the late ’60s and early ’70s with miners from Kent and later from other parts of Britain, notably during a strike in the early ’70s when I went with Leon Delfosse, the president of the CGT miners’ federation, to meet the leaders of the NUM and to give money collected from the French miners.

The meeting took place in a hotel in London where negotiations — about wages, if I remember rightly — were taking place between the NUM and the Coal Board.

These strong ties which existed between miners from the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and their counterparts from Kent no doubt contributed to the exceptional scale of the powerful solidarity movement of 1984-5.

And this is why the CGT thought that the miners’ union of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais was the essential link, the main contact with the NUM via the Kent miners, and was in the best position to take charge of a movement of solidarity that was to blossom as the conflict between the NUM and the Coal Board backed by Margaret Thatcher’s government grew tougher. On several occasions meetings took place in Dover to co-ordinate the solidarity activities taking place in France and to take what had been collected to Britain.

This solidarity was constant throughout the strike, and I’ll just talk about some of the high points that I participated in directly.

I was given tasks to carry out by the CGT miners’ federation and by its general secretary Augustin Dufresne, who was the mainstay of all our solidarity activities in 1984-5, from fundraising to opening our homes to miners’ children.

He constantly supported Arthur Scargill, with whom he developed a strong friendship.

Throughout the conflict money was regularly raised by union branches in our pits and offices. But as the strike held fast, the decision was taken by the NUM and the CGT miners’ federation to put up several hundred striking miners’ children during the summer holidays.

As the leaders of union organisations have to set an example, Defresne put up a boy at his home in Paris, and a lovely girl called Linda stayed with me.

British children stayed with dozens of families in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais who did their best to welcome them, while other children stayed at holiday camps run by the CGT.

For all the British children, far from home for two weeks, and for all the host families, these were special moments of solidarity.

The host families had to be very sensitive so that these children, who were a long way from their usual family environment, could enjoy their holiday.

The second high point that I shall always remember was the huge convoy carrying products made from all kinds of materials from the mining areas in the south, east and west of France.

Once again, the importance of the solidarity co-ordinated by the CGT could be clearly seen, with 30 trailers full of products.

After a friendship evening in Avlon, a small town near Lievin, the long convoy, escorted by police, made its way through the Pas-de-Calais, crossed the Channel on a ferry and arrived in Dover.

This convoy was made up of sympathetic lorry drivers and trade union activists, as well as the secretary general of the CGT Henri Krasucki, who took part in a meeting in Kent with the leaders of the NUM.

Our British friends then had a lot of work to do, sending several hundred tons of products to the various mining areas of Great Britain.

I had never before experienced such moments of fraternity, during which the CGT miners were full of admiration and friendship for their British comrades.

Then it was Christmas and, once again, with the miners’ children in mind, the CGT organised a toy drive, putting children at the heart of our solidarity.

And once again, thousands of objects were taken to the mining areas, areas where things were difficult for the strike movement and the atmosphere was tense.

Miners’ wives organised the distribution of toys from the NUM offices so that Christmas would be a little less hard for the children.

Finally, another instance of solidarity occurred when a delegation of miners’ wives, led by Mrs [Anne] Scargill and Mrs [Betty] Heathfield, came to the mining area of Nord-Pas-du-Calais.

They spent several days at the region’s markets, accompanied by CGT activists, explaining why their husbands were on strike. I’m sure they were moved by the words of encouragement and friendship that they received as they explained with conviction why they were there.

And to show the scale of the movement of solidarity in France, with the full commitment of the CGT and of workers of all categories and of all origins, there is a solidarity medal, made by workers at the Mint in Paris. In spite of the price, many people bought one. Today, they are a collector’s item.

These are some of my memories of moments of struggle and friendship, of combat and fraternity, of commitment and solidarity.

I could tell you many more stories as there were so many moments of joy and also of sadness when faced with the difficulties of the miners’ families, like Linda’s parents whom I met when I went to an event in Barnsley.

The strike took place 30 years ago but I have a vivid memory of it. And I think everybody who experienced those long months at the heart of the solidarity movement, as I did, will never forget this period of time.

I want to thank the organisers for inviting the CGT today and especially for allowing the spirit of solidarity of French and British miners to live on through this event.