How Pride grows

October 16, 2014

Ragina Johnson explains why the new movie Pride holds important lessons for activists today.

A SENSE of humanity filled the air. The feeling that your struggle against injustice and for dignity is far greater than your own immediate needs and desires. That your enemy is also the enemy others. And therefore, a community that may live 200 miles from you, that you have never met, deserves and needs your support to survive. And you need theirs.

It was 1984 in Britain, and solidarity turned from a word to action. More than 100,000 coal miners organized the longest strike in British history against the closing of 20 coal pits, which would lay off tens of thousands of workers. Using the police and masses of anti-union goons, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher set out to starve the most militant sector of workers, the National Union of Mineworkers, back to work.

Coal was stockpiled in advance, strikebreakers were trained, the press fell in with the government's plan to demonize the workers, and the battle was on. With memories of the successful mineworkers strikes in the 1970s fresh in people's minds, the Thatcher government was determined to break the union.

Solidarity on the march in Pride
Solidarity on the march in Pride

What Thatcher hoped would be an easy victory instead turned into a months-long struggle, because thousands of people came to the aid of the miners. And the families of coal miners in Onllwyn, a village in the Dulais Valley in South Wales, received an unexpected but welcomed surprise to boost their side.

In London, a group of gay and lesbian activists had formed a solidarity group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and would raise the most money of any strike support group. These funds would keep the miners and their families fed, warm and ready to battle, as Thatcher sequestered money from the union.

The recently released movie Pride tells this forgotten story of working-class radical history, fightback and solidarity.

Pride is the perfect word to describe the tale.

In the course of a year, people's ideas changed about their desires and aspirations. Friendships and bonds were formed. Collective action made people more confident and accepting in their households and in their communities--among men and women, miners and wives, and gay and straight.

Review: Movies

Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus, written by Stephen Beresford, starring Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton and Dominic West.

Though ultimately the heroic strike would end in gains for the coal companies and the British government, people would be changed in the course of standing up for themselves, one another and their class collectively.

THE MOVIE starts out with a news clip showcasing the vile, protagonist of the film and the era--Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The 1980s were a defining moment for organized labor, with conservative governments in Britain and in the U.S. intent on reversing working-class gains--from slashing government spending on the social safety net to cutting taxes for the rich and attempting to gut the power of the unions. This was a period of a huge transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top of society, as capitalists and their governmental cohorts forcefully implemented the first phases of the neoliberal era.

Key to fulfilling these aims was putting fear in workers hearts about using the strike as a weapon. In the U.S., former President Ronald Reagan sent a warning notice to the entire labor movement by threatening to fire 13,000 air traffic controllers who went on strike in 1981. In Britain, Thatcher went to war with striking miners attempting to push back the privatization of what was once a nationalized industry.

The mine owners wanted to implement technological advancements like mechanizing industrial processes, which increased their profit margin by reducing work hours, wages and jobs. Instead of using technology to make miners' jobs safer or reduce their work hours, miners were laid off.

Pride gives us an important history lesson in how solidarity and alliances across oppressed groups can be built actively and deliberatively.

Throughout the film, the slogan "Gays and lesbians support the miners" sings out alongside the sound of coins thrown into shaking buckets, held by LGSM activists. The fundraising effort as depicted in the film is organized spontaneously out of a Pride demonstration in London.

And then as the campaign develops, trips are organized to visit the mining communities at the miners solidarity committee's invitation, where lesbian and gay activists get to meet the people whose cause they're supporting.

Anyone who had the experience of growing up in a small industrial or mining town can relate to the intensity, excitement and joy, as stereotypes are broken down and real human connections are forged in their place.

LGSM co-founder Mark Ashton, played by Ben Schnetzer, grips you throughout the film with his passion and dedication to the cause, as he rallies lesbian and gays to donate and join hands with the miners: "Mining communities are being bullied just like we are. What they need is cash."

Ashton later asks, what's the point of talking about gay rights and not workers' rights? And what's the point of talking about workers' rights but not women's rights? As he says, "One community should give solidarity to another. It is really illogical to say, 'I'm gay and I'm into defending the gay community but I don't care about anything else."

The workers faced a huge economic attack that meant life or death for them if they lose their jobs and couldn't feed their families or pay their bills. Gay and lesbian people faced a different, but similar attack--victimized by the same government and also by bigoted thugs.

It was during the AIDS crisis, and a homophobic backlash blamed gay people for what was a general health issue with deadly consequences. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were beaten in the streets, not only by homophobic vigilantes but also by police.

Reactionary laws, including one stating that consent for "homosexuals" was age 21, targeted gay men who faced regular entrapment by undercover cops. Homophobia was normalized, and many people were still in the closest for fear of discrimination and lack of acceptance, even by family members.

PRIDE CAPTURES the intensity of the moment. The film is not meant to be a documentary. Instead, a little romanticism is sprinkled in here and there to create a compelling story, including the fictionalized main character who lies to his parents about his activism with LGSM and his sexuality.

Many people depicted in the film, both miners and former LGSM activists, have expressed appreciation for how honestly their struggles were portrayed in Pride.

In an interview with the Guardian, LGSM co-founder Mike Jackson, who is played beautifully by actor Dominic West in the film, describes Welsh miners' gradual acceptance of gay and lesbians after the LGSM mailed in their letter of support:

It would be dishonest to say there was no dissent. Years later, we found out there had been a meeting following my letter explaining a bunch of queers wanted to support them. It had led to a very heated discussion. But the consensus was: we have been demonized by the press, maybe we should meet the gay people because they've also been demonized. Those who had a problem with it were told to stay away. So we never encountered any hostility.

West, who is HIV positive, explains that it wasn't long before the miners warmed to their cause: "They started wearing gay badges on their lapels. They wanted money because they were on strike; we wanted recognition and acceptance--not that we went with any preconditions, we did not expect anything back."

The history is told by the singing of union resistance songs like "Bread and Roses," and it makes you want to stand up clapping and shouting from your theater seats. The story is told with laughter over the sound of beer pints clanking in community halls filled with workers and with dance parties among newly made gay and lesbian friends. But underneath, heartbreak lurks in the shadows because of the impact that the HIV crisis would have on some of the main characters of the film.

History and real people come to life on the screen, and by the end of the film, you can't help but fall in love with them all.

Mineworkers leader Dai Donovan gives a speech at the "Pits and Perverts" fundraiser, organized after the press called the LGSM "perverts," stoking prejudices among the activists:

You have worn our badge, Coal Not Dole, and you know what harassment means, as we do. Now we will pin your badge on us, we will support you. It won't change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know that there are other causes and other problems. We know about Blacks and gays and nuclear disarmament and we will never be the same.

ALONGSIDE SHOWING the miners, through struggle, accept lesbian and gay people and become champions against homophobia, Pride shows women transform through organizing strike committees. The women's pride grows, as they support their communities, husbands, brothers and sons.

This metamorphosis often takes place during strikes, as people realize their own agency that pushes beyond what gender roles society normally expects of us. In an introduction to the book Blood, Sweat and Tears: Photographs from the Great Miners Strike, British socialist Paul Foot describes this beautifully:

There was change all about. People were changing. In the strength of their collective action, they felt a new confidence in themselves and the people around them. Ideas and prejudices which had been grafted into them like barnacles were suddenly blasted away. The change in themselves was quickly translated into changes in the way they behaved toward one another.

In tradition and in fact, the miner had been the master in his home. The role of the miner's wife was to feed her man, bring up her children and keep her mouth shut. Suddenly, in the most unlikely area, the ideas of women's liberation became reality. Whole communities were suddenly run by women. The strongest, most energetic and most forceful of the support groups were made up, almost exclusively, of women. This led to new relationships in the community and in the home--to new uncertainties, perhaps, but also to new respect.

Today, the neoliberal era enacted by Thatcher and Reagan continues. Over the last 30 years since the miners' struggle, unions have been on the defensive, and there have been fewer opportunities for social justice movements to link up with workers organized in our workplaces. Pride shows us that solidarity must be forged where the capitalist class tries to break us apart, and that through this process, workers learn that they can set their sights higher for what's possible.

Behind the scenes of this story is also the lesson that sometimes small groups of radicals and socialists, armed with the goal of working-class power and solidarity, can lend an important hand to movements against oppression and exploitation.

My only criticism of the film would be that some of the leaders of this struggle aren't depicted as socialists. Communists and Trotskyists existed both within the miners' union and the LGSM. Creating a campaign to help the miners was in fact thoughtful, conscious and planned.

Ray Goodspeed, one of the founders of LGSM, detailed his organizing in an interview with rs21:

I'd been in the Militant for 10 years--though they didn't support or even acknowledge LGSM and had a very dismissive position on gay rights. Mark was the general secretary of the Young Communist League, the Communist Party youth organization. Some of us, entrists in the Labour Party, met regularly as an organization called Lesbian and Gay Young Socialists.

One of the LGYS members had a contact in the Dulais Valley, a friend of a friend--we had a tenuous link to the area. We didn't stick a pin in a map. We had thought about collecting for the miners, and when Mark and Mike Jackson brought buckets to Pride, we thought, "We'll help with that," so the CP and the Trots came together. A meeting was called at Mark's council flat in Elephant and Castle.

The politics of the activists and workers comes through in the militant, class-conscious speeches and the slogans on the banners, "Workers of the World Unite." The idea that another world is possible rings throughout the story. As Paul Foot wrote:

In the same way, the socialist ideas which inspired people's brains were suddenly resurrected in physical reality. An injury to one was an injury to all. The strong did help the weak, the able-bodied did help the disabled. The seeds of a new society founded on cooperation, common interest and human effort bent to human need were sown in the struggle against the old one.

These changes burst out of the mining areas. Through the summer and autumn of 1984 they started to infect and inspire hundreds of thousands of people who had called themselves socialists, but had begun to give up hope. Into every crack and crevice of the labor movement came the black-and-yellow slogan COAL NOT DOLE, waking and inspiring all but the most somnolent and sectarian fossils.

We must reclaim this history. In this regard, Pride is a gift for us. We should use these lessons not only as inspiration, but also as a manual for the struggles sure to come. Win or loose, working-class solidarity against the Thatchers of our day must be an action and not just a word.

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