Academic journal article Capital & Class

Like Taking Coals to Newcastle: A New Era for Trade Unionism in the North East of England?

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Like Taking Coals to Newcastle: A New Era for Trade Unionism in the North East of England?

Article excerpt

The recent closure of Ellington Colliery, Northumberland, the last deep coalmine in the North East of England, is the final chapter in the story of a particular workplace trade unionism. As the TUC regional secretary stated, 'the closure of Ellington pit was really a very deep shock to the people in the area and it was recounted to me in the same vein as the death of a relative, such is the emotion in the mining industry in the area' (quoted in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 2005).

The colliery at one time produced around 25 per cent of UK coal production (Northumberland County Association of Trades Councils secretary, Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 2005), and the region as a whole was synonymous with coal.

The North East was also renowned for a number of other heavy industries, including engineering, shipbuilding and steel. These had begun to decline prior to the 1984 miners' strike, which became an important rallying point for many regional trade unionists and, to a lesser degree, regional officials who were coping with an alarming decline in membership (see Williams, 1997).

The first part of this Behind the News article will focus briefly on two main themes: (1) regional employment change and skill levels; and (2) the impact of these on the workplace. Following this, the second part will develop these themes, identify the challenges that trade unions now face, and discuss the innovative way that union learning reps (ULRS) and the learning and skills agenda have been used to provide an opportunity to renew workplace and governance engagement.

Like taking coals to Newcastle

At one time, the famous saying given above was a common expression relating to the absurdity of such a situation. But times have changed. Today, the UK freely imports coal from abroad as the country becomes increasingly reliant upon imported energy. In a similar vein, it would have seemed absurd in the past to question the relevance or, more precisely, the nature of trade unionism in a region such as the North East; that is no longer the case. The reasons for change are multi-faceted, and the responses of labour are both individually and organisationally complex (Williams, 1997: 94).

Regional employment and skills

The basic facts on the changing nature of employment are contained in Table I below.

As can be seen, the movement in employment away from the traditional union strongholds of heavy industry began before the 1984 strike (approximately 70,000 jobs were lost in the period 1981-84), including the closure of a number of collieries with miners bussed to the collieries that remained. But growth was evident in other union-dominated sectors such as public administration, education, social work and health, although overall employment declined in these three years (1981-1984) by approximately 58,000 jobs. This trend was reversed in the ten years following the strike (1984-1995), when overall employment grew by over 30,000 jobs. The main gain here was in the areas of distribution, hotels and catering, and in financial and business services (approximately 110,000 jobs). However, manufacturing continued to decline (with the loss of around 70,000 jobs) and, significantly, following the strike there was a catastrophic loss of approximately 28,000 jobs in deep mining. Since 1995, manufacturing has continued to shed jobs (approximately 90,000 up to 2004), and is projected to lose a further 25,000 by 2010 (Green et al., 2004). In the same period, 27,000 jobs were lost in distribution, hotels and catering.

On the other hand, the financial sector, business services (approximately 14,000 jobs) and education, social work and health (21,000 jobs) all gained. Overall, though, the positive trend in jobs did not continue, and there was a loss of around 93,000 jobs, with mining now all but gone.

These changes have related not only to the type of jobs now undertaken in the region, but also to the gender and race of those in employment. …

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