Muck and brass

One time, when I was young, I got very drunk and indulged in social smoking, got through close on 2 packs of cigarettes. The next day, for hours when I woke up, I felt as though I could barely breathe.

Imagine that for a few moments. Imagine the terror of it, like the worst asthma attack you get as a child, stretching on for hours.

Then imagine that as your life. That’s how you are 24/7. You have to function through it. But you are constantly wheezing, catching your breath.

Or imagine lower back pain. We all get it on occasion, I would guess. It’s not something any of us welcome. Sitting at your desk for too long. Get up and walk around for 5 minutes, they tell you.

Imagine it, too, 24/7. An ache that never leaves. Shooting pain down your legs. Making you barely able to walk unless you are on a cocktail of painkillers.

Imagine your body as a mess of these aches. Scars and pain. Brought on by a life of – no other way to put it – backbreaking work.

Imagine all of the above. That’s you. Thats your daily life. That’s what you have to get through every day.

That’s my dad. My dad and thousands – tens of thousands – of men like him, of men of a certain age who spent their best years knee deep in muck and grime, breathing in coal dust, stripped to the waist in unbearable heat, sweat pouring off them, hewing out the black gold that kept you, or your parents or grandparents, warm. Kept the lights on for the country. Kept the TV stations broadcasting and the hospital heart monitors beeping.

It was a horrible job, a grim one, a necessary one. The men who did it were considered the aristocracy of labour. Whole libraries of books, albums of songs, were produced that recognised that fact.

And when they went on strike, when they flexed their power, they were feared. They brought down governments. They brought the nation to a standstill. They looked out for each other below ground, and that solidarity, that esprit de corps necessary to do their job translated into power above ground.

They are old, now, the vast majority of these men. Their power broken by government, their industry mainly gone. Their sacrifice, for all that work, all that pain, all that illness and infirmity they bear was rewarded? recognised? by government who set up compensation claims and allowed them to claw back at least something – something financial – to symbolise those decades of the best years of their life they gave to the nation.

You’ll see them if you walk around any old town in certain areas of our country. Halting men – lame, wheezing, breathless, hobbling, grey men still struggling along.

We on the left still have a warm, fuzzy glow when we talk about them. We ritually attend the annual miner’s gala in Durham despite the industry being now virtually nonexistent. We bemoan the showdown 32 years ago that finally broke the back of their militancy. We make films where their children become ballet dancers, where their brass bands win awards, where they discover tolerance for different sexualities.

And a part of that money those old men, those battered men, part of the compensation they were given, a percentage, that went back to the union. They signed it over, when they made the claims, in a socialist way, proper socialist, syndicalist.

Instead of relying on big daddy state to come in and solve their problems, huge numbers of them signed over a percentage of the claims to their union in the hope that it would be there for their workmates, that money.

Maybe workmates who weren’t as lucky as them, didn’t get a payout. Workmates who had fallen on hard times. Self organising to the last. Solidarity to the last. Remembering the men who had stood in line with them at the coalface, the brotherhood that had been forged beneath the earth, they gave a share of their money over.

This link https://storify.com/hopisen/defending-good-unions-doesn-t-mean-protecting-bad-?utm_campaign=&utm_content=storify-pingback&utm_medium=sfy.co-twitter&utm_source=t.co&awesm=sfy.co_b0xVj shows what has been done with that money. Just one region, but having checked the odd account online, I’m sure its not the only one. Perhaps not even the most egregious one.

Legal? Most possibly. I’ve no personal knowledge of the law, so as far as I’m aware, this was legal, and I’m not saying anything here that claims otherwise.

But moral? Aye. There’s the rub. Morally, I don’t care what legal justification you have for it. Morally, I don’t care whether it dotted every i and crossed every t. Morally, this is a scandal.

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