While Durham may be almost 280 miles away from Bristol – the 150th anniversary of the Miners’ Gala yesterday has given me cause to think about the legacy of our city and region’s mining history, and the ongoing importance of the trade union movement in Bristol today. The Durham Miners’ Gala has a special place in the heart of the trade union movement, alongside the South West’s own Tolpuddle Martyr’s Festival.
Coalmining in and around Bristol has a long history. Bristol sits on the Bristol and Somerset coalfield which stretches for over 240 square miles, and was likely mined for coal by the Romans (more information about the history of the coalfield is available from the University of Exeter’s The Mines of the Bristol and Somerset Coalfield project). More recently, however, in the 19th century there were pits in Easton and Bedminster, as well as in Kingswood. The Dean Lane Colliery employed over 400 men and children. By the early 20th century, most pits in Bristol had closed, though coal mining continued at two pits just outside Radstock in Somerset until 1973.
Mining was dangerous work. It is estimated that one worker a month died in mining accidents at Dean Lane Colliery. An explosion in 1886 claimed the lives of 10 people, the youngest just 14 years old. Even outside the pit, health concerns for miners and their families remained – work was not well paid (particularly for children who worked in the mines) and densely packed terraced housing which sprang up particularly in Bedminster were often vectors for disease.
It is the trade union activism which sprang up in response to these dangerous conditions and low pay that is commemorated by events such as the Miners’ Gala and the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival. That energy extends beyond remembering the strikes by mine workers in Easton in 1911 for fair pay, and the solidarity shown to those participating in the miners’ strike in 1984-5 after mining had ended in Bristol.
The closure of the pits destroyed communities and still today, unemployment remains high in ex-mining areas. The changing attitudes to coal and fossil fuels and a better understanding of the impact of carbon on the environment mean the coal industry may have been unworkable today. But the adverse impact on the communities for generations highlights the urgent need for a just transition to green jobs. Investment and transition needs to ensure jobs aren’t just removed. We link the need for a strong economy and high employment to the demands of our response to climate change.
Today, we work closely with trade unions in the city to continue to secure good pay and healthy working conditions across all parts of our city’s economy and public services. Working together, we have secured important advances for working conditions in Bristol. Chief among these is our recognition by the Living Wage Foundation that Bristol is a Living Wage City. But we also recognise we work in a new context where, for instance, the delivery of public services is more fragmented than previous generations, and institutions like the NHS or the city council have less direct oversight over how contractor’s deliver services and treat their workers.
That’s why we continue to take a collaborative approach, ensuring we use the Council’s purchasing and procurement powers to achieve social value, and engaging with initiatives like Unite’s Construction Charter and Unison’s Ethical Care Charter. We want to continue to make Bristol a city of good work by mapping our goals in the One City Plan and our Economic Recovery and Renewal Plan to the UN Sustainable Development Goals – particularly Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth. Working collaboratively with our trade unions in this way allows us to understand the complexities and realities which shape people’s experiences of work in Bristol.