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What A Stirring New British Documentary Has To Teach U.S. Unions

August 17, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco

British strikers face cops. Photo courtesy of John Sturrock/reportdigital.co.uk

New York, NY - In 1984, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared war on England’s trade unionist movement when she branded thousands of UK mine workers the “enemy within” and set about brutally crushing one of the most important national strikes in the country’s history, in which 11 ultimately died. Now, the filmmakers behind an acclaimed new documentary chronicling that epic struggle say that the U.S. Labor Movement can learn a lot from Britain’s tragic history. 

“If just one other union had come out and supported them, that would have made all the difference,” producer Sinead Kirwan recently told LaborPress. “It’s not just about being in a union, it’s about being supportive of other people in other unions that may not directly affect you now, but are going to affect you later on down the line.”

After showing at over 250 screenings across the UK during last year’s 30th anniversary of the British Miners’ Strike, the award-winning “Still The Enemy Within” is set to make a bigger splash on U.S. shores.

Told by some of the men and women who actually stood up to police billy clubs and attack dogs during the Iron Lady’s reign - the 112 minute feature looks at both the intricate sociopolitical forces that led to the great strike, as well as the very human frailties that contributed to its eventual demise. 

And although the events are 30 years old, the young filmmakers behind the project insist that the story is indispensable, and actually holds the keys to future labor victories everywhere. 

“The strength in solidarity is what’s really important,” director Owen Gower told LaborPress. “We made the film not just for people in trade unions, but for young people to see how important trade unions are and how important strike action is.”

Here in the U.S., the effectiveness of striking was perhaps best epitomized by the stunningly successful Fight For $15 Movement. Although far less harrowing than the 1984-85 British Miners’ Strike, the one-day walkouts that began spreading from New York City to the rest of the country three years ago, have culminated in a cascading tide of minimum wage hikes that few ever thought possible before the movement began. 

“The fight for the minimum wage isn’t just an empty campaign,” Kirwan said. “I think what’s driven it and made it so powerful is people taking strike action. They’re not just going to rallies, they’re not just going to demonstrations — they’re taking action in the workplace.”

Although often fraught with danger, the documentarians insist taking action in the workplace is just what trade unionists on both sides of the pond need to do in order to draw more young people to their ranks. 

Movie poster for

At one point in “Still The Enemy Within,” the Thatcher government becomes so afraid that striking miners from the north will win over their counterparts in the south, that British police start arresting anyone trying to enter a town where an important strike vote is to be held. 

“One thing we found here when unions do fight, when they get a strike action off the ground, when they do challenge employers — that’s when people will join trade unions,” Gower said. “It’s very difficult for young people and new activists to become galvanized if people don’t fight back. But when people do fight back, that’s when more people join.”

The 1984 British Miners’ Strike actually succeeded in bringing together a very broad coalition of diverse groups all united under a banner of social justice. 

“The Miners’ Strike wasn’t just an industrial dispute,” Gower said. “It brought in women who ended up on the front lines, as well as gay and black activists, too. People realized they had a lot in common, and it became a beacon for lots of different activists.”

Ultimately, Thatcher’s “salami tactics” where she was able to successfully pit individual unions against each other, broke the back of the great strike. The results were a spate neo-conservative economic policies that continue to plague the UK today. 

“One of the lessons from the Miners' Strike is you can’t wait until it’s you being attacked,” Kirwan said. “You have to go out there — realize what’s going on in the world around you and show support whenever you can for any group of workers that are under attack.”

Screenings of “Still The Enemy Within” are expected in many major cities around the U.S. this fall. You can view the trailer here

 

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