On 6 and 7 July, trade unionists from Spain, Poland, Germany, Italy and the UK came together in Newcastle and Durham (England) for an international workshop on community resilience and Just Transition in coalfield communities, organised ahead of the Durham Miners’ Gala on 8 July. Co-organised with the Durham Miners’ Association, University College London, the Trades Union Congress’ northern region and industriAll Europe’s affiliate, Unite The Union, the programme focused on the transition efforts of trade unions in Europe’s coalfield regions and how they are being pursued in a context of the energy and cost-of-living crises. 

The workshop was organised back-to-back with the Durham Miners’ Gala, or “the Big Meeting” - how it is referred to by local trade unions and coal communities which have been upholding the tradition since 1871. Held every second Saturday in July, the “Big Meeting” is the largest trade union rally in the UK, and perhaps in the world. 

The experience of County Durham - historically one of the UK’s major coalfields - its current challenges and how it upholds the strong traditions of former mining communities provided much food for thought for the representatives of the trade unions that are concerned and dedicated to managing the phase-out of coal in their coalfield regions.

In the UK, the brutal closure of pits following the 1984-85 miners’ strike thrust many communities into deindustrialisation, unemployment and poverty. Since then, it has been largely the commendable work of local actors who have been struggling to rebuild a social infrastructure that these communities have recovered from this shock and are now trying to create attractive living conditions for all those living there. 

Today, the region has attracted investment in the automotive, call-centre and logistics industries. Concerns were expressed about the threat to jobs from the rapid roll-out of robotisation and AI. There is much potential in the region due to its proximity to the North Sea, where offshore windfarms and CCUS projects offer, not only a new energy infrastructure but also potential job-to-job transition for todays’ oil and gas workers. The legacy of Brexit and the lack of industrial policy and strategic foresight of the British Government threaten a successful energy transition that could provide many high-quality jobs in the region. 

Last week’s workshop offered a deep dive into how the transition of coal communities is being managed in the different national contexts and how trade unions are currently dealing with the imminent dangers of political backlash and growing populist and far-right parties. Participants described their efforts to negotiate agreements to manage the job-to-job transitions, plan the re-cultivation of coalfield areas and offer support to former coal miners.
While all of the participants find themselves at different stages of the transition process, the exchange of experiences and building of partnerships is strong.  An example of how to address the growing threat of right-wing extremism was presented by industriAll Europe’s affiliate FIOM CGIL, who has developed an internationally endorsed Antifascist Trade Union Manifesto as a response to the violent attacks on its trade union headquarters in Rome in October 2021. 

The challenges are manifold, but changes must be anticipated and planned with the participation and proactiveness of strong trade unions in Europe’s coal regions. Trade unions have a choice between denying change and potentially being wiped out by the transition, or organising the future with all forces to create a liveable and attractive future for young generations. 

“The opportunity to join the celebrations of the 137th Durham Miners’ Gala was a unique and emotional experience for our delegation. Watching the banners of the UK’s coal communities being carried with pride down the roads of Durham, accompanied by the proud tunes of brass bands, and witnessing the Durham Miners’ Gala Service at Durham Cathedral gave us a new push for energy and dedication to work together in solidarity for a just future for these important communities”, said Judith Kirton-Darling, Deputy General Secretary of industriAll Europe (and former Labour MEP for the Northeast of England).

Gan Canny! ( meaning : go carefully, Geordie Dialect )