British Miners and
International Solidarity

Durham miners are proud to promote this photographic exposé of the conditions of the Bolivian miners.
 
The shared dangers of the mine and the common struggle against cruel exploitation has forged an international brotherhood of miners and for 150 years British miners have both given and received aid from this fraternity.

We are particularly proud that during the Spanish Civil war Durham Miners sent aid to the miners of Asturias and helped to care for their orphans. In recent times we established links with the lead miners in Kosovo when they came under attack from Serbian nationalists and we established the Kosovan Miners Aid Fund.

During the siege of Tuzla, in the mining region of Bosnia Herzegovina, Durham Miners raised funds to send food and clothing through the blockade and later supported the miners union financially. In the same period we helped the miners in the Ukraine and raised funds for medical equipment for Cuba. This was but a small repayment for the avalanche of aid which flowed from all countries of the world to relieve our mining communities in our year long strike in 1984/85.

Sadly our mines were destroyed by a vengeful Tory government but our traditions live on in the slogans on the banners we march behind at the Durham Miners Gala – ‘Unity is Strength’, ‘All Miners are Brothers’ and ‘Workers of the World Unite’.

SOLIDARITY WITH BOLIVIA

The National Union of Miners (NUM) has itself played a part in the history of the Bolivian miners through its international solidarity work. In the 1970s, the NUM’s attention was drawn to South America as military dictatorships were spreading across the region, and miners — along with other trade unionists — were the victims of severe repression and persecution.

In Bolivia an authoritarian regime, headed by General Hugo Banzer, had come to power in 1971 through a bloody coup d’état, killing hundreds of students, trade unionists, political leaders and even priests. The military government immediately outlawed the Bolivian Worker’s Confederation, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), the Bolivian equivalent of the TUC, claiming it was an extremist organisation. Labour leaders were exiled, imprisoned or killed, and in 1974 the government issued decrees outlawing all trade union organisation, political activity and political parties.

In spite of continued repression, the miners’ union, the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB), was strong enough to continue organising, and in 1976 it held a congress that demanded the government increase the basic wage from US$1.50 to US$4.00 per day. After a former political leader was assassinated in Argentina, the union called a strike. The army was sent in to occupy the mines and the miners then retaliated by calling a general strike that lasted 28 days. The government imprisoned the union’s leaders, exiling some to Chile. Hundreds of workers were dismissed, miners’ homes raided and their families intimidated. The government cut food and water supplies to the mining centres, took over the miners’ radio stations and imposed a strict press blackout. A year later, the army continued to occupy the major mining centres.

In response, NUM members expressed their solidarity, sending supportive telegrams and offers of financial help to the miners and their families. In 1977 a clandestine delegation of the National Executive Committee was sent to visit Bolivia and Chile. In Bolivia it met with FSTMB leaders, political leaders, members of the church and human rights activists. Delegation members also entered some of the mines to see working conditions for themselves and to interview miners and their families. Meetings were held in secret to avoid reprisals against those they met.

The report from the delegation, personally endorsed by Joe Gormley, Mick McGahey and Lawrence Daly on behalf of the NUM Executive Committee, called on the British government to cancel a proposed grant of £19 million to COMIBOL. The Bolivian miners were emphatic that this would bring no benefit to them, only to the government. The NUM argued that such aid to a military dictatorship was wholly inappropriate and would do nothing to improve human and labour rights. In the end, this example of international solidarity accelerated the collapse of the Banzer regime in 1978 and the return to democracy.

ABOUT THE BIF

The Bolivia Information Forum (BIF) was formed in mid-2006 by a group of people interested in the country and keen to make information about current political and social developments in Bolivia more easily available to a UK-based audience. All of the BIF's founding members have expertise in and direct experience of Bolivia; some were involved in the solidarity process with the NUM in the 1970s.

The BIF produces a regular bulletin which is written by experts in Bolivia and in the UK and also includes frequent guest contributions from practitioners and reporters on development and human rights issues.

Jean-Claude Wicky
Jean-Claude Wicky

© Jean-Claude Wicky