The power of collective strength

Google searches for ‘how can I join a union’ went up by 500 per cent at the end of June, driven by coverage of the rail strikes and by the growing number of planned industrial disputes fuelled by the cost-of-living crisis. My short play for GEM OF A PLACE – about women penmakers being urged to join a union – suddenly seems particularly timely.

Google searches for ‘how can I join a union’ went up by 500 per cent at the end of June, driven by coverage of the rail strikes and by the growing number of planned industrial disputes fuelled by the cost-of-living crisis. My short play for GEM OF A PLACE – about women penmakers being urged to join a union – suddenly seems particularly timely.

The right of workers to join a union has been around for 150 years, and the 20th century was famously framed by periods of industrial action. I’m old enough to recall the Three-Day Week – candles in Woolworths during the power cuts; my mum heating up beans for our tea on the open fire. And then came the Winter of Discontent. Not that I remember much about that one, other than the car workers’ strikes and seeing photographs of piles of uncollected rubbish in the streets.

I do remember the Miners’ Strike as I was living in an ex-mining village in Durham and witnessed first-hand the desperation and poverty resulting from the closure of the mines. I’m from a Welsh family, with relatives who’d worked in the mines, and I understood that closing pits also meant destroying communities and that no amount of ‘service industry’ jobs was ever going to repair that. (If you haven’t watched James Graham’s excellent ‘Sherwood’ on BBC iPlayer, then you should.) But I also remember the kindness of people. Even when their strike pay was cut, our neighbours sent around sacks of reformed coal dust (there was obviously no coal) so that a group of students wouldn’t freeze. I also saw community soup kitchens and food banks for the first time, and I remember naively saying to my elderly nan – who’d lived through the 1926 General Strike – that I never thought I’d live in a world where I’d witness such a thing (little did I know).

My nan, by coincidence, was born in 1899, the same year as my play is set. She was illegitimate and was brought up in a cramped ‘two-up, two-down’ with her adoptive family. She had various jobs, including being the soda fountain girl in the town’s first cinema, and later, when I was around, as a hospital cleaner. I remember her once telling me that she believed she’d lived through the greatest century of social change – and it proved to be true, all her great-grandchildren have been to university. Unfortunately, I really can’t imagine her saying the same about this century. We seemed to have slipped backwards. And, when you hear my 1899 union representative urging people to join a union as it’s “the only guaranteed way to improve your conditions and raise your wages,” maybe it’s not that surprising that we are hearing the exact same sentiment being uttered today. Nicola Jones

Tickets and more information at: www.gemofaplace2022.eventbrite.co.uk

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