History - Direct Action - Analysis - Contradictions
No Opencast is a campaign run by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and supported by Women Against Pit Closures and members of the Miners Support Groups. Since early 1995 there has been an informal co-operation between the No Opencast campaign and Earth First!ers. This has culminated, so far, in the action in Derbyshire on Friday 31st October 1997. On this action an opencast site, owned by HJ Banks mining company, was visited early in the morning by around 250 activists. Within two hours the mine was put out of operation, with estimates of the damage caused ranging from £375,000 to £4 million. This article attempts to give some background information to this campaign and action but also raises some questions and possible contradictions about its history and aims.
Opencast mining (or strip mining as it is also known) is one of the most ecologically destructive mining methods in use today. To gain access to the raw material wanted it involves the excavation, removal and irreparable destruction of huge quantities of the surface eco-system and the earth below it. Local people have to endure noise, vibration and severe dust pollution. Villages are torn apart by heavy trucks and evidence is growing to show the link between the pollution caused by opencast mining and the incidence of respiratory diseases in children. When the mine is exhausted and the operators have made off with their profits, the problems for the people that live near the site persist. Although the process is the same for whatever is being mined, this article is specifically referring to the issues surrounding opencasting mining for coal here in the UK.
On 14th May 1995 12 members of the London Miners' Support group walked onto the 800 acre estate owned by Michael Heseltine. He was the then deputy leader of the Conservative Party and the person responsible for destroying the deep mining industry and their communities in the 1980's whilst allowing opencast mining to flourish. A small area of his front garden was marked off with tape and a sign erected by activists announcing that this was the 'Heseltine Opencast Mining plc..'
This initial occupation was to be the first stage of a plan to present a planning application to Northamptonshire County Council to establish an opencast mine on Heseltine's land. Before long a larger group of campaigners visited the same area and started to remove turf and establish the mine. An apoplectic Heseltine appeared in lavender pyjamas wittering; "What was the point of the Criminal Justice Bill if you can't remove these people from my land?" People re-arranged the dug-up turf so that it read 'No Opencast' and then left.
The largest occupation was on 20th October 1996 when 90 ex-miners, their wives, Earth First!ers and others visited him again. They put up a 6 foot high screen and within it's confines a large hole was dug. No coal was found, but no doubt much annoyance was caused to Heseltine - again - and plenty of journalists captured the scene, including the planting of a tree before everyone left.
Opencast mining has undergone a massive expansion in recent years, yet this has nothing to do with any particular energy policy pushed by the government. It has far more to do with a political vendetta by the State to smash the militant resistance to exploitation shown by mining communities over the years.
In 1972 and 1974 the miners went on strike to protest against the government's policy of drastic cuts in public sector workers' pay. In 1972 the State was unprepared; coal stocks were low and this caused an energy crisis resulting in extensive power cuts. In 1974 the then Prime Minister decided to call a snap general election under the slogan: 'Who rules the country - the miners or the government?' He lost and was bundled out of power.
Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, nursing a desire for revenge against the miners. She bided her time and by 1984 was ready. Coal stocks were high and she set out to provoke the miners' unions into strike action in the spring when energy demand was lower. A programme of deep shaft mine closures was announced. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) predicted that if it went ahead more would follow and the industry would be decimated. They went on strike - not just to protect their jobs, but also their communities and their way of life. What transpired was a year long strike, one of the hardest fought and bitterest in this country's history.1 It eventually ended in defeat for the miners and a further round of pit closures ensued.
By 1992 the coal industry in this country was down to a fraction of its former size and only the most modern and productive pits had survived. Michael Heseltine, the then President of the Board of Trade, announced the closure of a further 31 pits. The pretext for this was that there was no longer a market for British coal - yet the real reason was to pave the way for the casualisation of labour and the privatisation of the coal industry by destroying any last vestiges of resistance from the miners. Hand in hand with this closing of the deep shaft mines came the expansion of the opencast coal mining industry with its smaller casual workforce that is easier to exploit without organised resistance.
It is these very towns and villages that bore the brunt of the 1984/5 strike which, having had their communities and future weakened - and in some cases destroyed, are now under attack from destructive opencast sites.
Opposition to opencast grows
Opencast mining, as mentioned earlier, is notorious for its air, noise and water pollution and increasingly is being linked with respiratory problems. The main focus, so far, for local opposition groups fighting opencast mining have been these health issues and most planning applications have been fought on this aspect of opencast alone.
Since 1995, however, EF!ers have been addressing the wider ecological effects of opencasting. One of the first groups to do this - Leeds EF! - took action in early 1995 targeting an opencast site in Yorkshire, and at about the same time Welsh activists were setting up camps at Selar and Brynhenllys sites near Swansea.2 These actions, amongst others, led to an increasing alliance between EF!ers and the No Opencast campaign - which raises some questions I will attempt to address later.
Smash the (E)state!
On 5th January 1997 a group of around a hundred anti-opencast campaigners descended on Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, the ancestral home of the Duke of Devonshire. The Duke owns huge swathes of Derbyshire and allows developers to opencast large areas of it - although not near Chatsworth of course!
A sound system played loud recordings of noise from an opencast site so that the people who are routinely subjected to it could give him a feeling of what it was like. Three people got inside his house and waved flags from the windows whilst others held banners outside. The Duke's right hand man mingled with the activists handing out press statements and saying that the Duke would be out in a minute. His peace offering of warm soup was turned over on the ground and after much venom flying in his direction he eventually retreated behind his wrought iron gates for protection.
Scotland, too, increasingly was being ripped up for opencasting, as many at last year's EF! Gathering near Glasgow witnessed first hand. However, due to the fact that all the villages affected were small, and the rural population distribution was fragmented, the opposition mounted was fairly ineffective.
The No Opencast campaign was getting increasingly frustrated by the loaded planning process and the blatant attempts to destroy mining communities and decided to take more radical action. This led to a series of joint actions with Earth First!ers - the first of which was the initial visit to Heseltine's garden. (See box - 'Heselmine PLC!') After this the No Opencast campaign and EF!ers started to work closely together.
As well as this the widespread opposition against opencasting across most of the country lead to, amongst other things, Friends of the Earth (FoE) organising a conference of anti-opencast campaigners in early 1996. It was attended by local opposition groups and led to the creation of an English and Welsh network, administered by FoE3 and now comprising over 120 anti-opencast groups. (There is a separate Scottish network managed by the Scottish Opencast Action Group (SOAG)).
1. To give some indication of this look at the arrest statistics for this strike. They included: 4089 for conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace, 1682 for obstruction of the police, 640 for obstruction of the highway, 1015 for criminal damage, 359 for assault on the police, 137 for riot and 509 for unlawful assembly. (All from 'Miners Strike 1984-1985. People versus State.' by David Reed and Olivia Adamson. (Larkin: London 1985.)) The strike also provided the final fine tuning of the police into the paramilitary force that they are today. For more details on this read: 'State of Siege: Politics and Policing in the Coalfields - Miners' Strike 1984' by Jim Coulter, Susan Miller and Martin Walker. (Canary Press: London 1984.)
2. For an account of resistance to opencasting in Wales see 'Autonomy, Resistance and Mediation. The dynamics of Reclaim the Valleys!' on page 74 in DoD No.6.
3. More specifically it is co-ordinated by Tim Sander of Chesterfield FoE. Tim is now being sued by John Wilson of Fitzwise Ltd., a notorious opencast company. Wilson alleges that in November 1995 Tim produced an agenda for a public meeting libelling him as a hypocrite for moving house in anticipation of an opencast mine being opened nearby. Tim denies the libel, refuses to apologise, and is contesting the case. There is no legal aid for libel cases and so Tim is representing himself. This is clearly an attempt to squash resistance to opencasting and to act as a warning to others. Messages of support and donations for legal costs to: Tim Sander c/o Friends of the Earth, 26-28 Underwood Street, London, N1 7JQ, UK. Telephone: 0171 490 1555.
Reports and Thoughts on the Action in Derbyshire
What follows are three accounts of, and some opinions on, the No Opencast action in Derbyshire on Friday 31st October 1997 all written by activists who were there. As well as this there is a short piece on some possible contradictions and problems with the nature of the alliance between radical ecologists and the No Opencast campaign.
"All this lurking about in the dark inspired a lot of giggling."
We met in a squat in London and there were maybe 60 people or so. The idea was that we would hide out there, leave in the middle of the night and arrive at the opencast site in Derbyshire at 5 or 6 in the morning. The time until then was to be well spent in planning our actions.
We were given briefing sheets, explaining what we were going to do. These were counted out and counted back in again and then burnt before we left the building. No one was supposed to go in or out of the building until we all left together. I was posted on guard duty to make sure no one got out. All very Mission: Impossible! Meanwhile, with the aid of some big bits of paper on the floor and marker pens, everyone crowding around was given some idea of the layout of the site and what targets we should head for when we were in.
This action appears to have been one of the few occasions when all the rhetoric about how affinity groups are the way forward constantly spouted by EF!ers in this country actually seemed to materialise into something. We split up into affinity groups to go off and decide in private what we were each individually up for - running about, trashing stuff, occupying machinery etc. and what we wanted to head for - machinery, vehicles, offices etc. You have to come equipped if you're going to be sabotaging things and as none of my spectacularly well-prepared group had brought anything or thought about it at all we decided we weren't going to be monkeywrenching.
However, some people in my group did have a clever plan which could be more widely adopted. They were dressed head-to-toe in standard activist colours (green and black is the new green and black dahling!) with hooded tops and combat boots etc.. Yet underneath this regulation anarcho-garb they were wearing rainbow-coloured hippy jumpers. Thus they could cunningly evade police surveillance and confuse police stereotypes.
We had a big school-trip type coach to take us to the site, so we all piled on - the tough kids grabbing the back seat and the swots sitting up front in time-honoured fashion. As we hit the motorway we were informed that all mobile phones had to wrapped in the silver foil that was being passed around to prevent them being used to track our progress by the police. The whole planning of the action operated on roughly this level of paranoia. Over the top? Well, maybe...
We were woken up 5 or 10 minutes before arrival with chocolate and whiskey which made us all feel a lot better about being in the middle of nowhere at 6 in the morning. As per usual prior to an action I was all nerves and butterflies in the stomach. I've never been able to account for this, as when the action starts I'm relatively calm and in control. We all piled out of the coach and attempted to keep quiet and hid behind a hedge that ran along the side of the road. It was cold and dark but dawn was just breaking.
Because of the military precision of the timing we had to hide behind the hedge for about 5 minutes until exactly the time set for us to go over the top into the site. People from other towns and areas would be entering the site from different directions at 1 minute intervals to meet up with our London crew. All this lurking about in the dark inspired a lot of giggling that did not sit well with the highly organised timing and precision. This wasn't helped by the fact that we had to keep our heads down below the hedge every time a car came past - the bobbing up and down only produced more giggling and noisy shushing and more giggling.
We all poured over the flimsy barbed wire fence and up the steep embankment that marked the perimeter of the opencast site. Getting to the top of the slope was rather an anticlimax - there was just a big deserted site on the other side. We stopped running and sort of ambled in a big straggly group - all semblance of military order now gone. We weren't really sure which direction to go so we all just followed the crowd. "Baaaa!" shouted some wit from the rear.
The whole action had this weird character - we encountered no resistance which gave the whole thing rather an odd dynamic. It's like the two sides define each other by opposition - take away our opposition and it all felt rather formless. As often is the case when we are successful we become victims of our own success and don't know what to do with the totally unexpected situation of actually outwitting the cops and not being faced with a set-piece everyone-knows-their-role cops vs. activists confrontation. With no antagonism, no adrenaline rush of confrontation, there is no opposition to give us a focus. There was no such focus here, so we just sort of ambled about. Our affinity group sort of fell apart as one guy said he'd catch us up as he just had to go off and chat to a friend. It was good the way the whole event was a chance to catch up with old friends from the other end of the country; faces remembered from past actions and evictions, but it did mean the planned organisation of people into affinity groups kind of fell apart.
A van with headlights full on was driving around the site and seemed to have seen us but drove off in a different direction. There was an initial impulse to hide from them but we quickly realised this was pretty pointless - if they didn't know we were here yet they soon would do. The few mine workers or security who were on site basically stayed out of our way in their little portacabin things throughout the action.
My affinity group/bunch of useless mates (ho ho only joking) soon spotted a great big digging thing on the edge of a rather large hole which we quickly climbed all over. On the top of the pneumatic arm thing we got a great view of the whole site and also got covered in great globs of disgusting grease. From our vantage point we could see other groups arriving from every side of the site. One bunch marched below us led by a bloke in a silly wizard's hat and a drum. "That's Manchester" someone said. We exchanged a few yips and whistles and clenched-fist salutes with them and saw another bunch arriving a bit further around the perimeter of the site. This lot looked like locals/ex-miners, and they climbed all over some digging things.
We sang revolutionary songs and posed on the top of the digging arm doing clenched-fist salutes for the locals/ex-miners' cameras (which in retrospect was probably not very smart thing to do - even though we were all de rigeur masked-up). From our vantage point we could see various bits of machinery - diggers, huge trucks etc. around the site from which banging, crashing sounds were emanating. Soon I was told we had to vacate our adopted digger because some people had come to trash it.
This kind of set the tone for the whole action - I had gone along with our affinity group decision just to occupy the site and not to trash anything, but now it seemed the only thing to do was trash things. The only things in an opencast mine are trucks, diggers, big bits of machinery etc. It is very unwise to be sitting on a piece of machinery that has been sabotaged when the police arrive. Its kind of like asking for it. So seeing as pretty much every piece of machinery in the place was damaged in some way within half an hour of arrival I felt pretty redundant.
Almost as soon as we were into the site people were saying: 'there's nothing to do now - everything's been trashed, we might as well leave'. Which was kind of odd and disempowering. The attitude of the 'ego-warrior' that 'if you can't climb a tree then there's no point in you being here and there's nothing you can do except make the tea' has been recognised as an actual and potential problem in our movement. The opencast action did to an extent suffer from the same division of labour - if you weren't prepared enough (or knowledgeable enough) to trash machinery then you could end up feeling pretty superfluous. Was this just another example of the production of a hierarchical division between the full-on activists and the 'ground support'? What's the point of a mass action if it's all over so quickly and there is nothing for the mass of people to do?
I got the impression that people were getting more bold as dawn broke, the sun rose and there were still no police or security. It felt like we were a bunch of kids who had been left completely unsupervised at playtime. I think there is some similarity here with the Newbury Reunion Rampage of January 1997 when equipment was torched that had earlier been sabbed. I think this shows an escalating threshold of confidence in what people think they can get away with. It was a similar thing here - various bits of kit had some initial damage done to them, i.e. slashing or letting down the tires which was then 'improved' on by people going round an hour or so later making sure the job was done more thoroughly. These have been nick-named 'quality control teams' - people were going around asking "has that been done?", and then checking to make sure it had been done properly.
Most damage was fairly invisible, not like the spectacular fires at the Reunion Rampage. Fire looks really cool, but we had been informed in no uncertain terms at the pre-meeting that fire in a coal mine was a not a very good idea. The main visible damage I saw was some very obvious smashing of windows. It felt very odd seeing such highly illegal 'nightwork' being carried out in the light of day, as the early morning sun was rising and the mist still clung to the damp grass - bizarre and exhilarating.
After everyone had explored a bit, chatted to friends new or old and most stuff had been disabled in at least some form, people began to congregate at a point where an access road to the mine workings cut between two very steep slopes or semi-cliffs. Perched on top of one of these was one of the mobile lighting rigs used to illuminate the mine workings at night. It was just too inviting. Pretty soon a group of 20 or 30 of us were trying our damnedest to push it over the edge. Although our efforts were fairly feeble (it's not as easy as you think, pushing a lighting rig down a hill!) and the end result was something less than the spectacular crash we had hoped for, this was an example of collective action somewhat different to the sabbing of diggers etc. that had been going on earlier. That seemed to rely on a division between those with the specialised skills, tools and confidence to take it on, and those who lacked these things, whereas here anyone could get involved with the already existing mass of people attempting to heave the lighting thing off the cliff. It was the sort of damage that could only be carried out by a mass of people. It was much more inclusive.
However despite this most people didn't join in but stood around as spectators to our efforts (some with cameras!) Maybe they couldn't see us or didn't realise we could do with some help. Even on an action it takes time to break out of everyday passivity and become an active collectivity. e.g: at the Newbury protests in early 1996 there were examples of whole groups of people standing around watching others being arrested and not diving in and attempting to de-arrest them. Even on an action, feelings of powerlessness can overwhelm you or you can fall into regarding the actions of others as a spectacle (even in the case of the most radical actions) - this is where any 'division of labour' into 'climbers' and 'ground support' or 'saboteurs' and 'ordinary protesters' can be a real liability and where confrontation can help - it focuses us as an antagonistic mass - unifies our purpose. I know, I've felt both things myself - quite often at Newbury I felt like a powerless spectator to a drama of security guards and tree-house dwellers carried out before a backdrop of crashing trees. Likewise I have on occasion felt myself as part of a powerful united mass with a common purpose - usually in opposition to a common enemy - almost always the police.
Of course the main feeling on actions is just weirdness, any action that is half-way successful is just not like ordinary life. You can tell a really bad demo because it is just like ordinary life - there is no question of rupture in the seamless banality of the everyday.
Normally if you were merely physically obstructing the site, the strategy would be to stay as long as possible. Here, staying on the site any longer than absolutely necessary would have been foolish - just asking to be carted off (like at the Whatley Quarry national action of December '95). We were faced with a dilemma - stay and fuck things up more since we had the chance and risk getting caught, or scarper while the going was good? The general feeling seemed to be that we should all leave en masse 'now that the job had been done'. We just walked past the two or three cops at the front gate. We had trashed an entire opencast site right under their noses and they were powerless to stop us. It felt good seeing the cops so powerless. We must have looked so smug - no wonder they arrested everyone later in the day at the office occupation.
We had a big circle meeting just outside the gate to the site and decided to split up - some people went to leaflet the local town, some went to the offices of the opencast company and the rest of us went to the local cafe and were shocked to find we had just trashed an entire opencast mine to the tune of hundreds of thousands or possibly even millions of pounds and had finished the job in time for breakfast. Quickest action I've ever been on.
This action shows we can pull off big actions with enough planning and organisation. Since Whatley in December '95, and excluding the semi-spontaneous pyromania of the Reunion Rampage, there has been rather a record of failure with big national EF! actions, for example - the Sea Empress anniversary action at Milford Haven in February '97, the abortive action at Shoreham harbour in May '97. Superior planning and organisation plus the handy expedient of not telling them beforehand where we were going allowed us on this occasion to totally outwit them. The police can't act spontaneously and are very bad at responding if you catch them by surprise; it is here that our advantage lies, and when we do successfully surprise them we can get away with an incredible amount.
We need to make links, build numbers and have more big mass actions that are inclusive of people from outside the activist community. Leafleting the local area and talking to local people was a most valuable and decidedly unsexy job that needed to be done and I am ashamed to an extent that I did not join the leafleting-the-village posse.
One big fried breakfast later and everyone seemed to have split up - lots of people had gone to the pub I think, but we couldn't find which one, so school-trip over, we lazed about in the sun waiting for the coach to take us home. We got talking to a bunch of local kids (quite possibly the kids of local ex-miners) who told us they regularly broke into the site and nicked and damaged things! A fitting end to our childlike playtime of unsupervised sabotage - there was mutual respect between rebellious kids of all ages.
"A smashing good time!"
Around 200 activists arrived by three different routes at the opencast mine at Tibshelf, Derbyshire at approximately 6.15am. The site was completely undefended and the activists were immediately confronted with diggers and six CAT dumpers lined up. At first people sat on the diggers, but it became increasingly obvious that there was no-one to obstruct. Two security guards in a landy approached the diggers, sized up the number of activists and then buggered off again.
What followed was systematic actions of revenge for earth-rape - the like of which I haven't seen for a while. The six super-dumpers, four or five standard CAT diggers, one super-duper digger (I don't know the makes!) and at least four lighting rigs were trashed before the activists had even recced the entire site. Not content with only superficial damage 'quality control' teams were doing the rounds of the site putting the finishing touches to any of the machinery! Near the northern entrance of the site more plant was attacked, and when finally confronted with a police presence (all six/seven of them) a digger had its hydraulics trashed in front of them by a mainly-masked up crowd!
Probably the best lessons of the action were the surprise factor gained by the frankly paranoid 'organisation' of the action (e.g. meeting at one place, revelation of the target site at the last moment and in person) and the fact that at last the majority of people on site were masked-up or at least attempted some form of disguise. The action was euphoric and good-natured (with the possible exception of Mrs. Scargill) with the workers waved at rather than intimidated. Damage estimates have been suggested at around £4m - all in all an incredible start to a week of Earth Nights!
"What were the aims of the action?"
We have a strange history. Largely a series of victorious defeats which may have muddied the water when it comes to assessing levels of success and failure. The No Opencast action on Friday 31st October was very well organised and certainly no failure, but I find it difficult to go along fully with the celebrations of its success. For me the action raised a number of difficult questions about our strategy and direction. And it left me with a gnawing feeling that when the £ signs light up on the criminal damage register our critical attitude goes to the wind.
So, what were the aims of our action? To inflict the maximum financial damage on HJ Banks? To create an interface, an active living point of contact between the No Opencast campaign, the local population, other interested angered people and the workforce? To build the campaign, catalyse further actions and help it gain strength? To generate a feeling of empowerment and collectivity within the movement?
This action mainly achieved the first and fourth objectives. However, I would argue in this instance that on this particular day the first objective was the least important. Let's face it, in anything other than exceptional circumstances a one day action will not bring a company to its knees. But because we privileged this course of action we could never get to grips with any wider objectives.
My main criticism is that while a small group of committed activists succeeded in bringing the site to a halt it was done in way that made involving others very difficult. Sure, I helped hand out leaflets in the local town, Tibshelf, but that was after the action had occurred. All that people could do then was join a small group standing round the entrance gates of a site that wasn't working. Of course, it's a good thing it wasn't working, but if it hadn't been working because we were in occupation, people could have come and been part of an active crowd stopping the work. Presumably the campaign against opencast mines will only grow if it can somehow engage people. Some may argue that mobilising support occurs before the event as part of the networking process, but surely the revolutionary potential of direct action can only be realised when people see it as something that they can get involved with; when it creates circumstances which can catalyse further acts of subversion.
Was the action empowering? People certainly felt empowered, but still, questions remain. Individual feelings of empowerment may or may not be connected to whether we are being successful on a much wider level. A mass action is surely at it's best when through our collective power we achieve things that would have been difficult or impossible for a smaller group to do. Sometimes of course it's just better to have shit loads of people. You only need one person to occupy a crane but with thirty it just feels so much better. In an ongoing campaign where the sites are well secured it may only be possible to damage machinery with a crowd for cover. On the day of the opencast action, as far as I'm aware we didn't do much that five people with a spare night and some aluminium oxide couldn't have done.
In practical terms what I'm suggesting is that some of us should have occupied the machinery for the day while others went round the area trying to get people involved in the occupation. People may think that would have been a waste of time when we could effectively stop work through criminal damage without the effort of an occupation and if financial damage were our prime objective this would be true. If it was just one of a number of objectives then some kind of occupation makes more sense. As it was, the action took place in a vacuum in which there was little opportunity for it to go beyond itself. Also, (and this is easy to suggest in retrospect) couldn't we have occupied a much larger site, a site where the numbers we had would have actually counted?
Given the absence of mainstream media interest, and the very real problems of dealing with a capitalist media, it seems even more crucial to look at how our activities actually communicate their message. For me the best media is the action itself and the build up to it. Knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, stalls, flyposting etc. Actions bring these activities to life, but only actions where there is a real presence. Sometimes it feels as if we are becoming some Bakuninist revolutionary cadre who believe change will come through our actions alone.
Although the damage on the day seemed opportunistic rather than planned it may still be worth reflecting on how we situate this activity. Criminal damage is not necessarily a good or bad thing (although it's difficult to see what could be bad about a profound dislike of private property). It's a tactic, and the context in which it is used gives the act it's meaning and value. Like violence or non-violence it can become ideological, i.e.: be given a value outside it's tactical importance, a value in itself. One of the 'problems' with criminal damage is that it feels so damn good. More 'real' perhaps than other methods. For an activist it can become a kind of identity forming ritual in the same way that happens with the martyrdom of non-violence or the revolutionary heroism of violence. This is not to suggest we should be striving for some neutral tactics which we then apply coldly to our strategy. Obviously methods create and incur meanings. It's really just to say that we should be wary of privileging a method over it's context.
One last question - was it necessary for this action to be secret? If it had been open there would have been more opportunity to involve people from the surrounding area, and - in all likelihood - have a bigger overall turnout. Given the nature of an opencast site it would be very difficult for the police to stop a determined crowd from carrying out an occupation. And on the other hand if somehow they managed to stop us, forcing a gigantic police mobilisation on behalf of opencasting might itself be a kind of success. Sometimes, a more open approach may help develop a larger and more political crowd and in consequence force up the political cost of countering our actions.
"Re-open the deep mines? Over my dead body!"
The action in October 1997 at Dole Hill Opencast site sparked off some thought on the collaboration between radical ecologists and the No Opencast campaign and this particular alignment raises interesting questions about the nature of forming alliances with other groups engaged in struggle. There seems to be two areas that are potentially problematic with this particular coalition. These are; firstly the nature of a driving force behind the campaign: the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and then secondly the stated aims of the No Opencast campaign itself.
Although the NUM is radical in appearance, in reality just like all the other unions - a reformist and bureaucratic organisation. This can be seen, not just from a purely theoretical standpoint, but by it's actual behaviour in times of heightened struggle.4
The 'traditional leftists' view of unions is as workers' self defence organisations there to fight for the needs of the workers themselves. Yet, if we look though history, we see there is far more to unions than this.5 What then do they do if not the above? The answer is that they negotiate with the bosses - they negotiate the going rate for the exploitation of the workers and thus act as a 'manager' for the needs of capital. Unions play out a particular role in this society and this is summed up by Lord Balfour when he said; "Trade Union organisation was the only thing between us and anarchy."6 The accusation has also been made that the NUM and the No Opencast campaign have latched onto the ecological direct action movement in order to advance their inherently reformist and unecological aims of re-opening the deep shaft mines. Is this true - are we being used as 'cannon fodder' for these aims - or are we using them to forward our aims of shutting down all opencast sites without re-opening the deep mines?
Whilst I stand with the miners in supporting their struggle to defend their communities there are limits. This is especially true when the publicity put out by the campaign about actions I am on is something I fundamentally disagree with. i.e: Re-open the deep shaft mines!7 There are potential problems with workers run industries - evidenced by the fact that Tower Hill Colliery, a mine that was threatened with closure and then bought, and since run, by the workers themselves has recently entered into a partnership with Celtic Energy - notorious and hated opencast company.8
The similarity with the support given to the Liverpool Dockers has been noted by other people, yet I feel that there are two fundamental differences here. Firstly; not only were the dockers fighting the Merseyside Docks and Harbour Company (MHDC) who sacked them, but they were also battling against their union, the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) that had deserted and actively worked against them. This is partly why the link-up with the dockers was so important - we were working with the people themselves, not their 'representatives' the union. Yet with the No Opencast campaign we are working alongside the NUM, a union of the same ilk that sold the dockers out so cold heartedly.9
Secondly; the docks, in my 'ideal' world, would be closed - they are an integral part of the insane system of mass production and consumption that I oppose. Despite this, whilst they are open, we should support and fight for the demands of the traditional workforce of the dockers to work there; as opposed to casual labour with all it's vestiges of organised resistance crushed. Yet, were the docks to close, I would not get involved in a fight to re-open them - which in essence is half of what the No Opencast campaign is asking to happen with the deep mines! What are we, as radical ecologists, doing getting involved in a struggle to re-open major industries? For instance, when nuclear power is finally wound up, and car factories closed down, are we going to get involved in campaigns to re-open them as well?
Having said all of the above, contradictions are not something we should be afraid of and aim to avoid by adopting some puritanical 'green' line - even if that it were actually possible. People change their views and aims; particularly through being involved with direct action, and also when arguments are presented to them in a coherent way. It is, although we seem not to know it, possible to be in a working alliance with people that we share some common ground with and still criticise them on particular aspects of their views. Maybe it is as a result of our relative political naivete that this does not seem to have happened with this campaign. What we do need to decide is on what grounds we form coalitions on, with whom and why. To do this we need to talk, both amongst ourselves and also to others - this is how we will learn and advance our actions.
I have, rather sadly (and yes I admit it - as a bit of a cop-out) no final conclusion to this writing and the questions, if any, it raises about Earth First! and the No Opencast campaign. If truth be told I have attempted to provoke some thought on thorny issues by trying to raise them in the above article - which should in no way be taken as total rejection and criticism of any of the individuals or groups involved in past and present struggles against the further encroachment of the capital and the state. I respect, and acknowledge that we have much to learn from, the miners and similar struggles. What I am suggesting is that we do not lose our critical faculties when it comes to these issues. We must, if we are to change the world to one we want - an ecological one devoid of exploitation, oppression and hierarchy - get involved with other people resisting particular aspects of this system. This will involve working with people that we do not necessarily totally agree with on every ideal; and even if we do - as some great wit once said; 'If you feel comfortable in your coalition - then it's not broad enough.'
There is a forthcoming No Opencast action later this year - for more details of this and the ongoing resistance to opencast mining contact: No Opencast Campaign, c/o 190 Shepherds Bush Road, London, W6 7NL, UK. Telephone: 0181 767 3142 or 0181 672 9698. For current anti-mining/quarrying camp details see 'Carry on Camping' on page 54 in this issue of DoD.
1. For examples of this during the 1984/5 miners strike see page 4 in 'Outside and Against the Unions' - a pamphlet published by Wildcat. Send a donation to: BM CAT, London, WC1N 3XX, UK. See also 'Occupational Therapy - The Incomplete Story of the University College Hospital Strikes and Occupations of 1992/3/4' published by News from Everywhere, Box 14, 138 Kingsland High Street, London, E8 2NS, UK.
2. See, for example, 'Who killed Ned Ludd?' in 'Elements of Refusal' by John Zerzan (Left Bank: USA 1988) - an account of how the unions were partly responsible for the repression and dispersal of the revolutionary fervour of the Luddite movement in 19th century Britain.
3. Lord Balfour quoted in 'Unfinished Business - the politics of Class War' - page 28.
4. Part of the text from No Opencast campaign sticker distributed at the action on Friday 31st October 1997.
5. See 'The Guardian' - Friday 27th February 1998.
6. Not to mention, amongst others, the Hillingdon Hospital Workers recently expelled from their union Unison.