The upcoming release of ‘Pride’, about queer people’s role in the 1984-5 Miners’ strike, is a powerful reminder the strike was not simply about labour, but a political and cultural defence of working-class communities. The biggest mobilised challenge to the Thatcher government showed the possibility for a non-sectarian and more intersectional left. It also requires feminist and LGBTQ groups today to take workers’ rights seriously.
Margaret Thatcher’s structured dismantling of the mining industry was explicitly political, using policing and state mechanisms to crush the strike – it demanded an explicitly political response. The Lesbian and Gay Miners’ Support Group saw the Thatcher government’s repression of miners and queer people as related. Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC) challenged the assumptions of class and gender in British politics more broadly. Debating whether Mrs. Thatcher was a feminist was irrelevant to these women. If ‘the personal is political’, their understanding of class was tied to defending ‘our communities’ – not allegiance with Mrs. Thatcher’s Hyacinth Bucket housewife persona. They developed the key links with queer groups, as well as Asian workers and the anti-nuclear Greenham Common women, and organised against sexual harassment by police (charmingly referred to as ‘Scargill’s Slags’). They picked up the slack of labour when mining communities were destroyed, becoming their jobless husbands’ carers.
WAPC are not the only instance of women’s mass organisation in British union history: the Ford machinists in Dagenham famously paved the way for the Equal Pay Act; the 1970’s Grunwick dispute led by South Asian women influenced the 2005 Gate Gourmet strike – both breaking domesticity stereotypes used to undercut wages. But in defeat, the Miners’ strike made it harder for the left to marginalise race, gender, and sexuality. The ‘old’ left was incapable of resisting Thatcherism as Stuart Hall argued. Wage differentials and unions’ opposition to a minimum wage left out self-identified women and people of colour. Gay, black, and women’s liberation was relevant to the workplace, but unions were largely irrelevant to these struggles. Selma James, organiser for Wages for Housework and the English Collective of Prostitutes, said, ‘According to them, if the struggle’s not in the factory, it’s not the class struggle.’ Unions considered pay, but not prices or the ‘double day’ of women’s labour at home – they tried to shield a creaking social-democratic consensus with too narrow an agenda.
James argues women do housework ‘not for love but because, like every other worker, we and our children would starve if we stopped’ – rather than being innate to femininity. While middle-class feminists may see compensating unwaged housework as theoretically damaging by reinforcing gendered norms, they fail to speak to the realities of those actually doing the work. Middle-class feminism’s boardroom focus ignores the self-identified women who form the bulk of the service sector-based working class, and the working-class women leading the resistance to austerity – with the cuts to welfare and education distinctly gendered. Feminism doesn’t require ‘rebranding’ to force a narrow set of interests to attract working-class women, but refocused on how deindustrialisation has been used to enforce gendered work – waged and unwaged. It shouldn’t passively wait for working-class women to respond, but must instead let them lead.
These working-class feminist and LGBTQ organising models have new opportunities in the service sector economy. The idea of ‘service with a smile’ exploits women as ‘naturally caring’ – artificialising service as ‘performance’ and ‘unskilled’ labour. The same logic is employed to cut teaching salaries. The left has been complicit in romanticising industrial labour and working-class men as ‘skilled’, and service sector workers as unskilled. But as Sarah Jaffe argues, all work is worthy of respect as – mostly women – fast food workers in the US and Pret workers in the UK are arguing.
In the US, domestic workers have utilised Selma James’ arguments to advocate a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights; in the UK, carers’ focus is on on ‘zero-hour’ contracts, privatisation, and austerity. There are calls to ban 15-minute work slots that undercut home workers’ wages below legal levels; unpaid carers, bar a £61.35 weekly allowance, save the state over £119 billion, rewarded with a Bedroom Tax that punishes unpaid carers of disabled people – two-thirds of those hit by the tax. Meanwhile in the vein of ‘Pride’, Cleve Jones has connected worker rights in the hotel industry with LGBTQ and immigrant rights under the banner of ‘Sleep With the Right People’. This boycott of Hyatt Hotels links workers’ rights and LGBT issues more substantively than the Chick-Fil-A boycott. Similar connections can be found in the struggles of undocumented trans people and undocumented immigrants in finding work.
Perhaps the most apparent space between workers’ rights, and women’s and LGBTQ rights, is in sex work. The issue is not that sex work is ‘liberating’ as sex-positive feminism argues, or that other forms of work are liberating as anti-porn feminism advocates, but that sex workers like the wages they earn. The union movement’s isolation of sex workers mirrors the old left’s failures: they are not in opposition to families and communities, but part of them. Over 90% of New Zealand sex workers see their work as work, and that decriminalisation covers essential protections and regulations e.g. the right to sue employers. Criminalisation not only disproportionately targets working-class women and women of colour, but also particularly impacts queer and/or trans women who are hypersexualised and stigmatised in a way that acts as a pipeline to sex work. The bulk of harassment sex workers experience is from police, who also employ prostitution law to profile trans women – trans women refer to this as ‘walking while trans’. Trans women are also moved towards sex work by lack of communal resources. With 26% unemployment among trans women and 60% earning under £10,000, poverty should be considered as a form of anti-LGBTQ discrimination and criminalisation.
The lesson of women and queer groups’ participation in the Miners’ strike is that unions, feminism, and LGBTQ activism are stronger when intersectional. Already existing movements have to be engaged with, centring workers and communities at the forefront of debate, such as the mainstream feminist and LGBTQ groups supporting paid sick leave in New York or the campus coalitions supporting University of London cleaners. The alienation of working-class women and LGBTQ people cannot be pathologised as ‘apathy’ – their existing organising efforts are critical to new alliances 30 years after the Miners’ strike.