History of Durham Miners 1993 - 2015

When the last pit on the Durham coalfield closed the Union faced huge problems. At a stroke it had been cut off from its only source of finance – working members. Only a handful of Durham miners working in other coalfields were paying subscriptions. All the reserves had been depleted in the year-long strike of 1984/85 and the total liquid assets of the Union amounted to £44,000. The Union's commitments, however, were enormous. Numerous compensation claims for miners injured in the pits were still outstanding and had to be financed.

In addition to these individual cases the Durham Area had been fighting since 1988 a number of test cases to establish the right to compensation for miners suffering from the industrial disease vibration white finger (VWF). Alongside the Durham Miners, the Durham Mechanics and the South Wales Deputies were funding the action but the majority of test cases, and therefore the highest potential cost if the cases failed, would fall to the Durham Area and this could be counted in millions of pounds.

In legal cases of this kind the appellants have to prove that they have the resources to pay the costs if the cases fail. This put the Union on the horns of a dilemma. No help was forthcoming from the national union to underwrite the legal action or to pay the wages of the officials and the office staff.

At this point the Executive Committee could have walked away but instead they took a huge gamble and put the Red Hill headquarters and all other property on the line as collateral in order to proceed with the court action. Unable to pay the rates on the Miners Hall at Red Hill the Union moved into one of the former agents' houses and the General Secretary and President took a 50 per cent reduction in wages. 

In order to continue the work of the Union in the villages the Affiliated Membership Scheme was initiated with an annual subscription of £20 a year. This provided the resources to represent members at tribunals and fight cases where state benefit had been refused to disabled and unemployed members. The widows and dependants of former miners were advised and represented even though they were not affiliated members.

This income still fell short of that necessary to run an effective service, so the Union had to draw on the Durham Mining Federation Convalescent Fund. This was a charity which consisted of funds collected from the members of the federated mining unions on the Durham coalfield – The Durham Miners, the Mechanics, the Officials, the Enginemen and the Deputies. The Union acted on legal advice that this money could be used to operate a service to the membership and the Durham Areas' share of this fund provided a vital stopgap to see the Union through the immediate problems of the closure programme. 

The Union then set out to fight a number of test cases for men suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema (CB&E). For these cases there was no collateral left so the Union applied for the cases to be funded by legal aid. Since the miners whose cases the Union was championing were so debilitated by their condition that they relied on state benefit, legal aid was granted.

After a protracted struggle the VWF claim was finally won in the High Court in 1997 when seven miners were awarded a total of £120,000 for their injuries. 

The Durham NUM and its solicitors, Thompsons now embarked on negotiations with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to set up a scheme which would automatically compensate all miners in the country who were suffering from this condition without their having to resort to further legal action. 

Thompsons then negotiated a ground-breaking scheme to further compensate miners suffering from VWF for the extra cost they would incur in paying for those everyday jobs such as car maintenance, gardening and DIY which their condition prevented them from doing themselves. This agreement boosted the value of some claims by as much as 100 per cent.

Members of the Associated Membership Scheme agreed to return to the Union seven per cent of any award they received in order to fund future litigation and to maintain the organisation. These 'return contributions' were capped so no miner paid more than £1,000. The investment from these contributions was the only guaranteed long-term income which would allow the Union to fight future cases, to take up the cases of men whose entitlement to compensation had been disputed and to finance community activity, of which the Gala was a vital part.

Following the success of the VWF campaign, that for CB&E met with equal success. This gave some measure of justice to thousands of miners who had suffered for years from the results of wind-borne dust. 

In 1993 a highly successful New Zealand businessman called Michael Watt, who had at one time worked in Durham with former Durham miners, made a grant to the Union which covered the cost of the Gala in the immediate period after the closure of the collieries. In 1999 this generous grant came to an end, before the VWF scheme had produced any return contributions. In short there was no money to fund the Gala. The Durham NUM had no option but to appeal to the community for support.

Carol Roberton, a journalist on the Sunderland Echo and a long-time supporter of the Gala, launched a campaign through the pages of the Echo. A series of articles reflecting readers' memories of the Gala stimulated interest and the contributions flowed in. Villages organised fund-raising events. Pensioners sent in small donations often accompanied by handwritten letters saying how they had attended the Gala since childhood and how important it was to them.

George Rowe, who had worked at the Lambton D Pit and was 70 and suffering from emphysema, made a special effort when he raised £500 in a sponsored swim. 

The North East Co-operative Society, Northern UNISON and East Durham Community College all made substantial contributions and Durham County Council gave a large degree of logistic support. Even some local businesses came forward with a contribution.
By the time of the Gala, sufficient money had been raised, a huge proportion of which was paid to the brass bands which were an essential feature of the Gala.

Just as the return contributions were beginning to alleviate the financial crisis, the Durham NUM suffered a setback. Someone or some organisation hostile to the work of the DMA, under the cloak of anonymity, challenged the Union's use of the Federation Convalescent Fund.

The Executive Committee was even more concerned when the Charity Commission made a judgment which contradicted the Union's legal advice and ruled that the Union had to pay the money back. This money, which had been contributed by Durham miners over decades, was then confiscated and paid into the national funds of the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation (CISWO).

By 2002, the compensation scheme for VWF and CB&E started to bear fruit and the finances of the Union improved. Compensation payments to former miners, some as high as £60,000, were changing the lives of many former mineworkers. However the working of the scheme, particularly in the CB&E cases, was painfully slow and the Union had to campaign hard to improve the progress of these cases. President Dave Guy made several appeals in his message to the Gala calling on the Labour Government to speed up the procedure so that these old miners could enjoy their rightful compensation before they died. By 2004, on the 20th anniversary of the long strike some progress had been made and Dave Guy was able to give this encouraging message to the Gala:

I pay tribute to our members and their families who during this devastating period have given their support to the Union by maintaining their associated membership. This has enabled us to secure the future of the Big Meeting and create a compensation scheme which is second to none.

As a result common-law damages both for VWF and CB&E have been pursued. Nationally up to the first week in June of this year £1.07bn has been awarded in CB&E claims and £972m awarded in VWF.

This undoubted triumph could not have been possible without the unique partnership which had been established between Thompsons Solicitors and the Durham Area NUM. Thompsons is a long-established firm of trade union solicitors which was established in 1921 by the socialist lawyer William Henry Thompson. From the outset this firm was dedicated to fighting for the rights of working people and does not and has never worked for employers or insurance companies. 

Over the years Thompsons have fought many test cases which have resulted in many hundreds of thousands of workers obtaining compensation for their injuries. It was a case won by Thompsons in 1956 that created the case law which established that any employer who through negligence caused one of his employees to contract a disease was liable to pay compensation.

The important factor in the relationship between this firm of solicitors and the Durham Miners was that each was dedicated to achieving the highest result for the membership rather than accepting the first offer in order to achieve a high turnover of cases. Where the DTI disputed a miner's right to compensation the local knowledge of the Union in finding witnesses was vital. All these cases fell outside the provisions of the scheme and the costs had to be borne out of the money provided by the members who had returned part of their awards.

As Dave Guy explained: "This in my opinion was in the best tradition of the Durham miners. All we were doing was what unions were established for in the first place. We were helping each other."

Once the compensation payments began to flow into the communities, other firms of solicitors who had not taken part in any of the test cases then jumped on the bandwagon and touted for business. Unfortunately some miners took up their offers and as a result achieved much lower awards than were achieved by Thompsons. Many of these men, once they realised that they had missed out, asked the Union for advice. The Union then engaged Thompsons to pursue a case of negligence against the firm which was responsible. One such case was reported in the Sunderland Echo on September 15 2004:

A retired Wearside miner has won his battle for justice over compensation for an industrial disease. James Marley, 78, from Washington, received a settlement of £1,450 eight years ago for his vibration white finger claim. But he later discovered his payout should have been more than £5,000. Mr Marley, who spent more than 40 years working as a pitman, took up a professional negligence case against Russell Young solicitors, who handled his initial claim, and received a further £4,050.

...it was when the Durham Miners' Association put him in touch with its solicitors, Thompsons, that he discovered he was entitled to more cash. Thompsons successfully pursued the professional negligence case against Russell Young solicitors.

Some solicitors had the excuse of incompetence but there were a number who were just predatory and took large amounts of the settlement for themselves. Speaking at the Gala in 2008 the then Chief Executive of Thompson, Geoff Shears, paid tribute to the work of the DMA compensation department when he said:

Vibration white finger, chronic bronchitis and emphysema cases arose at that time when the Union was on its knees and there was a massive financial risk in fighting test cases and the government refused to meet its responsibilities to negotiate a compensation scheme. The DMA backed test cases and risked everything it had so that its solicitors could prove British Coal was to blame for the miners' injuries and diseases over decades. As a result the Government's own figures prove that Durham Miners and Mechanics have the highest success rate and the highest level of compensation in the country – a success that has helped all workers. Many have supported the Union financially and as a result the DMA has consolidated and will expand its services. It has sustained and is developing the infrastructure of the lodges which keep people together and because of that the Gala will continue.

It was not insurance companies, not claims' farmers, not legal aid funds who were prepared to fight but it was the DMA and other areas of the National Union of Mineworkers. As ever, you have to rely on yourselves and you have to rely on your union.'

As Geoff Shears had said, the Union took a gamble and won. As a result millions of pounds flowed into the beleaguered mining communities throughout the country. The fabric of the Union was preserved, the Gala continued and the Union was able to embark on a further expensive legal campaign for miners who were suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee. This was a unique success but not everyone was happy.

The DMA could have understood if some employers' organisation or the Conservative Party had criticised them for being so successful. However they were not expecting opposition from a Labour MP, particularly one from the former mining constituency of North Durham. 

Kevan Jones, the son of a Nottinghamshire miner, had rightly campaigned against the predatory solicitors who had ripped off miners. However, he also objected to the return contribution scheme operated by the Durham Miners. Much of this scattergun approach was pursued under the protection of parliamentary privilege, which meant he could attack the leaders of the Durham miners without fear of legal redress.

Dave Hopper in his vote of thanks to several Galas challenged Jones to debate his objections in an open public forum but to no avail. Jones consistently failed to take up the challenge. 

However, the DMA decided to put the loyalty of its members to the test and wrote to all miners and dependents who had benefited from the VWF and CB&E explaining that their contributions would be returned if they wished. In doing so the DMA was releasing them from a signed undertaking which they had made.

It was another gamble but this time the Executive was not gambling on the caprice of a legal system but the loyalty of its members. They were not to be disappointed when despite four letters of invitation to seek the return of their contributions only a small percentage took advantage. The overwhelming majority of men, in the best tradition of mining communities, stood by the Union.

Because the NUM Durham Area had no working members it could not fulfill the function of a trade union and was required by the Certification Officer to deregister. The Durham Miners' Association was created to represent members at medical tribunals, to give advice on all aspects of pensions and benefits and to pursue further litigation for former miners suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee. All former members of the Associate Membership Scheme who had not withdrawn their return contributions were eligible to join the Durham Miners' Association as 'beneficial members'. However, contact with the National Union of Mineworkers is still maintained through the NUM North East Area for which Dave Hopper remains General Secretary. 

David Guy 1946 – 2012
Only 11 days after the 128th Gala DMA President Dave Guy lost his brave fight against cancer. On Thursday August 2 2012 over 500 attended a service at St Magdalen Church, Seaham Harbour in celebration of the life of this outstanding miners' leader. The following tribute was printed on the funeral card: 

'David was born in Seaham on May 3 1946, one of the seven children of Alfred and Matilda Guy. His father Alfred was a miner at Vane Tempest colliery and David's early life was typical of those who grew up in a community dominated by the coal industry.' 

'He was educated at St Joseph's Roman Catholic school in Seaham until the age of 15 when he started work at Dawdon Colliery. From an early age, he developed a strong sense of duty to his community and took an active part in the business of the Dawdon NUM miners' lodge, where for many years he served as the lodge treasurer. He was a convinced socialist and an active member of the Labour Party. 

'In 1985, he was elected to the position of President of the National Union of Mineworkers (Durham Area). In the aftermath of the Great Miners' Strike, it was a difficult time to take office but he was immensely proud to be elected and considered it a real privilege to represent the mining communities and working-class people in general. However, it was a role which took David and his family away from the community he loved to Durham City where he never really settled. He later returned to Seaham to be amongst his people who he often described as 'the salt of the earth'. 

'David had many qualities. He was a deep thinker with a keen analytical mind and a determined will. He was an inspiring orator with the ability to interact and engage with people in any arena, whether professionally or socially. He was a caring and compassionate man, his values undoubtedly influenced by his upbringing and his experience of day-to-day life at the coal face. 

'His innovation and determination secured millions of pounds compensation for injured mineworkers changing the lives of many thousands. Sustaining and presiding over the Durham Miners' Gala was his passion and a further example of his excellent leadership. 

'Family and friendship were very important to David and an integral aspect of his life. Those closest to him experienced his unconditional love, generosity, patience and support. Socialising presented David with a release from the duties of office and those who have been fortunate enough to have spent time in his company will pay testimony to his warmth and humour. He also enjoyed music, sport, travel and current affairs, including the current form on the turf! 

'Despite David's high public profile he was a very private and modest person and would almost certainly be surprised by the amount of attention his passing has generated. 

'He was a true gentleman who will be sadly missed but he leaves us in the knowledge that his contribution, professional and personal, has been huge. His value base, determination for social justice and equality lives on through all those his life has touched and, in particular, those who bear his name. 

'David leaves behind a dear wife Christine and two children Stephen and Maria from his first marriage to Joan and much loved grandchildren.' 

Knees Case Update
On October 25 2012 the DMA was notified that three Appeal Court judges, on a unanimous decision, had rejected their appeal against the ruling of His Honour Judge Grenfell that their claim for damages for miners suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee was 'time barred'. This hugely disappointing decision will deny compensation to former miners suffering from this painful and debilitating condition despite the fact that both sides accepted that the damage to the miners' knees was the result of their work in the mining industry. 

These claims were initiated by the Durham Miners Association with the support of a number of other funding bodies and were first launched in 2008.

In the Summer of 2010 eight test cases were heard in the High Court at Leeds, including three from Durham. Judge Grenfell ruled that all of the claims had been brought too late and refused to use his discretion and allow the claims to proceed. He also refused to allow an appeal of his ruling. On the advice of the DMA's legal team they applied to the Court of Appeal for permission to appeal and this was granted in January 2011. The appeal was finally heard in London between April 30 and May 2 2012. 

After this appeal was dismissed, the legal advice from counsel was that there was no real prospect of success if the appeal was taken to the Supreme Court given the limited grounds available for such an action.

The DMA now faces huge legal costs the lowest estimate being £1.4M which is, of course, a terrible blow to the DMA and the other members of the Funding Group. But it is a catastrophe for the miners who are suffering these painful symptoms. However, the DMA believes that it was right to fight the case on behalf of its members who after all had agreed to a seven-and-a-half per cent levy (up to a limit of £1,000) from previously successful claims won by the DMA's solicitors, Thompsons, in former coal compensation cases. Through Thompsons the DMA won the highest overall compensation, outstripping by thousands of pounds, those cases handled by other solicitors. 

The biggest disappointment is that the Labour Government when in power did not accept the merits of the case and introduce a scheme to settle these claims which would have saved millions of pounds on legal fees.