The National Coal Mining Museum of England (NCMM) has been accused of trying to silence its staff over strike action.
Staff at the museum in Wakefield – which includes a large display about the miners’ strike in 1984 to 1985 – were warned that they risk losing their jobs if they talk to the media about the five-day strike action over pay which is taking place this week.
Trade union organisers say that after Unison steward and tour guide Trevor Chalkley spoke to the Guardian about the dispute, managers posted a statement on museum notice boards informing staff that if they spoke to the press, it would be a breach of their code of conduct and they could be dismissed.
On its website, the NCMM says it is “illuminating the past” and “lighting the future of our connection with coal, mining, and its rich heritage.”
“We are the keepers of the stories and the treasurers of the memories,” the website continues, saying that it brings a “living history with real people, real miners, real expertise.”
“We represent community. We represent the lives touched by the mines. The faces behind the coal dust,” it says.
These lofty aims haven’t stopped the museum falling out with its workers, many of whom are former miners. On Wednesday staff began strike action after rejecting a below-inflation pay rise of 4.2%, plus a 25p an hour increase from the charitable board who are responsible for running the museum.
94.4% of Unison members at the museum voted to take industrial action. Unison members are calling for a £2,000 flat rate pay rise each.
In a statement addressing the industrial action on its website, the NCMM said the strike would “deny our visitors, many of them children, the chance to hear the story of mining and understand the contribution generations of miners made to our nation.”
On Twitter, the Unison Wakefield branch joked that rather than deny children the chance to hear about mining, their picket line could act as a “live exhibition.”
Many of the museum’s staff members, who guide visitors 140 metres underground to show them how mining work was once done, say they can no longer afford to pass on their expertise and experiences. Unison says that since 2008, their hourly pay has increased only by £1.16, to £10.35.
If no agreement is reached, this week’s strike will be followed by further strikes on weekends and at Christmas.
Union organisers have warned the museum that members won’t tolerate any perceived union busting. “If any member is disciplined or dismissed for talking to the press about an industrial dispute, that will be taken with the utmost seriousness of the union,” said Unison Wakefield organiser Sam Greenwood.
“A lot of these workers were out on strike for a year, dealing with the Thatcher government in a difficult dispute. They come from a heavily unionised background where this type of behaviour from management would not be tolerated.”
In 2017, the museum faced complaints from the National Union of Mineworkers and the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign after it was booked by the Dewsbury, Mirfield, Denby Dale and Kirkburton Conservative Association for their annual dinner. Chris Kitchen, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), wrote a letter of complaint to the museum, saying: “It is a matter of common knowledge that the Conservative Party conspired to close and destroy the coal industry in the UK. I think it is wrong to allow the museum to be used by a political party that is clearly determined to keep rubbing salt in the wounds it created wherever it can.”
The museum is located at Caphouse Colliery, on the western edge of the Yorkshire coalfield. Operational from the late eighteenth century until 1985, the mine was converted into the Yorkshire Mining Museum in 1988, later gaining national status in 1995. It is funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and offers free admission.
Novara Media has reached out to the museum for comment.
Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.