In June 1985, hundreds of workers at the two Silentnight bed factories in northern England – one at Barnoldswick, the other at Sutton near Keighley – walked out over a pay dispute. At nearly two years in duration, this was the longest industrial dispute of the 1980s, and saw many of the techniques learned by communities and activists during the miners’ strike of 1984-5 adopted for use to support the bed makers and their families. As in the miners’ dispute, women’s support groups were formed to run soup kitchens and to travel around the north of England addressing meetings and to publicise the aims of the strike. Just as the strikers gained valuable knowledge from the miners, so too the women’s support groups learned a great deal from the Women Against Pit Closures movement. Dennis Skinner was particularly active in supporting the strikers, despite receiving death threats, addressing both major rallies held the Barnoldswick, and the Labour Party branch in Sutton gave the strikers the use of their meeting rooms when the caravan that they were using as a headquarters was petrol bombed. A soup kitchen was also run from the Sutton Labour rooms. Billy Bragg also gave a concert in support of the strike fund.
Working in the Bristol Record Office the other day, I took out a file of papers on the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights, as I’ve been gathering material for a future project on the 1984-5 miners’ strike. In that file I found a letter sent to the Bristol LCLGR branch secretary, Charlie Beaton, by Sam Chugg, secretary of the Leeds branch. In it, Chugg explains that she has been writing to all branches of LCLGR around the country in order to encourage them to support an organisation called Lesbians and Gays Support the Silentnight Strikers (LGSSS). LGSSS was formed by comrades in Leeds in 1985 and they held their first demonstration in Stockport, raising £50 in just one hour. Chugg explained the wider impetus:
The discussion and passing for the first time ever of a lesbian and gay rights motion at TUC conference last year was because of initiatives like Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners which forced big unions like the NUM to take on board our demands and show the kind of support in our struggle that we showed them in theirs. Inspired by this example we have in Leeds formed Lesbians and Gays Support the Silentnight Strikers.
The record then stops there.
As with the other groups inspired by LGSM, Lesbians and Gays Support the Silentnight Strikers has been entirely overlooked and its records, if they still exist, have yet to make their way to an archive (as far as I’m aware) – those of the strikers themselves have been deposited at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. The 1970s and 1980s saw the rejuvenated radicalism of some sections of the labour movement coincide with a number of ‘identity politics’ campaigns including civic nationalism in Wales and Scotland, racial equality, and gay rights. This aspect of our recent past is now coming to light, partly inspired by the film Pride. If we are to fully appreciate these entanglements, as well as fully appreciate the broad base of support for those communities affected by industrial disputes in the 1980s, it is vital that records are deposited somewhere!
If anyone does happen to know anything more about LGSSS, do get in touch.