Billy Elliot -- That Was Newcastle, This Is Flint

December 13, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw the musical Billy Elliot last night. It sets the world of dance – joyful, hopeful, not quite real – against the grim reality of the 1984 coal strike in northern England. As the program notes say, Thatcher was “determined to crush the unions.” And she did.

At the end of the show, as the strike and the strikers have been broken, Billy’s brother, a miner, tells Billy that when he comes back from Royal Ballet School in London, there will be no more work in the mines up here in the North. In village after village, men will be without work.
“We’re dinosaurs,” he says.

He was right. Before Thatcher, the coal industry employed 300,000. Today, less than 1,000, and almost all coal burned in Britain is imported.

Despite the magic of theater, I couldn’t quite suspend my thoughts about reality (maybe because I was far away from the stage – next-to-last row, rear mezz). I kept thinking about Detroit and wondering if it was now like Yorkshire, with the US auto industry, now apparently on the brink of extinction thanks to bad decisions and high costs. It’s hard to imagine a world without Ford and Chevy, but then again, in Yorkshire in 1983 it was probably impossible to imagine an England without coal. I wonder if the people who work in the GM plants – Michael Moore’s friends in Flint – are saying to their children, “We’re dinosaurs.”

We don’t know exactly why the real dinosaurs disappeared. It certainly wasn’t because of government policy. But the NUM had Maggie Thatcher and the Conservative Party, willing to destroy an industry to crush a union. But of course that wouldn’t happen here.

I turned out my computer this morning, and the top story on Google News was a link to the LA Times.
Auto bailout's death seen as a Republican blow at unions
For some Senate Republicans, a vote against the bailout was a vote against the United Auto Workers, and against organized labor in general.

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