AT noon on a gray February Saturday, thousands of women marching down Piccadilly Street form no ordinary parade. Led by a small brass band and accompanied here and there by young children, they carry placards that tell their story:
"Coal not dole"
"Sack Major not the miners"
"Our children need our pits"
"Invest in our future, invest in our pits"
What may be the most poignant message is also the smallest. A hand-lettered cardboard sign taped to a two-year-old boy's stroller reads simply, "Save my daddy's job."
Saving jobs - 30,000 coal miners' jobs - is, in fact, the urgent mission that has brought these miners' wives, their supporters, and many of their husbands here today. Ever since Prime Minister John Major announced last October that he intended to close 31 mines, a national group called Women Against Pit Closures has been calling attention to the devastating effect such a step would have on families and entire communities.
Dawn Boyd, the mother of the toddler whose stroller bears the sign, explains what impelled her to board a bus early this morning with her husband and the youngest of their three children for the three-hour trip from Maltby, South Yorkshire, to London. Pushing her son's stroller along the route from the Embankment to Marble Arch, she notes that her husband has been a miner for 10 years. His father was also a miner, as are two of his three brothers. "They all have wives and children," Mrs. Boyd says, empha sizing the impact the closings could have on just one extended family.
The soft-spoken Boyd appears to be the antithesis of an activist. Yet because of the threat to her family's economic security, this is her fourth march. "This time the women are ahead of the men," she says with a smile, noting that her husband and other miners are at the back.
To watch this seemingly endless stream of marchers - 6,000, according to police estimates - is to be struck by the enormous ramifications of layoffs and cutbacks in professions and trades on both sides of the Atlantic. Substitute recently laid-off employees of IBM, Sears, and Boeing for these coal miners, and the message would be the same: "Save my daddy's [or mommy's] job."
The march also symbolizes the profound changes occurring in the workplace at a time when certain jobs are being lost forever. Political leaders talk bravely of retraining - but for what?
"There's no work anywhere," Boyd says solemnly. "With the amount of men going to be looking, there's nothing for them."
Another couple in the procession, Gary and Michelle Crook of Newton-Le-Willows, Merseyside, express similar concern. "There's nothing in our vicinity at all," says Mr. Crook, a third-generation miner who has been mining for 11 years. On his shoulders he carries the couple's 2 1/2-year-old son, who has fallen asleep. Mrs. Crook, a part-time nurse, adds, "Nobody knows what's happening. You can't plan anything."
The women marching for their husbands' jobs insist they are not sentimentalizing mining. Rather, they seek to emphasize the dignity of the work, however dangerous and dirty, the worth of a paycheck honestly earned, and the importance of protecting homes, families, and towns.
What happens when a paycheck does end is a story known all too well to another marcher, Eddie Loseby, of Doncaster. Wearing a T-shirt that says "No pit closures," Mr. Loseby, a former miner who lost his job after 31 years, says, "I've been forced into redundancy. I never got no gold watch, neither."
Gold watches are the least of the immediate concerns of the marchers. But in a larger sense, they symbolize what these miners - and all laid-off workers - want: the right to work a full career until a normal retirement age.
The miners' wives are hardly savvy protesters. But to those who watch them here, they make their point not only in behalf of their husbands but in behalf of the invisible army of the unemployed everywhere. Each measured step along the overcast route declares: We are here. You must look at us, and somehow, sooner or later, you must deal with us.