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The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ fight was not so different from ours

Establishment forces don’t want working class people to have a voice so they can be in total control – as shown by the Tories’ hated Trade Union Act, says STEVE GILLAN

MODERN-DAY trade unions have much to learn from the struggles of workers in the 1800s, with the Trade Union Act now being law.

Before 1824-25 the Combinations Acts had outlawed combining or organising to gain better working conditions.

In 1832, the year of the Reform Act which extended the vote in England but did not grant universal suffrage, six men from Tolpuddle in Dorset founded the Friendly Society of the Agricultural Labourers to protest at the lowering of agricultural wages.

Their refusal to work for lower wages resulted in prosecution on an obscure law invoking the Unlawful Oaths Act 1797 which led to their arrests, being found guilty and transported to Australia.

Fast forward to 2016 and we now have the Tory Trade Union Act — albeit watered down slightly from its initial intent due to the campaigning of trade unions, MPs, lords, the TUC and other pressure groups. But let us make no mistake: this is a restrictive piece of legislation.

Its intention is to shackle trade unions and their members, just like legislation did in the 1800s and throughout history.

In order to drive through its hostile policies the Establishment does not want any barriers from trade unions having a voice on behalf of workers.

Trade unions are not seen as part of the solution in this country. They are seen as the problem — which is totally unjust.

The Establishment does not want working-class people to have a say on working conditions on such issues as pay, working hours, pension age, pension payments or on social issues like housing, our NHS or other public services. That is why it puts legislation in place to curb the rights of working people.

Make no mistake: the Trade Union Act is a pernicious piece of legislation which, like the Criminal Justice Public Order Act 1994, Section 127, which makes it illegal for prison officers to take legitimate action to protect their terms and conditions, is constructed to prevent workers from having a say against government austerity.

The Prison Officers Association will not celebrate — and nor should any other trade union — getting the crumbs from the table in more anti-worker legislation and will continue to challenge pernicious legislation to get justice for, not only our members but workers in general. Our struggle goes on until the anti-trade union legislation is confined to the dustbin.

In my view, trade unions must collectively unite with gusto to repeal the anti-trade union legislation to free us from our shackles in 2016.

We must be the voice for those who have no platform to raise issues. We must ensure that the exit from the European Union is not a bosses’ charter to dilute workers’ terms and conditions even further. We need to strengthen those terms and conditions.

We must also ensure that Brexit is not dominated by a right-wing agenda based on nationalism and hate politics and blaming migrants for everything. We need to ensure the scare story narrative by the media is offset. It should not matter what nationality someone is, nor colour, creed or sexual orientation. The blame culture needs to stop so the real issues can be fought.

The struggles of the 1800s were different from those of today, but there are similarities: Establishment forces didn’t want working-class people to have a voice so they could be in total control.

If we want decent living standards, decent housing which is affordable, education for all, decent public services, including our NHS, then collectively we will need to stand united to achieve these objectives. If we fail to do that we are surely pretenders who have let the struggles of the martyrs and others to be in vain.

No longer should we put up with second best. Politics are changing in all the main parties, with the status quo being shaken to its core.

From a personal point of view, and as a Labour Party member, the divisions that we have seen over the last nine months in particular need to stop — and quickly.

Jeremy Corbyn is the democratically elected leader of the Labour Party. The briefings to the right-wing media and hostility towards him have been disgraceful.

To see MPs deliberately undermine him month after month has been shocking. The personal attacks and threats to other MPs are also disgusting and disgraceful and should have no place in a democratic society.

During the EU debate from some quarters on social media, and indeed from some politicians, the deplorable attacks on migrant workers made me ashamed of our country.

These poisonous attacks made me realise that racism is alive and kicking in our country. If we allow such nationalism to breed we will have history repeating itself with nazi Germany.

Trade unions need to play a leading part to make sure this racist behaviour is stopped in its tracks.

Our future should be about hope not hate, together standing as one, side by side looking after the vulnerable in our society and protecting our public services. We can change things for the better and make sure that our children and grandchildren have a better future with better terms and conditions and a society that works for all. Solidarity — and have a great festival.

  • Steve Gillan is general secretary of the Prison Officers Association.

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