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Protecting jobs is labour movement's ‘most urgent priority,’ TUC chief tells Tolpuddle Martyr's Festival

ACTION to protect jobs is the trade union movement’s “most urgent priority,” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady told a virtual Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival today.

The usual open-air event in Dorset was cancelled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic and replaced by a programme of more than 20 online events.

Ms O’Grady told participants that the route to building a stronger economy after the crisis is to tap into the trade union values of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six 19th-century agricultural workers who were banished to Australia as punishment for having united to defends their interests. 

She said: “The spirit of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is needed now more than ever.  

“Their story brought working people and communities from across the country together with the same spirit of equality, compassion and justice we have seen in our towns and cities during the coronavirus crisis.

“We need to see these same values and co-operative action from the government if we are to tackle the biggest crisis of our lifetimes.  

“Our most urgent priority right now is to safeguard jobs and livelihoods. 

“Trade unions have proved how critical we are to building back better.” 

She said it was trade unions that fought for job retention and income protection schemes that had saved no less than 11 million jobs during the coronavirus lockdown.

“It’s thanks to us that the government was forced to act on personal protective equipment and drastically improve the return-to-work guidance,” Ms O’Grady said.  

“If this crisis has taught us just one thing, it’s that working people matter. And what’s good for working people is good for our economy.  

“By bringing our voices together, putting trade unions at the heart of our national recovery, we can change things.”

Running from Friday night to last night, the virtual festival featured speakers, music, films, a celebration of the Black Lives Matter movement and other events.

The annual event commemorates six Dorset agricultural workers who in 1834 formed a trade union to defend their wages.

Although trade unions were legal, they were arrested and charged with swearing an “illegal oath” to secrecy.

They were sentenced to serve seven years in a penal colony in Australia and their treatment prompted nationwide protests by tens of thousands of people.

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