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Derby Silk Mill Festival – from 1834 to 2024

BILL GREENSHIELDS looks ahead to a lively event this weekend which draws the parallels of working-class struggle from the 19th century to today

DERBY’S Silk Mill Festival on June 8 commemorates Britain’s first organised struggle of industrial workers, the 1833-34 struggle of Silk Mill and other workers — the same years as the agricultural workers’ struggle in Tolpuddle. Both fights were against pay cuts and victimisation, for trade union rights and a decent life for all — fights which continue to this day.

Organised by Derby’s Trades Union Council & People’s Assembly, and Midlands TUC, a lively march will be led through the town by Deep Down Brass, an exciting and energising local band updating the tradition of marching brass bands. 

This will be followed by a People’s Festival including trade union and community campaign stalls, lots of kids’ activities, food and drink, three live bands — Sura Laynes, 5 Hills Out and Bleeding Hearts — all hosted by Derby’s renowned poet Sophie Sparham.

There will be two rallies on June 8. With Derby Area TUC president Cecile Wright, setting off the march, will be president of Midlands TUC and Palestine Solidarity Campaign chair Louise Regan, while Unite regional secretary Paresh Patel wiill be looking at threats to jobs and industry locally and talking to Unison regional organiser Dave Ratchford about the  massive cuts to local services. 

The post-march rally will see Fraser McGuire from East Midlands Young Trades Unionists Network introducing FBU general secretary and TUC president Matt Wrack, Kevin Horne of Orgreave Truth & Justice, PCS general secretary Fran Heathcote and Aslef assistant general secretary Simon Weller.

We’ll be remembering that 19th-century life where workers struggled — and often failed — to make ends meet, even where they were in full-time jobs.

Where, despite large profits, employers — acting individually and together as the dominant ruling class — rejected outright pleas for wage rises.

Where the bosses routinely established punishing work patterns and often near impossible targets to justify making pay deductions.

Where they “locked out” their whole workforce to try to drive down pay and undermine trade unionism. 

Where, when workers acted together as a union, they were vilified as “seditious” and “conspiratorial” and their leaders were victimised and sacked, and threatened with imprisonment. 

Where workers’ gatherings and demonstrations were restricted, banned or physically attacked by thousands of uniformed and armed agents of the ruling class state. 

Where the same ruling class plundered the world, with ruthless military force and violence to enforce their imperialist control.

It’s easy to recognise the 19th-century class-divided society described here! Maybe we learnt about it in school? Or have seen it on the telly? 

Oppressed workers, ruthless employers, poverty, the beginnings of trade unionism and independent political action by the working class, and the extreme and violent response of the state … all in the past of course!

But how different are things today, now in 2024?

Pay rises — deemed “unaffordable to the economy” by multimillionaire Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt — have for 15 years been largely non-existent or below inflation. Pay cuts in real terms.  

Low pay is everywhere. The majority of claimants of the totally inadequate universal credit benefit are employed workers in low-paid jobs. Foodbank use continues to escalate among the employed as well as unemployed workers. 

Pay-related targets and working patterns in many workplaces — for example, warehouses, home delivery — are designed by employers to be failed by workers to avoid full payment, and “performance-related pay” and “management appraisal” schemes are imposed in a wide range of other employment to divide workers and hold down the general level of pay.

Sacking and blacklisting of union organisers is rife. “Fire and rehire” is the attempted blackmail of whole workforces to “accept” worse conditions and pay.

The “key workers” of the pandemic are now vilified as “greedy and workshy” when they fight for pay and decent conditions.

State threats to the right to strike have become more strident, currently with the attempted imposition of minimum service levels.

The government makes accusations of “public nuisance,” “extremism” and “hate marches” against demonstrations and “advises” police and legislates on increasingly severe restrictions to make protest ineffective.

This year on June 15 we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the violent assault by 10,000 baton-wielding police and army, on foot in attack formation and on horseback, against striking miners gathered at Orgreave.

On a world scale, economic domination, direct wars, proxy wars and genocide are all instruments to enforce the right of the capitalist ruling classes of the imperialist countries to raise their levels of wealth and power to unprecedented levels.

Is this taught in our schools?

This struggle is between workers and employers — the latter together making up the dominant ruling class, which demands the backing of the state whenever they need it — Parliament, police, army, courts, prisons — and orchestrates the weasel voices of the Establishment media. It was in 1834 and it is now in 2024.

The conflict is becoming sharper. The message of the Silk Mill commemoration “Remember the Past and Fight for the Future” could not be more urgent. 

This is a day of festival, celebrating working-class struggle with speeches, live music and poetry, kids’ activities, community stalls, food and drink. 

But it is also a day of resolve and determination to support and develop that struggle everywhere, as will be shown in the speeches by leading trade unionists and campaigners — and by the Palestinian flags that will be flying from the main stage.

The march from Derby Market Place will assemble at 10.15am and reach Cathedral Green at midday, followed by an inspiring rally, and then a free family festival from 1pm with live music and poetry, stalls of many kinds, plenty of kids’ activities and a variety of food and drink.

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