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Manchester’s proud history of radicalism and standing against injustice

The birthplace of the TUC has defined itself as a city where the voice of the voiceless can be heard, writes ANDY BURNHAM

THIS year Manchester has proudly marked its role in making history.

In February, our city celebrated the 100-year anniversary since some women gained the right to vote. This month our city will once again come together to commemorate 150 years since the foundation of the Trades Union Congress.

Both of these movements grew out of the streets of our city and went on to change the world.

This is a city-region steeped in a radical tradition. A place that has always delivered industrial innovations but has never forgotten the people that power that economy.

Just a short walk from Manchester’s famous town hall stands a less well-known statue of US president Abraham Lincoln. This statue was not simply put there for decoration. It stands as a tribute to the Greater Manchester cotton mill workers who, at the height of the American civil war, put their own livelihoods on the line to support Lincoln’s embargo of southern slave-picked cotton.

Despite the huge pressure on them to relent and the effect the boycott had on their own families, their sacrifice contributed to the Union’s victory and with it the abolition of slavery in America.

President Lincoln himself wrote to the “working men of Manchester” in 1863, praising the workers for their “sublime Christian heroism, which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.”

This was not the first time, nor the last, that our city’s workers stood on the right side of history and worked to make things better for others.

As the industrial revolution took hold and mechanisation began to cost jobs and drive down wages, here in the heart of that revolution a group of tradesmen came together in Rochdale to create a movement.

Their mission was to open a shop that sold quality food to its members at a fair price.

They banded together, worked to a shared set of principles and by pooling the money that they had were able to open that shop.

Ten years later the co-operative movement had hundreds of shops across the country and to this day works to the principles those Rochdale Pioneers set out.

In each generation Greater Manchester has matched economic progress with social advancement.

This place was the beating heart of the industrial revolution, the birthplace of everything from commuting to the computer.

But these innovations are matched with social progress in the Trades Union Congress, the suffragettes and the co-operative movement.

This radical spirit is central to Greater Manchester’s identity.
Next year we mark the 200th anniversary of what became known as the Peterloo Massacre, when 15 people lost their lives and hundreds were injured at St Peter’s Fields as cavalry charged on a peaceful mass demonstration to demand fair representation. It defined our city as a place where the voice of the voiceless would be heard, even against the worst of violence.

It is no surprise that a city with this spirit became the birthplace of the Trades Union Congress.

Time and again Manchester stands on the world stage and declares that we don’t have to accept the status quo; that by standing together we can make things fairer for everyone.

The trade union movement embodies this credo.

For 150 years, the Trades Union Congress has stood up for working people, challenged the thinking of the time and made things better for people at work.

Here’s to the next 150.

Andy Burnham is mayor of Greater Manchester.

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