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Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival ’18 We mustn't let the Martyrs' struggle be in vain

Just as in 1832, the Establishment wants to deny working-class people a voice, writes 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.

The result of refusing 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 2018 and the Tories’ restrictive Trade Union Act 2016. A slightly watered down piece of legislation 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. It is restrictive for a reason, to shackle trade unions and their members just like legislation did in the 1800s and throughout history.

The Establishment, in order to drive through its hostile policies, 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, housing, pension age, pension payments, our NHS or other public services. That is why it puts legislation in place to silence the rights of working people.

Make no mistake, the Trade Union Act is a pernicious piece of legislation, just 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, and is constructed to prevent workers from having a say against government austerity.

The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) will not celebrate, nor should any other trade union, getting crumbs from the table in more anti-worker legislation. 

The POA 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.

Trade Unions, in my view, must collectively unite with gusto to repeal the anti-trade union legislation to free us from those shackles in 2018.

We must be the voice for those that 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 but strengthens those terms and conditions.

We must also ensure it is not a right-wing agenda based on nationalism and hate politics and blaming migrants for everything.

We need to offset the media’s scare stories. 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 and won for everyone.

The struggles of the 1800s were different to that of today but there are similarities. Then as now the Establishment didn’t want working-class people to have a voice. Then as now the Establishment wanted total control.

If we want a decent standard of living, affordable housing, and education for all; if we want decent public services, including our National Health Service, then collectively we will need to stand united to achieve these objectives.

If we fail to do that we are surely pretenders that have let the struggles of the Martyrs and others be in vain. No longer should we put up with second best.

Politics is changing in all the main parties, and the Establishment and the status quo are being shaken to their cores.

From a personal point of view, and as a Labour Party member, the divisions that we have seen need to stop, and quickly.

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

To see some MPs deliberately undermine him month by 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.

The current government, propped up by the DUP, is vulnerable and making a total mess of Brexit. The Labour Party needs to be ready and focused to take power if a general election is around the corner.

I would suggest a sharp focus on that, rather than each other, is paramount as Corbyn’s leadership is putting workers and their rights first.

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

It made me realise that racism is alive and kicking with poisonous attacks. So called organisations such as the Football Lads Alliance and other far-right groups such as the English Defence League have no place in modern society and their lies, hate and bigotry need to be exposed by trade unions.  

If we allow such nationalism to breed in this country, history will repeat itself.

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 worker, 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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