August 2013: A tale from Tolpuddle

07 October 2013

As the sun rose on 24 February 1834, George Loveless, a farm labourer in Dorset, kissed his wife Betsy and his three kids goodbye and set off to work. He didn’t see them again for three years. Because as George left his cottage in the village of Tolpuddle he was served with a warrant for his arrest.

George was one of six agricultural labourers – with his brother James Loveless; James Hammett; James Brine; Thomas Standfield and his son John – charged with making an illegal oath. But their real crime was forming a trade union to protest about their pay of six shillings a week.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced to seven years’ transportation for standing up for themselves – and for standing together – to fight poverty and austerity and to argue for better terms and conditions of employment.

That, of course, is what trades unions have been doing for the best part of two hundred years.

The other weekend I went with thousands of other union members,grassroots campaigners and labour movement activists down to Dorset to listen to Frances O’Grady, Tony Benn, and Billy Bragg at the Tolpuddle festival.

The week before that, I went up to the Big Meeting, the Durham Miners’ Gala, to hear Len McCluskey, Bob Crow, Kevin Maguire, Owen Jones, and Ricky Tomlinson.

It was brilliant to see so many people turn out – to show solidarity,and have a good time – so don’t let anyone tell you that people don’t care. They do.

The boss class – those who own the land, the factories, and the big companies in this country – don’t want us to stand together. They never have. That’s why unions are, once again, under attack.

We need strong trade unions as much today as we did in 1834. As George Loveless said when he was sentenced: “We raise the watchword, Liberty. We will, we will, we will be free!”

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