Today’s blog is from Nigel Costley, South West Regional Secretary of the Trade Union Congress. Nigel also sits on the Bristol History Commission.
On the third weekend in July, before the pandemic, hundreds of trade unionists and their families would head off to the Dorset village of Tolpuddle for a festival to celebrate a key episode in winning rights for working people – and have a great party.
In the early 1800s public unrest over poor wages, unfair taxes, enclosures and voting reform burst out through riots and machine wrecking, including here in Bristol. The ‘Swing Rebellion’ saw farm workers smashing new threshing machines and burning ricks in their demand for more than the starvation wages they received. The violence was supressed with brutal force.
With this fresh in their minds farm workers around Tolpuddle started to form a trade union – a peaceful and legal means to combine in mutual support – to protect themselves from further pay cuts. The local landowners and employers panicked and demanded that the Home Secretary stop this dangerous development.
On his advice they arrested the leaders for administering a secret oath and six men were quickly tried and sentenced to seven years’ transportation into the slave colonies of Australia. With no means to pay for their return, the men feared they were never see home again and the families were left in absolute destitution.
The fledgling unions rallied to their cause with public meetings all over the country and a huge petition – not surpassed in size until the recent anti-Brexit petition. An enormous procession marched through London demanding their freedom and the right to organise in a union. If it was unlawful to take a secret oath, they asked why freemasons, Orangemen and others including members of the royal family were not arrested.
Funds were raised to sustain the families.
The government backed down and the Tolpuddle Martyrs were brought home with free pardons.
Today, workers still have to meet together in secret to protect themselves from bad employers. Care workers in Bristol have been sacked and disciplined for complaining they are not getting sick pay when forced to self-isolate. In the coming days others will be under pressure to work despite being in close contact with covid-19. But with the backing of a trade union, workers have secured safer workplaces and better conditions. It was unions that brought us the weekend and paid holidays.
So this weekend in July the village of Tolpuddle will again be alive with a procession of banners, great music, debates and speeches – only this year it will be filmed and streamed online for all to see free of charge on www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk
Marvin will join the launch event on Friday evening.
We must build back a better and fairer society after the pandemic and in so doing build on the sacrifice of those Dorset farm workers.