This week sees commemorations of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of 19th century Dorset farm labourers who were arrested and convicted for their membership of a group called the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. It was essentially a forerunner of what we would now think of as a trade union.
How far we’ve come from that era. How archaic that a society once punished people for pulling together in the interests of improving working conditions, that we actually used the full weight of the law to quash attempts at solidarity amongst the working classes.
Despite historic wins for the working classes, things have reversed considerably in the last 30 years. Ever since Margaret Thatcher began her crusade against the unions, opinions have been steadily shifting. Like much of Thatcher’s legacy, she instilled a selfishness amongst the UK electorate, an inability – or unwillingness – to see beyond one’s own circumstances. Whether that be the council house they bought, the shares in British Gas, or Telecom – the post-Thatcher war cry has been that most contemptible phrase “what’s in it for me?”.
I have lost count of the occasions when sensible, ostensibly left wing people complain about unions on the basis that they “already have a good deal”. Yes, they probably do get paid more than you, they probably do have more favourable working conditions than you, but that’s because their union fought tooth and nail over decades to ensure those things.
Look to those who’ve secured a better deal for themselves and ask what they did differently; the answer will probably be that they belonged to a union. Just because your employer treats you poorly, and just because you get paid shoddy wages, doesn’t mean that the rest of the world ought to be brought down to that level – that selfishness is Thatcher’s legacy.
It may well be an inconvenience when workers are striking, especially if those workers provide an essential service. But one of the most fundamental democratic tenets is the right to strike, it is a crucial reminder that no one has a god given right to another person’s labour. But that principle only works where there is solidarity, that is the cornerstone of the labour movement. An individual making a fuss about their wages or their workplace will soon be singled out and reasons can always be found to get rid of them, but an entire workforce cannot be ignored.
That is why I would never, ever cross a picket line, regardless of whether I agree with the strike, or the specific dispute which led to it. Solidarity requires that we all have each other’s back.
The right to strike though, is in serious danger, the Conservative Party’s Trades Union Bill seeks to make it harder for unions to strike, but most worryingly of all it wants to change the rules allowing agency workers to break pickets. This is unfair to both the striking workers and the agency staff, and it could very well spell the final days for trade unions in this country.
Tony Blair’s government did absolutely nothing to reverse Thatcher’s weakening of the unions, despite the Labour Party having been born from the union movement. As Nye Bevan once put it, Labour “grew out of the bowels of the TUC”. But then, it surprises most people to learn that the Labour Party have never in their entire history supported a single strike (so you can add that to the list of “what exactly are Labour for?” questions).
The reality is, that mainstream political parties have no interest in supporting the unions, as there’s no easy votes in it. Thatcher’s children are more concerned with how a strike will inconvenience them, than understanding that those workers play an essential role in their day-to-day. They are more concerned with an idea of fairness that sees anyone who’s doing better than them as someone who ought to be brought down a peg or two: “if I can’t get a pay rise why should they?”
Those people should be careful what they wish for. David Cameron is fighting the corner for Thatcher’s legacy, and its entirely possible that huge swathes of strike action could be outlawed in a matter of years.
So when we start to see workers being carted away and arrested for striking against unfavourable working conditions in the early days of the 21st century, we would do well to consider just how far we’ve actually come since the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.