1980s >> 1984 >> no-960-august-1984

Tolpuddle to Gdansk

It was one hundred and fifty years ago that six farm workers from Dorset were arrested and taken to Dorchester prison for the “crime” of swearing a secret oath of loyalty to the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. The state used an obscure Act of 1797 (outlawing the swearing of secret oaths within the armed forces) as a means to bully the Tolpuddle trade unionists. Speaking in his own defence at the Dorchester Assizes George Loveless, the most prominent of the six trade unionists, stated: “We were uniting together to preserve ourselves, our wives and our children from utter degradation and starvation”. The judge, Baron Williams, acting as judges inevitably do on behalf of the class which grows rich on the degradation and starvation of the exploited, sentenced the men to be sent to a penal colony in Australia for a period of seven years. Baron Williams’ explanation of his savage sentences was that:

  The object of all legal punishment is not altogether with a view to operating on the offenders themselves, it is also for the sake of offering an example and warning to others

In short, the object of the legal intimidation was to warn other workers to keep away from trade unions. The capitalists, who had ensured that unions were illegal prior to 1824, acted in response to the growth of the trade union movement in the 1830s — a growth which led to the formation of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1834, with a membership of half a million workers. The persecution of the Tolpuddle martyrs was meant to nip the trade unions in the bud.

Unfortunately for the parasite class, the exploited were not willing to bow to state bullying. A massive open-air rally was organised in London (it took place in Copenhagen Fields, a few hundred yards away from where the Islington branch of the Socialist Party meets) and over 150,000 workers turned out to show the bosses that they supported their brothers from Tolpuddle. In 1819, at St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester, the bosses had used their militia to kill thirteen workers and injure many more when wage slaves had dared to assemble. But in 1834 the workers were able to show their strength and the bosses retreated: the Tolpuddle martyrs were given a free pardon and a passage back to Britain. Workers in 1984 owe them respect, for it was their courage and determination — and that of the thousands of workers who showed solidarity with them — which has enabled us to organise in our unions today.

Trade unions are necessary bodies for fighting the industrial battle against those who live by robbing us of the fruits of our labour. In general, unions can do much to defend and improve wages and working conditions. But socialists are far from uncritical of the unions. We observe the lunacy whereby unions pay for the upkeep of the Labour Party, which defends the very social system which necessitates exploitation. We observe the likes of DuffyChapple and Murray ignoring decisions made by union conferences and being rewarded for their efforts on behalf of the class enemy with the chance of a free ticket into the House of Lords. We observe the fact that workers at the Head Offices of ASTMS. NAI.GO and BIFU are currently involved in industrial action against the bureaucrats who employ them — that Clive Jenkins of ASTMS regularly crosses picket lines manned by his own employees. The trade union movement in Britain leaves much to be desired but, for all of its faults, it is there to be used by workers who want to minimise the extent of their exploitation.

It is a tragic irony that the so-called socialist countries, in which the Tolpuddle martyrs are well remembered, are today producing their own martyrs, who have dared to stand up to the lie that they are living in a classless, socialist society and demand the right to join a real trade union. Of course, workers in Poland are allowed to join a union but only one which is run by their state employers. The absurdity of such bogus unions will become clear if it is imagined that miners in the state-run coal industry were only allowed to join a union as long as it was controlled by the NCB.

In Poland — as in all of the so-called socialist countries — it is illegal to form trade unions which are not run by the employers. It was for that reason that Solidarity was formed in 1980. Because Poland is a capitalist society, divided between exploiters and exploited, the state responded to the action of their wage slaves in just the same way as the capitalists of Britain in 1834: they rounded up the union activists and locked them in prisons. Indeed, one hundred and fifty years after the men of Tolpuddle were attacked for their act of class solidarity, hundreds of Poles who refuse to let Solidarity die are incarcerated in the unceasing class war between wage labour and capital.

We do not hear a great deal about the Gdansk martyrs from some of those who are ready to glorify the memory of the Tolpuddle martyrs. The Communist Party of Great Britain, which is currently busy editing the Morning Star in the law courts, is quick to show solidarity with martyrs past, but conspicuously silent about martyrs present. Arthur Scargill. who is currently leading his union in its battle against their state employers, is of the view that for the Silesian miners to have an independent union against their state employers is an act of what he has called “sabotage”. Of course, Scargill and other assorted Stalinists are no less hypocritical than Thatcher and her fellow-liars who express pious concern about the right of workers in Poland to join a trade union while they force the workers at GCHO in Cheltenham to give up their union rights. Before twisters like Thatcher start making noises in defence of unions in Poland they ought to take a look at the “democracy” in Britain which allows the police to erect road-blocks along the motorways in order to prevent one group of workers expressing solidarity with another.

The police, who have been given the dirty work of defending the power of the capitalists of Britain against the indignation and frustration of those whom they exploit, would do well to think about the activities of their fellow workers in Poland:

   A Polish policeman received a standing ovation from the Solidarity Congress in Gdansk yesterday when he demanded its support for a trade union of police . . . Several policemen. including a police captain, have been dismissed for trying to organise such a union . . . “Are we not entitled to the same rights as other workers or are we only suited to dirty work?” he asked . . . Forty thousand policemen, including some in the security division, have applied to join, he claimed. (Guardian. 29 August 1981.)

According to a recent report of the International Labour Organisation, thousands of workers have been thrown out of their jobs for remaining in Solidarity and at least sixty have been killed since martial law was declared in December 1981.

It is not only in the state-capitalist countries that the class war is producing martyrs. In South Africa the president of the biggest trade union was arrested and murdered by police last year. In numerous dictatorships — some backed by the American Empire, some by the Russian Empire and others by both or neither — it is dangerous to organise trade unions which have any power. Workers should remember that members of our class are being killed, beaten up, discriminated against and made insecure today and not just in the past.

In a world which now, more than ever, is a global village where modern technology has made it easy to unite, the means are at hand for workers of all lands to join our efforts into one movement. We must remember than an injury to one — whatever the nationality or the colour or the sex of the victim — is an injury to our class.

Unity to improve our condition of wage-slavery is not what workers in the late twentieth-century should be organising for. The treadmill of trade unionism as an end in itself can only ease the intensity of our exploitation; what is needed is a society where there is no exploitation of employee by employer because there are no classes. Socialism, which will be a society without classes, employment or state machinery, will mean the abolition of the wages system. In a society without wages people will give according to their abilities and take from the goods and services which are available according to their self-determined needs.

From Tolpuddle to Gdansk — from Kronstadt to Orgreave — from Peterloo to Soweto — the class struggle, which throw’s up countless victims, has not gone away. It will not come to an end until the capitalists are defeated by the workers. That defeat will not require workers to use violence against the bosses — unless, of course, the capitalists have undemocratic ideas about making martyrs of themselves by defying the will of a conscious, socialist majority. But first we must build that majority, and it is for every worker to ask themselves the crucial question: am I to make use of the right to unite which the martyrs of Tolpuddle stood for — and millions of workers have yet to gain — or will I be a martyr to the system which robs workers of our dignity?

Steve Coleman