Tolpuddle inspires us to fight for change today

21 Jul 2019

GMB General Secretary Tim Roache blogs on how Tolpuddle festival should inspire us to fight for change today.

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Today I’m marching with thousands of people in the small South West village of Tolpuddle, having spent the last couple of days at the festival with friends from across the movement. 

It’s a wonderful atmosphere. Members camp together, BBQ together, our Young Members run a history school and we take part in fringes, debates and some of us have a good old sing-a-long as well. 

But the meaning and reason of why we have the festival is never lost. 

The story will be familiar to many members. In 1834, six agricultural workers were sentenced to ‘transpotation’ to Australia having being tried in rigged court. Their crime was to organise workers into a union in order to protect their wages and to stop their families from starving. Their actions – the forerunner and catalyst for the trade union movement - show how workers have struggled through generations to take control of their own lives and futures from their powerful bosses.

We may no longer be facing deportation for organising, but powerful bosses and vested interests still put many hurdles in our paths as trade unionists.

Many employers will fight tooth and nail to keep us off their shop floor, not letting us in the building or near the workforce.

They do that for a reason – to defend the vested interests of the establishment of the day, just as the judge did back in 1834 when he said “the safety of the country was at stake.”

It was of course the dominance of the ruling class that was threatened.

They knew that when organised, the collective power of working people is stronger than that of the bosses. One way for employers to maintain their power is to keep to us separate, to make sure that we do not speak together but each alone.

One company that certainly knows this is Amazon. 

For years now GMB has been calling for Amazon to recognise us.

We have hundreds of members inside the warehouse gates that the company refuses to let us speak to.

Just this week we have seen demonstrations at Amazon’s gates, not just in this country but across Europe and the US. 

Managers at Amazon are actually trained to spot any signs of organising – to watch who lingers a bit too long in the canteen, who asks for details of their rights, any workers who wouldn’t usually speak to each other starting to talk, eyes peeled for union badges.

Meanwhile workers suffer from the physical and mental demands which leave some of them in an ambulance.  The richest man in the world is afraid of an organised workforce which will challenge what is happening. 

Despite all the changes, struggles and gains over the last 185 years, the injustices at Amazon would have been recognised and understood by George Loveless and his comrades.

But for all the battles against the odds, we do win. From winning recognition for couriers at Hermes to women in Glasgow City Council securing the equal pay they were always entitled to. 

The trade union movement must be louder and prouder about the power we have and how we change lives for the better.

Yes, the law makes life difficult. Absolutely, cynical employers will try every trick in the book to divide and conquer. 

Of course, there will be no help from the Tory government. It is as it ever was, and it’s not easy but we must urgently raise the understanding and hope of working class people so that our class know what Amazon bosses know – we have the power to change things when we stand together.  

That means standing together everywhere from the workplace to the corridors of power. Just last week at another iconic meeting within our movement – the Durham Miners’ Gala – GMB Young Members spoke with Laura Pidcock MP. Laura is leading the political fight to reform workplace rights so that we no longer have to stand outside the gates when workers want a voice.

But with the Tories running scared of a General Election, GMB will continue to fight and win with the system stacked against us, to take inspiration from those who sacrificed so much.  

We’ll be reaffirming that principle when marching with our banners today.

Tim Roache
GMB General Secretary

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