Thousands of people will gather in Tolpuddle, Dorset, this weekend to remember events over 175 years ago. But this is much more than a reminder of faded history.
The issues of the 1830s are still relevant today.
In 1832 six agricultural workers from Tolpuddle founded a union to protest against pay cuts. A landowner wrote to the prime minister to complain about this impertinent interference with the right of bosses to squeeze and starve the workforce.
The law, backing up the employers, found the six guilty and they were transported to Australia.
The vicious sentence, and the parade of class power it was based on, caused outrage.
Thousands of people marched through London and many more organised petitions and protest meetings to demand freedom for the six.
So strong was the campaign that most had been returned to Britain as free men within two years of their sentencing.
Today you won’t be sent to Australia if you break the anti-union laws. But you will be threatened with fines and worse if you are judged to have transgressed the thicket of rules surrounding strike ballots.
Bus workers, rail workers, BA cabin crew, BT workers, journalists, civil service workers —all these and more have been told recently by the courts that their democratic votes mean nothing compared to the need to allow the bosses to break strikes.
Removing these laws, which hamper resistance and give an excuse to those who do not want a fight, remains a key battle.
Parliamentary methods continue. John McDonnell MP has come top of the ballot for the right to put forward a bill in parliament. He is using this to try and at least blunt some aspects of the anti-union laws.
But, as John says, “The bill is a very minor, technical amendment to the existing legislation, to prevent employers using the law to drag trade unions into court where there has been a minor infringement of the very strict rules about balloting, and the infringement has not affected the outcome of the ballot.”
Good luck to John, but there’s no guarantee that even Labour will support him when it comes to a vote on 22 October—let alone the Lib Dems or the Tories.
Indeed, the government’s main concern is whether it should make the laws stricter.
The lesson from the 1830s is that it takes courage and mass action to win our rights. Many trade union leaders have rightly denounced the laws in strong terms.
The point has long been passed when union leaders need to show the resolve to support workers who are prepared to defy the laws.
There could be few better starts to the fightback against the cuts than for the trade union movement to begin a serious battle for democracy.
There will be a rally and lobby in support of John McDonnell’s bill on Wednesday 13 October. For details of the Tolpuddle festival, which tales place from Friday 16 to Sunday 18 July, go to