UP TO 8,000 trade unionists came together last weekend in Tolpuddle in Dorset in a lively celebration of union rights.
The rally is held every year to remember six farm workers who set up a trade union in 1834 and were promptly deported to Australia in chains. The campaign that won their return represents an early symbol of the power of solidarity and the birth of modern trade unionism.
For years Tolpuddle was an exclusive jamboree for the Labour Party's inner circle and their friends in the trade union bureaucracy. Recently union activists have come along, and this year's event had campaign stalls reflecting broader social movements, and was very political.
Estelle Morris was jeered and booed last year by school workers outraged at New Labour attacks on education. Last weekend, for the first time, the main rally had no Labour minister speaking, although Paul Boateng's name was on the programme. Instead Tony Benn had the key speech and, alongside the FBU's Andy Gilchrist and others, spoke against Blair and the occupation of Iraq.
The Sunday parade saw more than 150 trade union banners. Young trade union activists came for the first time. Nick Quirk, the 22 year old RMT rep for station staff at Plymouth, said, 'The trade union movement is much stronger than I thought. It's good to know we're part of a wider movement. I'm not isolated.'
Opposition to the occupation in Iraq was everywhere. Dorset Trades Council opened a book of condolence for those killed in Iraq. Vivian Willis, an Amicus rep from Yeovil, summed up the mood, saying, 'It feels like the struggle is fiercer than ever. We need to get Blair out.' Socialists arguing for a genuine left alternative to New Labour were accepted and appreciated by many.