Archive article from The Socialist Issue 448
1834, 1906, 2006
How the farmworkers got organised
EVERY YEAR thousands of trade unionists journey to Tolpuddle in Dorset, to celebrate the brave and pioneering work of six agricultural workers who were sentenced to seven years transportation in 1834 for trying to form a union. This year marks the centenary of the Rural Agricultural and Allied Workers (RAAW) union who are now part of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU).
TERESA MACKAY, the chair of the RAAW National Committee of the TGWU, looks at the history of the union since.
THE AGRICULTURAL Workers union was founded by George Edwards, a Norfolk farm worker who started work on the land in 1855 at the age of five-and-a-half. His job was scaring crows and he was paid one shilling (5p) for a seven-day week.
Joseph Arch, a Warwickshire hedge-cutter, attempted to set up the National Agricultural Labourers' Union in the 1870s. Branches developed all over Norfolk, with farm workers benefiting from increased wages. George Edwards became a branch secretary but lost his job and home for going on strike.
The union collapsed during the agricultural depression when farmworkers were immediately evicted from their farms. George became a Liberal councillor in the latter part of the 19th century agitating for land reform and the vote for farm workers, which they finally won for men in 1884 - 17 years after male town workers. In 1889 he set up a local Norfolk Farm Workers Union but it only lasted six years.
In 1906 the Liberals won the general election and Labour increased its seats to 30. The Tories were routed, so the Norfolk farmers took their revenge on those they suspected of not voting Tory by sacking and evicting scores of workers.
This encouraged George once again to form a union. The Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers Union was born, the forerunner of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers Union.
By the end of 1906 the membership had grown to 1,600 and to 3,000 by the end of 1907. By 1918 membership was over 170,000.
As a paid official, earning 13 shillings a week (65p), George Edwards cycled thousands of miles setting up branches and holding meetings. He initiated the union's Sunday camp meetings in the open air - a compromise for those who felt the union should not meet on a Sunday and others who felt the union should get the message across on the one day they did not work.
After a series of strikes he succeeded in raising farm workers wages to fourteen shillings a week. In 1910-11 the union lost the St Faith's dispute because the union leadership wanted to end the dispute, as they feared it would harm the Liberals in the forthcoming General Election. They settled without consulting the strikers. Less than half of them were taken back to work.
The Executive was denounced and at the following AGM supporters of the Labour Party and labour movement replaced the Liberal leadership. The union spread to other parts of the country and changed its name to the National Agricultural Labourers and Rural Workers Union.
DURING THE First World War 400,000 farm workers joined up causing great labour shortages. The County Agricultural Wages Boards (forerunners to the Agricultural Wages Board) were set up and farmers were forced to pay 25 shillings a week.
As men returned from the First World War the union grew enormously and became the National Union of Agricultural Workers. George Edwards was elected as a Labour MP for South Norfolk in 1920 in a by-election. He was 70 years of age. He was so poor he had to borrow a suit from one of his richer (Tory) opponents in order to enter the House of Commons.
Agriculture went into depression in the 1920s with farm workers pay reduced from 46 shillings to 28 shillings. In 1923, as the farmers continued to cut wages and lengthen the working week to 54 hours, the union set up a disputes committee. George was a member and they organised a rolling general strike of over 10,000 workers.
'Flying pickets' were introduced for the first time with members cycling around the country getting support for the strike. Support from the trade union movement poured in allowing the union to pay 12 shillings a week (plus six pence for each child) and six shillings for single men.
The strike ended in a compromise, with the intervention of Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald. Wages remained at 25 shillings a week for a guaranteed 50-hour week. In spite of a 'no victimisation' clause 1,200 men never got their jobs back.
George finally passed away in 1933 aged 83. His funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Norfolk with crowds lining the route and union members following the coffin. He was recognised as a great fighter who never left the ranks and remained with his class to the end.
Agriculture has declined dramatically over the years and agricultural workers still remain amongst the lowest paid, nationally and internationally. Our campaigns such as the retention of the Agricultural Wages Board and the Tied Cottage Act as well as the recent Gangmaster Licensing Act have helped to stop the decline in wages and conditions.
The fight for Roving Safety Reps will continue whilst the death rate in agriculture remains the highest in the country, including children on farms. Organising and recruiting workers in rural and agricultural industries has to remain on the agenda if we are to stop the exploitation, particularly amongst migrant workers who have replaced the many indigenous workers who are not prepared to put up with the wages and conditions on our farms today.
One hundred years on, our fight continues.
Fight the exploitation - recruit migrant workers
IN RECENT years we have seen such horrors as the tragedy at Morecambe Bay where 23 Chinese cockle pickers lost their lives. They were receiving just £1 a day for their labour. The Gangmaster Licensing Act comes into force later this year after one of the union's longest and hardest campaigns.
Rogue gangmasters, who have operated illegally for decades, have taken full advantage of the vulnerable migrant workers that have come to Britain in recent years. Under a previous campaign a licensing scheme was set up in 1973 but was scrapped by the Tories in 1994 even though there was plenty of evidence of abuses taking place throughout the industry.
In 1998 the New Labour government launched Operation Gangmaster, pulling together government departments and enforcement agencies to clamp down on unscrupulous gangmasters. In 2003 the government's own environment committee deemed it a complete failure.
In January 2004, Labour MP and union member, Jim Sheridan moved a private members bill to license and regulate gangmasters. It received widespread cross-party support but neither Blair or Brown was interested. They were forced to change their minds after the terrible tragedy in Morecambe Bay.
The misnamed Better Regulation Executive wanted to weaken the Act by covering gangmasters as far as the farm gate, in other words excluding the food processing industry where so many of the abuses take place. They also wanted to check out only those gangmasters deemed 'most risky!' However, the BRE was forced to take notice and include both areas and the Gangmaster Licensing Act will come into force in October this year.
Regulation, however, will never be enough. The unions, and in particular the T&G as the only union that organises agricultural workers, must mount a serious campaign to recruit these workers. Only then can we be sure that workers will cease to be abused. This work has begun through the T&G's Recruitment and Organising strategy but there is a long way to go.
T&G deputy general secretary Jack Dromey, has stepped up the campaign for an amnesty for 500,000 undocumented workers who live and work in the worst conditions because of their status. It would cost the government £4.7 billion to deport them. If they were part of the formal economy they would be paying taxes as well as playing a full role within society rather than living in an underworld of extreme exploitation.
All unions have to campaign for migrant workers to have the right to organise to fight for a decent minimum wage and equal rights - an injury to one worker is an injury to all.
campaign against poverty pay: Low Pay, No Way!
presidential election: Another stolen presidency?
Spanish civil war