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From The Socialist newspaper, 17 July 2004

Tolpuddle: Fight The Anti-Trade Union Laws

In 1834, six agricultural workers from Dorset were sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia for trying to form a trade union. Today the Tolpuddle martyrs are still remembered and celebrated.

Tom Baldwin, Bristol Socialist Party

By 1834, industrialisation had brought large numbers of workers together in factories, strengthening the idea of collective struggle and the trade union movement was in its infancy. Trade unions had been made legal in 1824, in the belief that this would cut across their growth but in fact unions continued to spring up across the country and more general unions were formed.

The ruling class was terrified about the collective power of workers and despite the change in the law used repressive legislation and the power of the state to try and stop workers organising. The emerging movement's first martyrs came not from the industrial heartland but from the Dorset village of Tolpuddle.

Forming a union

The life of an agricultural labourer at the time was very hard, wages were low and the employers, who owned large areas of land, kept trying to get more work from you for less money. In 1830 in Tolpuddle the wage for a labourer was nine shillings a week, this was reduced in succeeding years and in 1834 the employer tried to implement a further cut to just six shillings a week.

Some of the men of the village decided to try to resist these continued cuts by forming a union. They approached the growing Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU) which sent two delegates to the village; this resulted in the forming of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers.

Local employers and magistrates feared this union as they saw it threatened their own power, especially following the spate of unrest and rebellion in rural areas across southern England in 1830 (itself viciously repressed by cavalry troops and harsh sentencing).

These magistrates turned to the home secretary at the time, Lord Melbourne, for advice and six men seen as the leaders of the union were arrested under an old law.

Political arrests

The political motives of the arrests were clear from the beginning. Forming a union was not illegal in itself so the men were arrested under an Act passed in 1797 outlawing the swearing of oaths. They had all sworn oaths upon joining the union but the law used against them had been intended to act against naval mutiny and was never used against organisations such as the Freemasons or the Orange Lodges who also swore secret oaths.

The foreman of the jury was William Ponsonbury, an MP and brother in law of Lord Melbourne, and other jury members included some of the magistrates that signed the men's arrest warrant. The judge said upon passing sentence: "The object of all legal punishment is not altogether with a view of operating on the offenders themselves, it is also for the sake of offering an example and warning".

For this reason, to try and scare others away from forming or joining unions, he gave the men the maximum possible sentence, seven years transportation. However, opposition to the sentencing from the existing unions and the wider working class were to push the government to retreat.

Growing opposition

ON 24 March 1834, the GNCTU called a Grand Meeting of the Working Classes attended by 10,000 and a demonstration of over 30,000 people took place in London in the April in support of the Tolpuddle men.

The government had troops on standby and had sworn in an extra 5,000 special constables to deal with the demo but it passed off peacefully. Agitation amongst workers continued and the London Central Dorchester Committee was formed to campaign on the men's behalf and look after their families in their absence. Petitions were presented from around the country and in March 1836 the new home secretary Lord John Russell finally granted the men a full pardon.

The memory of the Tolpuddle martyrs is still kept alive and events are organised in Tolpuddle each year. The trade unions remain as relevant to the workers' movement today as they did in the 1830s and many of the lessons that can be drawn from the events are still applicable.

Lessons for today

The fate of the Tolpuddle men shows the political nature of the courts. Like any other part of the state apparatus, such as the police or army, the courts primarily exist to serve the interests of the ruling class, even when this means repressing workers.

Unelected judges will use their powers to try and frighten workers from taking action. For example, the huge numbers of arrests for riot during the miners' strike or the recent month-long imprisonment of Socialist Party TD (MP) Joe Higgins and councillor Clare Daly in Ireland for peaceful protest against the bin tax (covered in the socialist).

Perhaps the most important lesson however is of the power of collective struggle by workers, the same kind of organisation that saw the pardon of the Tolpuddle martyrs can push aside today's anti-union laws, as happened during the recent unofficial post dispute or industrial action at Heathrow airport last year.

The Socialist Party works at all levels within the union movement to try and build strong and fighting unions that will effectively take up the battles of working people.

For A New Workers' Party

WORKERS TODAY still face many restrictions on their activities in the form of Britain's anti-union laws, which Tony Blair boasted are the most restrictive in the West.

The New Labour government is continuing the policies of Thatcherism with the stated aim of weakening, undermining or even destroying the collective action of workers.

Labour eagerly backs the bosses who go to court against striking workers and inspires and colludes with every attack made on striking workers taking action in the capitalist media. London Labour Mayor Ken Livingstone recently urged tubeworkers to cross picket lines in a dispute over job cuts on the Underground.

As a result, workers increasingly are questioning the political link with New Labour and demanding an end to funding New Labour to the tune of millions of pounds each year. The RMT railworkers union has now been expelled from Labour for supporting the Scottish Socialist Party and the firefighters union (FBU) has disaffiliated following their bitter pay battle in 2002/03 with the government.

Over the next few years the attacks New Labour is lining up on the public sector especially will prove a make or break issue for the trade unions in Britain.

Workers today need campaigning unions with a fighting leaders but they also need to build a new political party with a programme to challenge the rule of capitalism and to fight for a socialist society.

Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.

In The Socialist 17 July 2004:

Strike Against Jobs Carnage

Brown's Jobs Cull - Unions Must Strike Back

An Attack On The Whole Public Sector

Public spending review: Robbing Penny To Pay Paula

International socialist news

Lies, Lies, Lies

Iraq War: The Guilty Men

Why Fahrenheit 9/11 Makes Bush Fume

Socialist Party campaigns

Fight Blair's Privatised Academies

Tolpuddle: Fight The Anti-Trade Union Laws

Heading For A Split

The Socialist Party And The United Left

"Low Pay No Way, Council Workers Here To Stay"

International socialist news and analysis

'Offensief Against Racism' Success

Sri Lankan Socialists' Elections Boost


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