The Socialist 13 July 2006 |
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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
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
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
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
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.