IT’S PROBABLY a safe bet that not many Britons will know that 15 June was Magna Carta Day. The signing of the Magna Carta by King John in 1215 was the first recognition that his subjects had rights and paved the way for what we cherish today. Rights that were built on that foundation include the right for employees to join – and organise with – a Trade Union.
One group that spent some time promoting the importance of Magna Carta Day – or ‘Liberty Day’ – was the National Liberal Party (NLP). (1) As part of its campaign, it ran a video (2) pointing “out that many of our liberties are today under threat, how our way of life is still worth preserving and support for a ‘Green’ future.” There was also a ‘Liberty Literary Week’ which hosted articles and poems from members and supporters touching on aspects of freedom.
One of these articles – in passing - mentioned the latest issue of British Worker, the magazine of Solidarity Trade Union. The main thrust of the article (3) is that one “of the freedoms that we take for granted today is the right to join a Trade Union.”
However, this wasn’t always so. As the NLP article – The Tolpuddle Martyrs and Freedom - noted, it took the actions of six brave men (George Loveless, his brother James, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and Thomas's son John) to form the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. This trade union was formed to protest about their poor pay and a third wage cut in as many years.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs and Freedom also quotes the web-site of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum (4) which gives an indication of the hardships endured by British workers, the fight to establish Trade Unions and their part in ensuring that employees enjoy some form of liberty and freedom:
“The Dorset countryside is beautiful but in the 1830s life in villages like Tolpuddle was hard and getting worse. Workers could not bear more cuts to their pay. Some fought back by rioting but this brought harsh punishments.
In 1834, farms workers formed a trade union. When six leaders of the union were arrested and sentenced to seven years’ transportation, a massive protest swept across the country. Thousands of people marched through London and many more organised petitions and protest meetings to demand their freedom.
Their ‘crime’ was to take an oath of solidarity in forming a trade union.
The protest campaign proved successful and they returned home in triumph.
Their story is now part of the development of a free and democratic society. It is celebrated in the small museum in Tolpuddle and at the Festival on the weekend of the third Sunday in July.”
Responding to the article, Pat Harrington – Solidarity’s General Secretary – congratulated the move to celebrate Magna Carta Day but warned that workers should not take our rights and freedoms for granted. He also noted that the price of freedom was eternal vigilance:
“I’d like to congratulate the NLP on their initiative. It’s important to remind everyone of the importance of the Magna Carta. Speaking personally, next year I would also like see some form of official union activity to promote the ideals of liberty and freedom. It should follow on – and dovetail nicely – with Solidarity’s May Day activities and celebrations.”
However, he warned that the authorities are still intent on denying some ordinary working folks their civil liberties, including their right to work.
“Look at the way that they’ve victimised some members of the British National Party. Like them or loath them, the BNP is a perfectly legal political party. So what if they may hold ‘politically incorrect’ views? Their members are entitled to earn a living to support themselves and their families.”
Mr. Harrington also warned that the Co-Dem government may be thinking of extending its attacks on workers. He pointed out that Business Secretary Vince Cable had already threatened trade unionists that the government may make it harder for them to embark on industrial action. (5)
Vince Cable thus joins a list – including the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and employers' organisation the CBI – who have already called for tougher trade union laws.
For Solidarity, Mr. Harrington noted:
“We believe that the Con-Dem government is having to pay back its big-business donors by limiting the rights of workers. Look at the proposals contained in the proposed Employer’s Charter. They represent a move back to the 'bad old days' when employees had limited rights.
Cameron and Clegg are also ideologically driven. They’re taking up where Thatcher left off. She tried to break the unions. They want to bury them! They cannot bear the fact that the unions stand up for the ordinary worker whether they are in the public or the private sector.”
Get your copy of issue 4 of British Worker. Simply contact Solidarity Trade Union at [email protected] and ask for a pdf copy of the latest issue of British Worker.