by Oona Swann
The workers’ fight goes on
“In the year 1831-32, there was a general movement of the working classes for an increase of wages, and the labouring men in the parish where I lived [Tolpuddle] gathered together, and met their employers, to ask them for an advance of wages, and they came to a mutual agreement, the masters in Tolpuddle promising to give the men as much for their labour as the other masters in the district… Shortly after we learnt that, in almost every place around us, the masters were giving their men money, or money’s worth to the amount of ten shillings a week — we expected to be entitled to as much — but no, nine shillings must be our portion. After some months we were reduced to eight shillings per week. This caused great dissatisfaction...
“... From this time we were reduced to seven shillings per week, and shortly after our employers told us they must lower us to six shillings per week. We consulted together what had better be done, knowing it was impossible to live honestly on such scanty means. I had seen at different times accounts of Trade Societies; I mentioned this, and it was resolved to form a friendly society among the labourers, having sufficiently learned that it would be vain to seek the redress either of employers, magistrates or parsons. I inquired of a brother to get information how to proceed, and shortly after, two delegates from a Trade Society paid us a visit, formed a Friendly Society among the labourers, and gave us directions how to proceed...”
(Taken from George Loveless, Victims of Whiggery)
Thus began one of the formative episodes in the history of working class organisation. Loveless and five other members of the new trade union were arrested and brought to trial before a rigged jury of local landowners.
“As to the trial, I need mention but little; the whole proceedings were characterised by a shameful disregard of justice and decency; the most unfair means were resorted to in order to frame an indictment against us; the Grand Jury appeared to rack heaven and earth to get some clue against us, but in vain… when nothing whatever could be raked together, the unjust and cruel judge, John Williams, ordered us to be tried for mutiny and conspiracy, under an Act 37 Geo. III, Cap. 123, for the suppression of mutiny amongst the marines and seamen, several years ago, at the Nore. The greater part of the evidence against us, on our trial, was put into the mouths of the witnesses by the judge...
“I shall not soon forget his address to the jury in summing up the evidence: among other things, he told them, that if such Societies were allowed to exist, it would ruin masters, cause a stagnation in trade, destroy property…”
They were found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation, the most severe penalty short of death. There was a massive public outcry. One month after the trial, a mass procession of 35 unions, organised in London's Copenhagen Fields by the Metropolitan Trades Unions, marched to Whitehall to present a massive 200,000 signature petition to Lord Melbourne (then Home Secretary, later Prime Minister). He refused to accept it.
In March 1836, the new Government was forced to remit the sentences in the face of public pressure.
One hundred and seventy years on, workers are still being criminalised for fighting for the basic right to organise, and are still fighting back despite all the might of the state. Just as in Britain at the beginning of the 19th century, million of rural workers are being drawn into capitalist production. In China, in the biggest migration in human history, 150 million workers have left the countryside to look for work in the cities.
And their efforts to secure even their bare survival are met with the same rigged trials and punitive sentences. On 9 May 2003, Yao Fuxin was sentenced to seven years imprisonment and Xiao Yunliang to four years’ imprisonment on charges of “subversion” — in reality for leading peaceful worker demonstrations in Liaoyang City in the northeast of China. At that time, thousands of angry workers from more than 20 factories took to the streets in Liaoyang in protest at local corruption. They also demanded basic living allowances, pension, and many months of back pay.
We must support the Liaoyang “martyrs” as we remember those of Tolpuddle.