Farm workers still struggling at Tolpuddle

by Alex Kempshall

THOUSANDS of trade union and labour movement activists marched behind their banners through the small Dorset village of Tolpuddle last Sunday.

They wore, with pride, their campaigning T-shirts. Two of the most popular T-shirts this year were both from the RMT, one with a picture of Bob Crow and the slogan: “Don’t mourn — organise” and another with a picture of a snake and the slogan “If provoked — will strike”.

There were numerous speeches from amongst others Frances O’Grady -- TUC general secretary, Unite EC rural officer Ivan Monckton, South West Labour MEP Clare Moody, TUC president Mohammad Taj and Hugh Lanning, chair of national Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).

The weekend was more than just the Sunday march and rally; it was a whole weekend festival starting on the Friday afternoon.

There were many stalls from the trade union and solidarity movements, guided walks through the village to see where the Martyrs lived, worshipped and organised. And there was a marquee where festival goers could listen to campaign stall-holders and others explain why they were at Tolpuddle.

The festival programme promised that throughout the weekend there would be discussion groups on the future for unions. One discussion called “All work and low pay” was led by young people from the National Union of Students and the TUC.

Other sessions tackled trade union freedom and housing. The TUC hosted a number of organising workshops which included: Campaign Planning, Campaign actions that work, Building coalitions and Campaigning and Social Media.

Rosie Macgregor, who chairs South West, opened the Sunday march and rally pointing out that we were marching: “Against the background of austerity where we’ve seen rising hosing costs, falling living standards and the emergence of food banks in one of the richest countries in the world, which is deplorable and unacceptable.”

Bringing greetings from rural workers Ivan Monckton described Tolpuddle as a Festival of the Labour Movement and its members.

Ivan paid tribute to rural activist Ernie Amey who had died just a few weeks before saying: “Ernie had dedicated his whole working life to the trade union movement and had carried the Tolpuddle Agricultural Union banner at this rally for the last 50 years.

“Above all Ernie represented Farm workers, collected union subscriptions, recruited people and took their cases to solicitors.”

Ivan then went on to denounce recent Tory attacks on agricultural workers’ rights. “As an act of class warfare the Tories abolished the Agricultural Wages Board in 2013, which has resulted in pay rises becoming a thing of the past and if there are pay rises they’re very small; overtime is not being paid at the correct rate and holidays are difficult to take.”

Clare Moody, a former Unite full-time officer who represented agricultural workers in the South West, reported that in the South West there has been the largest fall in real wages in the country. She said that in Kingswood, near Bristol, as compared with the rest of the country, there is the highest number of people being paid less than the living wage, where 48 per cent of workers in that constituency earn less the living wage.

“But it isn’t just about low pay it’s the increasing casualisation in the workplace, the scourge of our economy is now zero hour contracts. In the 21st century workers have to phone up their employer in the morning to find out if they have work that day; Victorian practices are back in 2014.”

Clare said she and her Labour colleagues would tackle zero hour contracts head on.

She then launched an exposé of the UK Independence Party, saying: “Their politics foment hostility, division and isolation. They want to blame migrant workers for falling wages, fewer jobs, insecure work and lack of investment in public services.

“Nurturing division between workers is not a new strategy for those on the right it is an old and ugly strategy and we have to face it down. Migrant workers work more hours in poorer conditions for less money. The challenge for us is to raise standards and penalise employers who exploit their workforce. Only Labour will fight to prevent employers from securing a race to the bottom by exploiting migrants.”

To chants of “Free, Free Palestine”, and to the waving of thousands of Palestinian flags, TUC President Mohammad Taj asked all the speakers to stand on stage and all at the rally to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Mohammad then introduced Hugh Lanning, Chair of National Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), who spoke of the recent Israeli bombing of the beach in Gaza which resulted in the deaths of four young boys.