By Alice Dermody Palmer, Women’s Officer and Fraser Amos, Chair & LGBTQ+ Officer
This weekend trade unionists across the country have gathered in Tolpuddle, a small village in Dorset, to celebrate the heroic actions of six workers in 1834.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs formed a friendly society (an early form of trade union) after their agricultural wage was cut. In response the Home Secretary had the group infiltrated, arrested and, after a show trial, sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia. There was immense public outcry and trade unionists and the workers wives launched a campaign for their return, collecting a petition of one million signatures, the largest of its time, and organised mass demonstrations on the streets of London.
Eventually, the decision was overturned but despondent with their treatment five of the workers emigrated to Canada with the final Martyr staying in Dorset and dying a destitute man in a workhouse.
It wasn’t until nearly 100 years later that the men’s descents found out about the Martyrs when the TUC sent a delegation to Canada to find out more about the men in preparation of the centenary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. There is now a co-op there in the Martyrs honour.
The Martyrs have served as inspiration to the trade union movement ever since, helping inspire the establishment of the National Agricultural Labourers Union (whose 2000 strong inaugural meeting was held in Leamington Spa) which was instrumental in the founding of the TUC.
This country has a rich and deep trade union history that we need a Labour government to ensure is taught in schools. Because it has been through this struggle that we have achieved our democratic rights and freedoms, to unionise, to strike and to be protected from the worst forms of exploitation and it is thanks to this movement too that we have a democratic socialist Labour Party.
Today it’s vital that we fight for the trade union movement, in Britain and with all peoples around the globe, against incipient fascism and for a better world. In their modesty the Tolpuddle Martyrs did not expect their actions to echo through to today, that they do is testament to the historic importance of the trade union movement.