Still fighting anti-trade union laws: the IER and CTUF at Tolpuddle

Almost two hundred years on from the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the trade union movement is still having to fight attempts to criminalise its activities.

Commentary icon14 Jul 2023|Comment

Ben Sellers

Director of the IER

The Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of agricultural labourers, were charged with taking an illegal oath 189 years ago. This was a promise of solidarity to each other in their struggle against landowners extracting every last drop of profit they could from the workers’ labour.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ arrest and deportation to Australia in 1834 was an early emblem of how the powerful would treat the free organisation of workers for centuries to come. Freedom of association and of assembly, the right to protest, the right to strike and freedom of speech have been a constant battle since.

And here we are, in 2023, fighting the same battles again. The government’s Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is in its final stages, and unamended, it will all but outlaw the right to strike — a right that has been severely restricted by a succession of anti-trade union laws over several decades.

The Strikes Bill is just the tip of the iceberg, however. In recent times, we’ve seen measures on balloting and the introduction of thresholds designed to tie the unions up in bureaucracy; we’ve seen an attack on facility time and “check-off”; we’ve seen the legalisation of strikebreaking by agency workers and the four-fold increase in potential fines for trade unions, to name just a handful.

All of this is designed to tie the unions in chains, just as it was two centuries ago, so that bosses can impose conditions on workers, rather than having to negotiate with them. And while deportations to Australia may have ended, the modern-day equivalents will be equally ruthless in that pursuit, because profit still rules all.

This weekend, thousands will gather to honour those Tolpuddle Martyrs at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival: they celebrate the values that the martyrs represented; solidarity, comradeship and breaking the chains of the Establishment, regardless of personal cost.

At 2pm on Saturday, the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) will be teaming up with the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom (CTUF) once again for their annual Tolpuddle meeting, this year entitled Fighting the Anti Trade Union Laws. It will take place in the fringe marquee and will run until 3.30pm.

Chair Steve Preddy (Unite South West regional secretary) will be joined by John McDonnell MP, Professor Keith Ewing (president of the IER), Maria Exall (current president of the TUC), Gawain Little, who recently became the new general secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) and PCS president Fran Heathcote.

The speakers will talk about different aspects of this latest raft of anti-trade union legislation, the threats it poses to trade union activity, the impact it will have on different sectors of the economy and our movement and how we might challenge it.

It’s a crucial time to be having this discussion, as our political system gears up for a general election, where the proposed anti-strike legislation and attacks on trade union freedoms are likely to be a central issue, and where there will undoubtedly be attempts to divide the public — and working people — over the upsurge in industrial action.

This article was first published in the Morning Star. We thank them for their kind permission to reproduce it here.

Ben Sellers

Ben Sellers, worked for the TUC between 2007 and 2011, first as a graduate of the Organising Academy and then... Read more »