Tolpuddle Martyrs, a co-op angle
Today over at Tolpuddle, comrades are marking an important moment in the labour movement, the beginning of the trade union movement thanks to the Tolpuddle Martyrs: James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, James Loveless, Thomas Standfield and John Standfield. Key speakers at today’s Martyrs Festival include Tony Benn, Brendan Barber and Hashemiya Muhsin Hussein, the President of the Electricity & Energy Union, General Federation of Iraqi Workers, reminding us that these six men, deported to Australia for daring to organise a collective voice, were not the last to face oppression for being trade unionists.
There’s a strong co-op connection with the Tolpuddle Martyrs. What the six men were actually forming was a mutual, a friendly society in fact, one of the oldest forms of mutual societies. Their Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers had rules which show it was clearly structured as a friendly society and operated as a trade-specific benefit society. This wasn’t uncommon by then – the Ancient Order of Foresters was founded in 1834, the same year as Tolpuddle, and is still going strong as a financial services provider. But it was the alleged secret oath and the society’s aim to protest against the gradual lowering of wages which condemned the Martyrs. All this was just ten years before Rochdale.
800,000 people would march on Westminster to protest against the men’s arrest and deportation. The protest was led by the social campaigner, Robert Owen, spiritual father of the co-operative movement. Given that 2008 is the 150th anniversary of Owen’s death, there has long been a plan to have an exhibition on Robert Owen and co-operation at Tolpuddle this weekend. Sadly the Owen/co-operative marquee has been turned down, a victim of a distancing between the co-op and trade union movements arising from the GMB dispute. It’s sad that this chance to mark the common starting point of our movements, and for the Co-op Group, the Co-operative Party and others to have a common platform with the rest of the movement for collective action and organised working people had been missed because of a little local difficulty.