By Pauline Bradley, Iraq Union Solidarity convenor
The Tolpuddle martyrs festival is one of my favourite events in the union calendar. Held in the pretty Dorset village where in 1834, six poor, starving farm labourers held meetings and swore an oath to form a “friendly society” under a sycamore tree — it was one of the first trade unions formed.
For the “crime” of signing “an illegal oath” the men were sentenced to hard labour and transportation to Australia. When news of their draconian sentence reached towns and cities, people were outraged. It sparked off the formation of other trade unions and eventually the sentences to the Tolpuddle men were revoked; though they weren’t told of this till many years later.
The TUC now runs a museum in Tolpuddle with a tasteful monument to the martyrs, which forms the setting of the annual festival. The festival has been going for many years, though in recent times it’s grown bigger, due to the TUC’s efforts to attract young people and children. They’ve combined it with a young peoples’ educational event and now there’s drumming and bands. (The brilliant Seize the Day were on this year as well as Billy Bragg, Hank Wangford, Leon Rosselson, Robb Johnson, Lorraine Bowen, Frankie Armstrong, Ian Saville and The Muddy Funksters). There are also DJs, lots of children’s activities, workshops from No Sweat, political stalls including one from the AWL, local school choirs, well known speakers such as Tony Benn, Brendan Barber, Jeremy Dear, Bob Crowe and much more. It’s an enjoyable event with something for everyone.
The serious meetings are highly relevant and informative. This year Bob Crowe spoke with passion in a meeting on organising migrant workers, along with Felicity Lawrence of the Guardian. Bob stated that all workers should be approached to be unionised, that there is no difference between a worker with papers and one without and that our principles of international solidarity should prevail.
The next meeting about internationalism, had Maung Maung, the General Secretary of the Burmese TUC, a Columbian Trades Union leader, Abdullah Muhsin of the IFTU, Jeremy Dear of the NUJ and was chaired by Francis O’Grady TUC Dept General secretary. I often feel humbled listening to such speakers.
Maung Maung spoke of the continued struggle for democracy in Burma, Au Sang Su Chi’s imprisonment and the regime’s fear of change. He mentioned a massacre of striking dockers in 1974, which was covered up. Afterwards he promised to send me more details.
In my 20 years of activism, including two and a half with the Liverpool dockers, it was the first time I’d heard of this atrocity. He said that the killed dockers never had funerals, their bodies were secretly taken away in lorries.
The Colombian woman talked of how it’s the first time she’s felt relaxed because in Colombia she, along with other trade union leaders, are constantly under threat of assassination, which is a regular occurrence there.
Abdullah Muhsin spoke of the continued atrocities in Iraq, his sympathy to those affected by the London bombings, his awareness of our pain because of the brutality of “the resistance” in Iraq who had just blown up 27 children (no doubt because they were “collaborators” for taking sweets from soldiers) and the difficulties of the struggle. He said, “We are fighting for our life”.
I am acutely aware of the encroaching power of the Islamic extremists in Iraq, and how Ayatollah Khomeni massacred hundreds of thousands of trades unionists, women and secularists in Iran in the 1970’s, when the “left” in the west supported him for his “anti imperialism”. This historical fact is becoming more relevant by the day.
Jeremy Dear talked of the necessity to end capitalism, and gave his reasons for this — Tolpuddle seems to bring out the left side of trade union leaders!
No Sweat hosted a meeting on “Solidarity with Iraqi Trades Unions”. For the first time Abdullah Muhsin (IFTU) and Houzan Mahmood (FWCUI) appeared at the same meeting, along with Mick Duncan from No Sweat and myself.
Abdullah chose not to speak, but to answer people’s questions, as he’d already spoken and so wanted to give Houzan the space to speak. Houzan talked at length of her worries about the current situation and the Iraqi constitution, which is being drafted. This may enshrine Sharia law into many areas including family life. She said, “It will be legitimate for a man to beat up his wife, no woman wants that!” (I note from the OWFI statement that polygamy, child marriage, forced wearing of the veil, women only being equal to half a man are all in danger of being enshrined into the new Iraqi constitution.) Houzan told me afterwards that the women, who are helping to draft it, are not being listened to.
Houzan also expressed upset that she (representing the FWCUI) are not invited to speak on platforms or recognised as much as the IFTU. Abdullah said “We didn’t come from nowhere, we’ve built our unions and international links for 30 years, despite Saddam Hussein. When we launched the IFTU, we invited everyone; but some people chose not to come.” Despite obvious disagreements, both Houzan and Abdullah listened and conducted themselves in a respectful and comradely way.
Abdullah answered questions and an honest discussion was had, despite the loud noises of the sound check coming from inside the marquee.
Sunday is the biggest day of the festival. This year 5000 trades unionists marched up and down the village with banners, balloons, brass bands, jazz bands, samba bands — you name it! Our “Support the Iraqi Trades Unions” banner was often greeted with applause and commented upon favourably, including by Owen Tudor, International Officer of the TUC. As always, it was sad to leave to go back to the bomb scarred, police-riddled city of London. But the history of the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ struggle, the solidarity it evokes today and these memories will sustain me for another year!
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