One last post about trade unions and again a little less opinionated 😉
May 24th, 2016
I have used the previous two Tuesday’s to offer my thoughts on how workers today seem to think about their rights and Trade Unions. One point I have made is the fact that employees do not appear to remember the history of trade unions and about the sacrifices early union members made to gain our rights.
Worker’s Rights are not a given. They are not a “benefit” the company might or might not provide us. We have to stand up for our rights and Unions do help us with that fight.
I know it might sound old-fashioned and very 70’s or even 1880’s but look at what many companies today do to their workers: Allow yourself to see how there are companies who do not acknowledge unions, who take away tips from their employees or who do not pay extra for unsocial hours. And the list could go on.
So who are those who fought for our rights and what have they suffered?
I will give you some examples from the UK:
Tolpuddle Martyrs (please check out Ellen’s much more entertaining post about the same topic 😉 )
In 1834 in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle a few farm workers had founded a trade union to protest against yet another pay cut. They earned 6 shillings a week which is 30p in today’s money, and I doubt even in those days that was enough to make a living and feed your family.
It was not unlawful to found a trade union; however, they have taken an oath of secrecy, and their employer took this as an excuse to put an end to the trade union as well as use these men as an example. They were charged with taking an illegal oath and ended up in prison.
At first, they were to be sent to Australia for seven years which was close to a death sentence because you either did not survive the journey or you did not survive the circumstances in the prisons down under. Their sentence caused an uproar with workers all over the country. Later on, a massive demonstration took place in London, and an 800 000 strong petition was brought to parliament to free the Dorset workers.
In the end, the government had to give in, and it is commonly seen as the beginning of the trade union movement in the UK.
You can see this landowner tried to keep his workers pay as low as possible, and used a trick to get those who wanted to fight against unfair pay out of his way. However, workers united and fought for their rights, and they won in the end.
The Matchgirl’s Strike
In the late 1800s, many countries had forbidden to use the very dangerous yellow phosphorous the make matches. The UK, however, believed that would be an obstacle for free trade and still allowed it.
Mostly women and children worked in match factories and yellow phosphorous caused yellowing of their skin, falling out of hair and phossy jaw a form of bone cancer. If a child or woman had fallen ill of it, they were dismissed.
The infamous Bryant & May match factory in London applied on top of this a system of fines if the women and children dropped matches, went to the toilet without permission as well as talking. So mostly they did not even get their meagre wage of 5 shillings a week.
Annie Besant heard about this situation and went to see the women and children find out for herself. She also learned that they had to work 12 hours or more per day. So she decided to report about this in her newspaper “The Link”.
To avoid bad publicity due to this newspaper article Bryant & May tried to force their workers to sign a paper saying they were happy with their work situation. Still, a group of women refused and were dismissed. However, Bryant & May did not expect the reaction of their workers: immediately 1400 women went on strike.
Many VIP’s in those days supported the strike under which were playwright George Bernard Shaw and Catherine Booth of the Salvation Army. Also, many newspapers called for a boycott of Bryant & May, and within three weeks the company gave in, re-employed the dismissed women and also stopped the fines system.
This successful strike inspired the formation of many trade unions in the UK and was another step to today’s modern union system and more rights for workers.
Of course, the unions did not only have successes. The famous “General Strike” of 1926 where mine and steelworkers fought against pay cuts, change of working hours and worsening of working conditions did not bring a change and left many workers jobless for many years.
However, overall union action does improve employees working situations, in my opinion.
What do you think? Do unions make a difference for employees work situations? And did you know about the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Matchgirl Strike?
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