As General Secretary of Solidarity I get sent a lot of questions via E-mail. Below I set out some of the questions I have been asked and my answers. I want to acknowledge the booklet 'Our Trade Unions' published by the Wessex Study Group in 1979 as a major source and inspiration. My Executive colleague, David Kerr, was part of the team that researched this. The answers given are my personal view of matters and have not been edited or approved by the Executive. Take them or leave them on that basis!
When were the Trade Unions formed?
Before the repeal of the Combination Laws in 1824 very little is known about the history of Trade Unions. Prior to this there were many laws to prevent workers from forming themselves into organised groups. The early organisations were therefore illegal and had to act secretly. It was only in 1825 that an Act of Parliament allowed Unions a bare existence.
Why were Trade Unions formed?
In the 18th and 19th century unscrupulous employers exploited their workers, offering starvation wages for excessive hours. Trade Unions were formed to bargain for a higher, fairer wage and a reduction in the number of hours worked.
Local magistrates (who were usually employers themselves), were often called upon to decide wages.. Safety, health and other hazards were generally ignored. This made workers even more determined to form Trade Unions.
What was the reaction of the Government to the early Trade Unions?
Up until 1824 many Government laws aimed to put an end to the Trade Unions before they became established. Acts of Parliament were passed on behalf of employers to crush any form of combination of the workers. The government often came under pressure form influential employers to pass laws to withdraw licenses form publicans who let their rooms to Trade Unions. The Government also passed laws to restrict Trade Unions, such as forbidding oath taking.
How did the Unions fight back?
In their early days the Unions sheltered under the title of Friendly Societies and held their meetings under cover of the rules allowed to these clubs. Benefit Clubs provided working men with a modest maintenance whilst in sickness, and by 1816 had a total of 700,000 members. There is reason to believe that Trade Unions who operated secretly, received financial assistance from Benefit Clubs during strikes.
Who were the Tolpuddle Martyrs?
At dawn on the 24th February, 1834 six farm labourers from the small Dorsetshire village of Tolpuddle were arrested on the charge of having participated in the administration of an illegal oath. Their real crime in the eyes of the Government, was having formed a Trade Union, which by this date they were entitled to do! They were subsequently sentenced to a 7 years transportation to Australia but there was such a public outcry in Britain that they were given a free pardon and returned home. Our Trade Union Movement enshrined them as martyrs.
People talk of the 'Labour Movement' do they mean the Labour Party?
Originally, the 'Labour Movement' consisted of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Labour Party Executive and the Trade Unions. In its original sense the Labour Movement aimed to win a better life for all British Workers and their families. Now this noble ideal has been betrayed and debased.
If I am a member of a Trade Union, does this mean that I should vote Labour?
The Labour Party has had a special relationship with the Trade Unions. Yet it seems that most Unions are now a state auxiliary, used as a means of controlling workers. These establishment Unions collude in pay deals linked to a bogus rate of inflation which mean pay cuts in real terms. They fail to challenge the government on important issues. Many Union officials are members of the Labour hierarchy and win roles in government or at local level.
You should consider carefully who you vote for and ask whether they have policies which benefit workers in this country.
Why should I join a Union?
The individual's bargaining position is weak. If the employer turns down his wage demand, he must either accept it or leave, because on his own he cannot match the economic power of the employer.
Trade Unions are like an insurance scheme. You can call on them for specialist help and they have collective funds to draw on.
Should a Nationalist be a Trade Unionist?
Yes. Nationalism is pride in what you are. Unionism is pride in what you do: the two are therefore complementary. It is difficult to see how you can be one without the other.
What should a Nationalist do if their Union takes an anti-Nationalist stance?
My general advice is that you should leave it and join Solidarity. If you don't wish to you should not allow yourself to be pressured out or forced to deny your own principles. Rather you must press your attackers as publicly as possible to declare and defend their own political views in detail. You should ask what political views a Union member is permitted to have according to your Union Constitution.
I would advise you to opt-out of the Political Levy.
I am a member of the British National Party. What should my attitude be to workers from different ethnic backgrounds?
You should realise that we are all the exploited victims of government policy. In a work environment we must remain united and pull together if we are to have any strength against the employer. We generally face the same problems.
Solidarity has members from all Parties and ethnic backgrounds. At elections we might vote differently and even campaign for different parties but we are united on workplace issues. Most people are able to wear different hats!
What is meant by the Political Levy?
The political levy is a sum which is generally automatically deducted from a member's Union dues (except in Northern Ireland where you have to opt-in). This money is generally used, directly or indirectly, to provide finance for the Labour Party. The present levy system is one which ensures that inertia and lack of knowledge by many Union members keeps Labour Party coffers brimming with the contributions of those who would not make such payments voluntarily. It is in the interests of Labour Party timeservers within the establishment Unions to keep things this way.
Must I pay the political levy?
Not if you don't wish to. By law your Trade Union must furnish you with a form to 'opt out' of the political levy if you ask for one - but you must ask. Labour timeservers will try to discourage this. If you have any problems we can provide the wording and advice.
Does Solidarity have a political levy?.
Not at present. If we establish one it will be on an 'opt in' basis and the members will decide directly how money is spent.
Should I always respect strikes and disputes?
Yes. If you do not support your fellow workers in cases where you are in a minority, they will not support you when you are in a majority. When divisions appear in the workforce, employers can easily resist Trade Union pressure. The foundation of Union strength, on which bargaining power rests, is solidarity. You must never cross a picket line, you must always respect strikes.
Are strikes reasonable?
The strike is a weapon of last resort. It is a legitimate weapon of resolving workers' grievances.
What is the TUC?
The Trades Union Congress or TUC is the collective assembly and spokesman for many Trade Unions. Matters affecting Trade Unions, both in relation to one another and to external bodies, can be debated and the decisions binding on all member Unions. Voting is by block-vote so larger Unions can effectively swamp smaller ones.
Does every Trade Union affiliate to the TUC?
No. Affiliation to the TUC involves submission to decisions and rulings made by it, and not all Unions are prepared to do that. A Union can still maintain its independence outside of the TUC although it might encounter opposition from other Unions. Solidarity is not affiliated to the TUC. We prefer to remain independent and believe in 'One Big Union' not any kind of federation.
Why do Trade Unionists call each other 'Brother' or 'Sister'?
This refers to the special relationship between Unionists. It is an expression of their solidarity and affinity.
Why does Solidarity mark May Day?
May 1st was traditionally an old Christian festival and before that a pagan one. British Workers celebrate May Day as their ancestors did. It is right that they should celebrate the strength of a British Trade Union Movement speaking up for the rights of British Workers. Those who have betrayed the early ideals of Unionism should be drowned in a sea of national pride.
Should Solidarity seek to align itself with 'moderates'?
No. 'Moderate' Trade Unionists are usually Tories, Liberals or Social Democrats. Alliances with 'moderates' will identify us with failed policies and help prop-up a corrupt system. Solidarity must take an independent line, presenting a radical alternative. We should be on the militant rather than 'moderate' side of Unions and disputes.
Should I remain a member of my existing Union or join Solidarity?
In most cases we advise that you leave your existing Union an join us. If you are in the midst of being trained as a Rep you might want to wait till that finishes, however! We do also allow dual membership as there are certain advantages we would find it difficult or impossible to duplicate (clubs in the case of Prison Officers for example).