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GMB LOUD AND PROUD!

By Mervyn Edwards, GMB Birmingham and West Midlands Region.

I have been working, mainly part-time, for my present main employer for over twenty years. Truth be told, retail is a pretty uninspiring business, but it helps to pay the bills and over the years, I’ve used my particular skills to make a positive contribution in the workplace.

One of the first questions I had to address when I first joined concerned union membership. Did I wish to kiss goodbye to a percentage of my modest monthly wages in order to support a trade union?

After all, I reasoned at the time, as long as I kept my nose clean, did as I was told and stayed out of trouble, I would never need the help of the GMB.

What I have learned since is that this was a fallacy. The whole process of human communication is now a minefield, the politically correct brigade have done more harm than good and there is a very fine line between the fun that our employers say they wish us to have at work, and what they consider to be “horse-play.”

Think you’ll never need union backing because you’re a model employee? Think again, boy scout. It isn’t nice to be called to a private room, completely out of the blue, and to be confronted by a couple of managers hunched over official-looking sheets of paper. There’s you, thinking that you’ve done your best to toe the company line, and now you’re being told that you’ve been reported for doing or saying something out of order. It’s happened to me, and it can happen to anyone.

Yet the main reason I have been a GMB member for twenty years and counting is that I believe we have a debt of loyalty to the poor workers of a previous age, who never had a chance of being represented by a trade union. The words to Rule Britannia were written in 1740, declaring, “Britons never shall be slaves.” Don’t you believe it.

The passing of the Combination Acts in 1799 and 1800 made trade unions illegal, meaning that thousands of good, honest people in diverse occupations across the country continued to be exploited by capitalist bullies. The repeal of the Acts, in 1824-5, paved the way for workpeople to be involved in collective bargaining. However, they were still subjected to legal restrictions and enjoyed no legal protection for their funds until the passing of the Trade Union Acts in the 1870s.

Both before and after that period, the road to fairness in the working place was a tortuous one, as employers tried every trick in the book to keep workers beneath their heels.

A heritage sign in Goldenhill, near Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent, today announces that it was a “historic mining village.”

Capitalists have been well to the fore in helping to establish – or even create – many now-flourishing communities in Stoke, and such a person was Robert Williamson, who was quick to buy into the idea of erecting a church in Goldenhill for the colliers and working class people who lived there in the 1840s.

However, it should be pointed out that Williamson, like many of his ilk, was an iron-fisted capitalist first, and a philanthropist second.

In 1831, several of his men, intending to protect their social welfare, formed a combination – an early trade union. Williamson duly sacked them.

At a time when the working class worm was beginning to turn, the Establishment was determined to clamp down on any militant activity, with radical ringleaders risking the loss of their jobs, or worse. Thomas Bailey Rose, a famously uncompromising Potteries magistrate, declared in the 1840s:

“There is a set of idle vagabonds about, I know trying to induce both colliers and potters to absent themselves from work, by threats and promises. Let but one of them be brought before me and I’ll commit him for trial at the assizes.”

There came a withering response from the radical Potters Examiner newspaper, with its editor inquiring: “Does Mr. Rose require only the charge – or is evidence necessary?”

The 19th century newspapers are replete with accounts of what we would now consider to be bullying and harassment at work, unfair dismissals, a total disregard for the health and safety of employees and other evils.

Lest we forget, people have been transported to Australia or even died in the process of fighting for a fairer society.

These are some of the reasons why I have been proud to have been a tutor in local history for the Workers Educational Association and a member of the GMB over the years. Life inside and outside of the workplace can be damned tough, but it gives me a profound sense of satisfaction to be fighting injustices with like-minded people.

I have been working, mainly part-time, for my present main employer for over twenty years. Truth be told, retail is a pretty uninspiring business, but it helps to pay the bills and over the years, I’ve used my particular skills to make a positive contribution in the workplace.

Posted: 10th July 2014

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