24 July 2013 – For Joseph Katende, ITF Africa regional secretary, the chance to visit the Tolpuddle Martyrs festival in Dorset, UK fulfilled a long-held dream.
The festival commemorates farmworkers from the village of Tolpuddle who, in 1834, were punished with transportation for forming a trade union. Their unjust punishment triggered massive demonstrations, one of the earliest demonstrations of trade union solidarity, and forced the government to repeal the sentences. This gives Tolpuddle a special place not just in British but international union history.
The festival celebrates trade unions through politics, music and discussion. This year’s festival theme was low pay – still a problem for workers some 179 years after the original Tolpuddle Martyrs fought back through organising.
Speakers at the festival included Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and Tony Benn, a veteran of the progressive movement in Britain. Diana Holland, assistant general secretary of ITF-affiliate Unite the Union, encouraged agricultural workers to organise in solidarity with workers in other trades, praising the work of the ITF in organising workers along the supply chain.
Joseph Katende was one of the ITF team who attended the festival. He visited stalls at the festivals, joined the procession through Tolpuddle village, and saw the grave of James Hammett, one of the Martyrs.
Katende had visited the site of the Haymarket massacre in Chicago the previous week, where workers protesting for an eight-hour work day were violently suppressed by police in 1886. Katende was touched by the opportunity to see two places vital to the history of the global union movement. “The lesson here”, he said, “is that those who try to intimidate the labour movement only make the movement stronger. It didn’t work in 1834 in Tolpuddle; it didn’t work in the Haymarket case in 1886, and it hasn’t worked anywhere else.”
He went on to say “The festival is important for the entire global labour movement because it reignites our commitment to the struggle for organised labour. We have a history to refer to – that history cannot be erased.”