Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Strikes don't work, do they?

On way to work yesterday, my radio tuned itself onto BBC WM, where the topic for discussion was 'Do Strikes work?'  My first thought was of the 2005 film 'Made in Dagenham' - about the (successful) strike by car workers in 1968 demanding equal pay for men and women.  Then,  I was a little sad that in Birmingham, with such a proud history of protest and strikes that there should even be a question whether strikes work or not.

The papers are full of warnings - winter of discontent, expect UK's biggest strikes.  For the title of 'Britain's biggest strikes', the 1911 National Rail Strike is perhaps the biggest contender, where unions were fighting for their very existence, and the UK was brought to the verge of revolution. Churchill was, at that time, the Home Secretary under Asquith's Liberal Government.  There was bloodshed in Liverpool, the city usually identified with the national strike, but Birmingham also played it's role.  The usual note is of Birmingham Police sent to Liverpool, but food packages were also sent by our unions, quite apart from the rail strikes in our city.  It is also interesting to note the level of support for the 1911 strike across all unions and generations, with school children also playing a role.  I remember, with guilt, the student protests of 2010, portrayed by some media as a load of rich kids throwing their toys out of the pram.  I did nothing, and now what tuition fee system do we have?

Thomas Attwood, fenced off  for Christmas
Going back further into Brum's history you come across 'King Tom', Brum's first MP.  Yes, the very same shabby man with paperwork blowing around him on Chamberlain Square.

Hard to imagine the size of demonstrations in Birmingham for male Suffrage in September 18 31 and May 1832: The first, a reported 100,000 gathered on Newhall Hill, the second, 200,000, commemorated by 'the 'Gathering of the Unions', with 'King Tom', a dot in the middle holding his 'Reform Bill' aloft, which became law in June.

'The Gathering of the Unions, 1832' thanks to Bob Miles

I've borrowed a bit from Chris Upton and his fabulous 'A History of Birmingham' - he quotes the Union Hymn, sang on the day:

Shall honest labout toil in vain
While Plunder fattens on the land!
Still shall a tyrant faction's reign
People and King at once command?
No! it may not, shall not be,
For we must, we will be free!

It is as important now, as then, to demonstrate your support for causes important to you.  Strikes are always a last resort, but there is no question strikes demonstrate broad support for a cause and influence change.

Useful links:

The Liverpool Transport Strike of 1911

Turnip Rail: The Forgotten National Railway Strike1911 - Part 1
Turnip Rail: The Forgotten National Railway Strike1911 - Part 2

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