The fight to reinstate the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) goes on despite the election of the most extreme right wing government since Mrs Thatcher, pledged Unite agricultural workers’ leader, Steve Leniec, at this year’s Tolpuddle Martrys’ Festival (July 19).
“We have one in Ireland, we have one in Wales, and we have one in Scotland, so why not in England?” asked Steve .
“We will fight and we will get it back,” he said to huge applause to one of the largest crowds at the festival for years.
“Labour had said farmworkers would go back to a national wage structure and promised to reinstate the Agricultural Wages Board,” he continued.
“There are £3bn a year in subsidies to agriculture so we are not a national minimum wage industry, yet we are treated as national minimum wage workers.”
It was the most dangerous industry in the country, he added, and “every year there is the scandal of over 30 people killed in agriculture, including shamefully children.
“Health and safety is not red tape; it is life and death to workers, and farm workers in particular.” Trade unions were essential to resist the government benefit cuts and that was why the Tories were attacking the unions.
“Apparently it is all right for them to be elected on 24 per cent of the electorate, but it is being set at 40 per cent for us in strike ballots.
“Only 50 MPs would get into parliament under that. It is one law for the rich and another for the rest of us. We know austerity does not work and that there is another way.
Steve drew on the inspiration of the Martyrs. “The Tolpuddle Martyrs remind us that if we stand together and mobilise public support we will win. There is an alternative to austerity and we have got to fight for it. Solidarity! Solidarity!” he called out to cheers from the crowd.
TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, condemned the “biggest attack on workers’ rights for 30 years” by the governent in its unfair and unnecessary trade union Bill.
“The high thresholds for industrial action don’t apply to any other ballots in Britain,” she declared, “certainly not to a government elected on a quarter of those entitled to vote.”
If the government was so keen on getting higher votes in indusrial action ballots, she asked, “why are they opposing workplace electronic ballots as we have proposed?”
Even if workers jump through all the hoops and over all the barriers to authorise industrial action, she contined, the government was “encouraging employers to use agency workers to break our strikes.” This could lead to the prospect of untrained agency workers delivering babies or fighting fires.
“Now the unions are expected to give plans of protests and picketing in advance to employers, police and authorites, including the use of Facebook and blogs and what are on them.
“This is the most serious and sinister attack on civil liberties in this country that I have ever known.
“To win this fight we will need solidarity, and will have to stick together, organise together, be brave and strong. We will, we will, we will be free!”