Unite general secretary Len McCluskey yesterday (26 January) celebrated the life and achievements of one of Leeds’ greatest 19th Century trade unionists.
Tom Maguire was a trade unionist and poet whose influence, despite his tragic death from pneumonia at just 29 in 1895, continues to this day.
McCluskey delivered the first Tom Maguire Memorial Lecture to a sold-out crowd at Chapel FM Arts Centre on Saturday afternoon.
Before delivering the lecture, McCluskey and Leeds East MP Richard Burgon laid flowers at Maguire’s grave at Beckett Street Cemetery.
Maguire’s epitaph reads, “Socialist: Bold, Cautious, True and Loving Comrade.”
McCluskey left a tribute at his graveside that read, “In memory of a great socialist. In solidarity.”
Burgon’s message said, “In memory of Tom’s Maguire’s inspirational life and contribution – of his words and deeds!”
Maguire played an outsized role in organising and defending workers during the 19th Century.
He is known for his part in the 1890 gas workers strike – dubbed the “Battle of Leeds” by his peer Friedrich Engels – as well as his fight to improve working conditions for Jewish tailors and other workers in the city.
McCluskey told the audience: “But it was the gas strike that exposed the extent to which the Liberals – supported by many trade unionists at the time – would never be on the side of working people.
“It was indeed a key factor in the break-up of the two-party system and the founding of the Independent Labour Party three years later, which went on to play a key role in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee and then our Labour Party.”
The lecture also compared the role of trade unions during Maguire’s time and their role now.
“Trade unions are as relevant today as they were during the industrial revolution and Maguire’s years,” McCluskey said.
“But we have to make ourselves relevant to each and every sector including the gig economy, and we do that by being meaningful as a movement to them.”
To achieve this Unite is focused on developing strategies that deliver measurable results for members in a modern and often atomised world of work that is increasingly dominated by automated and digitalised workplaces, McCluskey explained.
Commenting that it is interesting how history often repeats itself, McCluskey said, “Tom Maguire threw himself into trade union organising during the Industrial Revolution.
“The speed and nature now of technological developments in recent years, leading to a new wave of automation and digitalisation, has been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution – and it is casting a long shadow.”
McCluskey added, “I think about what unions have achieved… as a direct result of Maguire and his comrades’ work… (and) I wonder what he would make of our so-called modern world of insecure work?
“I suspect he’d say don’t rest on your laurels, there’s more to be done. How right he’d be. There’s always more to be done.”