DOUG NICHOLLS, General Secretary of the GFTU, introduces a new collection of dramas which brilliantly cover key struggles in trade union history from the Combination Acts to the Trico dispute
TO AMPLIFY our voice from workplace to society as a whole and across the world, trade unionists and their supportive cultural workers have sung songs, written novels, created music, painted pictures, drawn cartoons, made films and written and performed plays together.
Our cultural work is central to and an essential part of our struggle, if you ignore it you blunt your campaign, deaden your organisation, dull your education programme.
Going right back to the Middle Ages in Britain there has been a tradition of workers expressing their views of society and the evils of the ruling class in plays.
Our best playwrights always hated the ruling class and social systems which alienate, exploit and treat people cruelly. They ridiculed pompous people, satirised the selfish and greedy and exposed the viciousness of the powerful elites while celebrating the noble virtues and courage of good people.
No-one did this better than Shakespeare. He was our first great socialist playwright, not because he used that word or believed that everything should be in public ownership but socialist in the terms of his own day when the two great social systems that he was living through — the death of feudalism and the birth of capitalism — both seemed inhuman to him. An alternative world must be possible, he thought.
So the plays collected in Workers’ Playtime, which has just been published, are genuinely in the Shakespearean tradition. They cover the whole historic epoch witnessing the growth and birth of industrial capitalism and the emergence from within it of a vision of a new socialist society. But, of course, they embellish this tradition with a modern twist. They are about the world created by the modern capitalism and imperialism that was only just beginning in Shakespeare’s day. And most importantly of all they are about the work of a class of people that did not exist in Shakespeare’s Britain — an organised working class.
They are about the working class in an industrialised country and the organisation of that class into the most fundamental of working-class organisations, trade unions. These were outlawed at their start as Neil Duffield’s Bolton Rising and Neil Gore’s We Will be Free powerfully remind us.
The seven plays in the volume are about the class-conscious workers who recognise that power lies in our hands to change society, a power that did not exist until workers created it. It is a power that resides in collective action, bravery together, an indomitable sense of fighting for justice.
The importance of collective action is a focus and many of them lend themselves to various forms of communal performance and discussion in the popular education tradition.
Two plays are very much linked to great trade union leaders identified with the GFTU, Mary Quaile and Will Thorne. It is great to feel their work immortalised in wonderful plays by Jane McNulty and James Kenworth and feel that their efforts are flourishing still today. Yet many of our active playwrights, directors and theatre companies have not got a national profile. This is because they have written for, with and as part of working-class communities. They have been the anonymous writing about the anonymous and this creates some of the greatness.
Bolton Rising by Neil Duffield reminds us of the bitterness and sacrifice involved in forming trade unions against the Combination Acts, which were designed to prevent the formation of workers’ organisations.
The bravery and vision of our pioneers is always humbling. It is always amazing too to reflect on how our predecessors organised, not just before mobile phones and the social media, but before telephones, cars and bicycles. The power of face-to-face contact should never be forgotten and this is also why returning to our play tradition is itself so inspiring. There is nothing more moving that a live performance to stir the passions.
We Will Be Free by Neil Gore moves the time frame forward and delves into the stories of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their most renowned leader George Loveless and his wife. Depicted by history and convention as innocent victims of circumstances, the Tolpuddle Martyrs — as you can see in the great pamphlets they wrote — were highly class conscious and dismissive of the whole church, state and employers’ apparatus that was oppressing all working people.
Hannah by Eileen Murphy, on the life and struggles of 19th-century pioneering labour movement activist and suffragette Hannah Mitchell, touches beautifully on one of the underestimated consequences of the progressive establishment of the trade union and early socialist movement —our contribution to an all-encompassing social engagement of all citizens through the inclusion of women in all workplace democracy and the right to vote. Dare To Be Free by Jane McNulty reminds us that the organisation of women casual workers and the struggle against various forms of zero hours contracts has a long history. The need for the young to stand up for justice in the workplace has never been greater and this play remains an inspiration for audiences and is ideally suited in length and style for education events to stimulate debate.
As with many of the collection’s plays, song and music feature prominently in this, reminding us of the rich seam of social commentary that has been expressed in our folk song tradition. The GFTU has also contributed to trying to keep this tradition alive by producing a double CD of working-class songs for democracy, resistance and peace.
A Splotch of Red by James Kenworth sets together two of the giants of the Labour Party and trade union movement, James Keir Hardie and Will Thorne. Keir Hardie was the founder of the Labour Party, and its first MP, being elected as member for West Ham South in 1892. He was assisted in this by William Thorne (1857-1946), a Birmingham-born trade-union leader who won the same seat in 1906 and later served as Labour MP for Plaistow between 1917 and 1945.
The two men represent a classic political opposition — Hardie the idealist and orator, Thorne the tactician — but willing to compromise and deal with other politicians, including those of other parties, if it meant attaining power.
Out on the Costa Del Trico, marking the great victory of the Dagenham machinists, has a legendary status in the trade-union movement and has been transformed into plays and films. The heroic struggle at Trico, the US- owned windscreen wiper factory, , by largely Asian women workers, deserves an equal place in our folk memory.
Some details of the dispute can be found in a Morning Star article by one of the strike committee members Sally Groves and in a longer study by George Stevenson. Another feature of the construction of this play, evident to varying degrees in our tradition of theatre, is that it was highly collectively assembled and used the voices — the “actuality” as Banner Theatre call it — of interviews with those involved in the struggle.
These plays cover the 134-year struggle, from the first charter for the universal franchise to the legislation that gave everyone over the age of 18 the vote, the move from the period when trade unions were illegal to the period when over half the workforce were active in them and able to win equal pay for women and thereby settle another long standing demand.
That transformation, from a Britain that was a mainly rural country to the most advanced industrial economy on Earth, one which adopted the free movement of capital and labour, is a thread which links all these plays.
n Workers’ Play Time: Volume One, edited by Doug Nicholls, is published by Workable Books, price £9.99, workablebooks.org