Why Croydon’s trades unionists and workers will march for rights and progress

By - Thursday 28th April, 2016

Sean Creighton welcomes the opportunity for Croydon to send a message to its leaders on Saturday 30th April

This year’s Croydon Trade Union Council’s annual May Day march through the town centre will be held on Saturday 30th April. It provides an opportunity for citizen campaigns to send a message to the council about the need to listen to local people on such issues as the future of libraries, parks and the Fairfield Halls, the need for genuinely affordable housing, action to improve the environment, policies to disengage us from the trap created by the private developers and other concerns. A key function of local trades union councils is to take part in local community and government affairs. Participants are asked to assemble at 11:30am by Marks and Spencer in North End. The march will go to Ruskin House, the Labour movement social centre at 23 Coombe Road, for a rally and music. The walk along North End will give campaigners the opportunity to hand out their leaflets to shoppers.

The celebration of May Day began in 1890 at the time of the wave of worker militancy for better pay and conditions known as New Unionism, kick-started by the successful strike of the match women in the East End in 1888, followed by dockers’ and gas workers’ pay victories in 1889. 1890 was also the year that the Croydon TUC’s predecessor, the Croydon Trades Council, was formed.

One of the movement’s demands was for a legalised eight hour working day. The inspiration for this had come from the socialist engineer Tom Mann based in Battersea. It led to labour and socialist organisations across Europe deciding to organise eight hour day demonstrations on May Day 1890.In London, the demonstration drew a crowd estimated at over 200,000 people, who marched to Hyde Park from different parts of London. This support for the eight-hour day and the parallel success of the ‘New Unionism’ led to the national Trades Union Congress adopting eight hour working as its policy.

It is the duty of the trades unionist to rectify wrongs

In September 1890’s issue of The Nineteenth Century Review, Mann set out his version of the agenda being pursued. The motivating force behind the new unionist wave of unrest and strikes, he argued, was revolt at the inequalities and deprivations that a modern society was capable of eradicating.

“The effort being put forward by the workers by means of their voluntary combinations justified them in using their powers as citizens to get their grievances rectified by means of legislation, either by local governing bodies or by parliament”, he declared. His ideas for the re-organisation of local government were for the introduction of county councils with a high degree of power decentralised from parliament.

He also discussed the relationship between trade unionism and citizenship. “My duties as a trade unionist do not clash with my duties as a citizen. The object of good citizenship, I presume, should be the getting rid of abuses, the elimination of the cause of physical and moral degradation, and the establishing of those conditions which will operate most beneficially to the body politic. Chief amongst the causes that degrade are excessive hours of labour and insufficient wages. It is the duty of the trade unionist to rectify these wrongs; it is equally the duty of the citizen. To argue that all such changes should come solely by trade-union effort, as some politicians are doing, is to argue that the highest form of citizenship are to be left unperformed by the citizen”.

‘The unity of labour is the hope of the world’

His arguments remain valid today for everyone who wants to see improvements in pay and conditions in the work place, and an end to workplace exploitation, low wages and zero hours contracts, along with the provision of good quality local services for ordinary people. Describing his strategy in the March 1892 issue of the Review, his colleague John Burns, Battersea’s London County Council member and future MP, summed up the political successes achieved between 1889 and 1892. “Much that was considered utopian and impracticable three years ago is being secured, and much more on the verges of realisation”, he wrote.

It was during the period of New Unionism that Jim Connell wrote the song ‘The Red Flag’ on a very local train, running from Charing Cross to Honor Oak. May Day also led to a visual culture of banners, prints, posters and illustrations. Key in this was the artist Walter Crane. His prints were to adorn the homes and meeting rooms of socialists and trade unionists throughout Europe for decades to come.

In 1900 May Day was celebrated in Crystal Palace as a family day of sport and entertainment with a pyrotechnic display designed by Crane in which his ‘Solidarity of Labour’ cartoon was reproduced in fireworks, complete with the motto, ‘the unity of labour is the hope of the world’. Let us also see it as the hope of Croydon.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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