From International Socialism (1st series), No.54, January 1973.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Seedtime and Harvest
Merlin Press for the National Union of Agricultural Workers – 25p
Sir, we jointly and severally request your attention to the following requirements; namely, 2s 8d per day for our labour; hours from six till five and to close at three on Saturdays; and 4d an hour overtime.
It was in 1872 that farm labourers in South Warwickshire went on strike for these demands. There were 200 of them at first and then thousands as “a whole series of small strikes and lock-outs” developed. Out of this successful struggle – wages were pushed up in a year by twenty to twenty-five per cent – the agricultural workers union was born. By May 1873 it had grown, under the leadership of Joseph Arch, from nothing to 71,835 members.
It was widely believed that the agricultural labourers, “impoverished and hopelessly insecure”, were unorganisable. After the savage repression of attempts to hold up wages and to organise in the 1830s – the Tolpuddle Martyrs were agricultural labourers – a white terror ruled the English countryside. Under the three-fold despotism of Parson, Squire and Farmer, wielding as magistrates all the forces of ‘law and order’, the labourers were reduced to one remedy for their crying grievances – emigration, emigration to the towns or overseas. Arch and the Warwickshire labourers broke, for a time at least, that iron tyranny.
The inevitable counter-attack came in 1874. The employers resolving, typically, that “all union men be locked out after giving one week’s notice”. The union managed to survive that lock-out with 50,000 members left but repeated attacks in the years that followed, combined with ‘the great depression’ of British agriculture, reduced it to a tenth of that number by 1889. By 1896 it had less than a thousand members and by the next year it was dead.
Or rather dormant. Something of the spirit survived and after fifteen years the union was re-established. This little booklet written for the centenary gives, as the union’s General Secretary says in his introduction, something of “the sight, sound and smell of poverty stirring and then embattled against exploitation.”
Last updated on 12.1.2008