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Very proud to be here in Manchester, this radical and brave city, in our anniversary year.
And before I do anything else, I want to say thank you to this wonderful movement:
All of the extraordinary hard working and committed people.
Who make up this Congress of ours.
It’s an incredible privilege to be your President.
And lovely for me as well to have members of my family here, particularly my daughter Katherine.
My mum cannot be here, but I want to thank her now for the courage she has shown for all her children and the values she taught.
And hello to my aunty Val who is here. You along with my uncle Ivan taught me much of the trade union values I hold today.
Aunty Val is a lifelong member of the Labour party and her trade union, of which she is very proud.
She told me once about their mainly male trade union conference in the 60s, voting against her and other women being able to wear trousers at work.
Well for you Aunty Val, and all those other women of that time, I’d like to say for the record, that today, the female President of the TUC is wearing trousers. Thank you for starting that argument.
We always get there in the end.
They have been a rock for me in so many ways and I am very glad to introduce you all to each other.
One family to another.
Because we too are family.
All of us here, together:
The trade union family.
150 years ago, just down the road from here at the Mechanics Institute, 34 delegates met to discuss matters “pertaining to the general interests of the working classes”.
There has been an almost unbroken line of meetings since that date, year on year, building our movement so that today the TUC is recognised as the voice of working people.
And we are its custodians.
Our different unions are only part of that story, one which will see us spend the next few days focusing on our future:
How we build our industrial strength.
How we grow our numbers.
How we expand our political influence.
Building, growing, taking forward what our forebears started. And taking strength from our movement’s birth, our beginnings, our roots.
In 1817, 10,000 weavers and spinners gathered just outside of this hall. They had blankets, rugs and coats wrapped in bundles under their arms.
It was the biggest meeting of its kind ever organised in Manchester.
They planned to march to London to draw attention to the poverty from which they suffered.
The Blanketeers’ March.
The King’s Dragoons were sent in to disperse the meeting, which they did, violently.
Still they marched and were attacked a mile from here, bullet wounds and sabre cuts inflicted.
In 1819, again just outside of here, 60,000 people gathered to demand parliamentary reform, a vote that counted. 15 people died. The Peterloo Massacre.
In 1834 six agricultural workers in Tolpuddle swore an oath to support each other. They were sentenced to penal transportation to Australia for their crime.
In 1882 the socialist and antifascist Sylvia Pankhurst was born here in Manchester, and struggled for years for women’s suffrage – and isn’t it time she was honoured with a statue in Parliament?
In 1888 women workers at Bryant and May went on strike for better, safer, terms and conditions.
In 1900, in Taff Vale over 1,300 workers went on strike in solidarity with a victimised colleague. The courts held the union liable for the company losses.
In 1910 in Cradley Heath, women chain makers who had to hammer 5,000 links a week to earn the equivalent of 25p, laid down their tools to demand a living wage. And did so for four long months.
1926, the general strike; 1968, Dagenham; 1972 and 1984, miners’ strikes; 1989 ambulance drivers; 2011 public sector pensions.
It doesn’t matter which year, which place, which industry: there will always be employers or government or both saying no.
And there will always be people, trade unionists, workers who will say yes and be willing to fight. We don’t always win, but we will always try.
Because that’s who we are.
And we don’t limit that to this country.
I’ve just come back from a Justice for Colombia delegation visit to Colombia. There are still trade unionists there being put in jail or killed.
But they don’t stop fighting.
I’ve been in Palestine, watching young children have rubber bullets shot at them by painfully young conscripts sat on a wall which divides populations and destroys people’s lives. But good people, Palestinian and Israeli, don’t stop fighting for these injustices to end.
I’ve sat with Zimbabwean trade unionists, arms in bandages after beatings, who organise workers with no resources whatsoever, and face real physical danger.
I’ve sat in more than one embassy demanding the release of people unjustly imprisoned. This year that was South Korean trade union leaders, jailed for their activism. And now released.
I’ve been with trade union members giving their time and resources to refugees and migrants, here and abroad.
And I’ve listened in horror, more times than I can count, to the testimony of trade unionists from around the world, arrested, beaten, penalised for defending their rights.
It is always a humbling experience, but one that has taught me the value of my union card and the absolute need for the TUC to be international in its perspective.
Our collective voice matters. It literally saves lives.
I look around this Hall, this Congress, and see unions doing the same today as they have always done.
Equity with its Safe Space campaign to confront sexual harassment.
Unison defeating the government to secure access to justice for millions of working people.
NUJ defending freedom of speech and their member’s safety here and abroad.
GMB fighting for decency at Uber and Amazon, and USDAW doing the same at Lidl and M&S.
PFA fighting hard to kick racism out of football. FBU with everything you have done since Grenfell. Community working to keep a steel industry in this country,EIS, NASUWT, NEU, NAHT making the case for good education, taught by well rewarded staff.
My own union UCU fighting for pensions justice.
Prospect, science funding.
Finance unions, staff and customer safety in banks and building societies.
Aslef, RMT, TSSA: all campaigning for a publicly-owned, properly-staffed railway.
CWU, a publicly-owned post office. Nautilus, safe seaways. Justice unions, a respectful and secure system.
The Health unions: protecting patients, representing staff, keeping the NHS alive in the face of a sustained right-wing assault.
Bakers’ union, McDonalds.
Unite not so large that it won’t prioritise three branches of TGI Fridays, who made the mistake of thinking it was okay to mess around with the tips of minimum wage staff.
One of our smallest affiliates, the Artists’ Union, not afraid to support a national petition to prevent mass forced deportations.
And all the others, too numerous to mention, doing their bit to advance the cause of labour.
We are the trade union movement. We are powerful agents of change. And we don’t observe history, we make it.
The trade union congress – you – doing what you have always done. Standing with, and for, working people in this country. Making sure this is a country for those people.
150 years ago and today, the same family, the same fight.
Let me return then to 1868 – think what that must have been like.
Standing with each other for the first time, different industries and skills, to make common cause.
And 20 years later those match girls, some as young as 12, working 14 hours a day on their feet six days a week, forced to buy their own equipment.
Who got phossy jaw, which rotted the inside of their mouth. All to make matches.
There was an article written about them saying they were slave labour. It caused a scandal, so their managers asked them to sign statements effectively saying “we love our job”.
They refused. One of their number was sacked. It was meant to shut them up. But instead they walked out, and didn’t go back until they got her back, got time off, and got a complaints procedure.
And I’m proud that the great granddaughter of one of the strike leaders, Sarah Chapman, is here at Congress today.
Meantime the TUC was meeting, unions were growing stronger, they were organising.
And in 1906 they got their strongest vote in parliament and one of the first things they did, those trade union-supported MPs, was to pass legislation turning back Taff Vale and making it illegal to use white phosphorus that had rotted the jaws of those young women.
I say all that because in our 150th year, it’s worth remembering just how hard those people worked for our benefit.
Everything we have today has been fought for by people just like us, who came together, stood with each other, sometimes died for each other, to give us decency and dignity.
So when we look at the challenges we have, which are many – casualisation, Brexit, the intolerance which is raising its head.
All coming at us, saying you are worth less, you must work harder, you must be less secure:
None of that is new and none of that is stuff we cannot deal with.
We have done it throughout our history, and we will do it now.
Ordinary people like you and me and all those we represent.
I wanted to end with this. LIGHT MY BRYANT AND MAY MATCH.
130 years ago this was something that killed people. Painfully, cruelly, avoidably.
Today it’s just a match.
That’s because of the trade union movement.
And that’s you.
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