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The Hopeful Heart Of George Loveless

07/06/2016 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Chindu Sreedharan

Of late -- this afternoon, actually -- I have been thinking about an inadvertent trade unionist named George Loveless. It is possible this had something to do with the fact that I found myself at the Martyrs Museum in Tolpuddle, a little English village in Dorset that I have been planning to visit for aeons. On my way out I stopped to investigate the old boy's statue at the entrance.

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Loveless's contribution to modern-day unionism and the concept of collective bargaining was unintentional but nonetheless significant. A self-educated farm worker, he was an accidental hero and a reluctant martyr, if there was one, but once he got caught up in the swing of things, he rose to the occasion, coming up with catchy slogans ("We will, we will, we will be free") and showing a solidarity to his cause and an optimism about his fate that was truly admirable. Allow me to expand.

In 1833, Loveless set up the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers with five cronies to politely request -- and that was all they did -- better wages from their employers.

In 1833, Loveless set up the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers with five cronies to politely request -- and that was all they did -- better wages from their employers in Tolpuddle. He was arrested fairly quickly for his troubles, sentenced without too fine a trial and shipped to Australia by the just ruling class of then. But in the process, Loveless somehow managed to spur the equivalent of a modern-day Occupy London movement -- and that too without Twitter, mind -- and a mass petition with enough signatures to render Zuckerberg orgasmic. The long and short of all this was that Loveless and his five friends -- famous now as the Tolpuddle Martyrs -- were subsequently pardoned and returned home after four years.

To be fair, the credit for much of this goes to the then-fledgling trade unions across England, but undoubtedly Loveless and friends symbolized their plight, acting as catalysts for one of the first successful, non-revolutionary collective actions by workers, thus serving as beacons of hope and arguably laying the foundation for labour activism across the world. In any case, we can safely say that without even trying, Loveless did his fair bit for uniting workers across the world.

Loveless somehow managed to spur the equivalent of a modern-day Occupy London movement -- and that too without Twitter, mind....

The sculptor had tried to work all this into the statue that I was now looking at. He had given Loveless a rakish, heroic air -- completely justified in my opinion: any man who gets 200,000 signatures in his support is my hero -- and the Tolpuddle martyr sat showing off a deep chest that smacked of regular visits to the gym and a high protein diet rather than the penury he was subjected to, his head raised to the skies in dramatic repose, fists punching powerfully into the stone of the bench he sat on. There was a plaque by the side, which invited visitors to sit beside Loveless and quietly contemplate the plight of the agricultural labourers of the 1830s. So I sat down and did just that.

I got up from the bench, thinking how much the world has changed since the days of Loveless. Then I thought of how much it hasn't.

I thought of working from morning to evening for nine shillings a week at a time when you needed at least 13 shillings to put enough bread on your table. I thought of wondering at the injustice of the Enclosures Acts that stripped you of the right to even grow your own vegetables or graze a sheep, of surviving on bread and potatoes and a slice of cheese on special occasions, and praying for a marginally better life. I thought of coming to know that the marginally better life you are praying for exists in the next village and all around, where labourers get 10 shillings to your 9, and trying to shrug off that inequity. I thought of finally approaching your employers and requesting a one shilling raise through an emissary and for that crime receiving a one shilling cut. I thought of sitting in the goal, sick to your teeth and knowing you have been booked convict-class with 1500 others on a three-decked excuse of a ship that may or may not reach land, and penning these final words to your wife, "Be satisfied, my dear Betsy, on my account. Depend on it, it will work together for good and we shall yet rejoice together..."

I got up from the bench, thinking how much the world has changed since the days of Loveless. Then I thought of how much it hasn't.

The sun was still high in the sky, but it had lost much of its warmth.

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