“They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn,
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn,
That the Union makes us strong.
During UNISON’s National Delegate Conference earlier this summer, I was proud that UNISON North West published a collection of union songs in honour of Rodney Bickerstaffe. The collection has been released during the year of the union’s 25th anniversary and was funded by the UNISON Campaign Fund.
Rodney Bickerstaffe was a titan of the trade union movement and remains an inspiration to UNISON activists up and down the country. He is rightly credited as the driving force behind the establishment of the National Minimum Wage, he was a proud internationalist and a champion of working class culture. Rodney understood the significant contribution which music made to the struggles of the labour movement around the world. It is fitting that we commemorate Rodney’s remarkable achievements by celebrating and preserving the unique cultural heritage of our movement.
Arise Ye Starveilings, magnificently produced and performed by Jennifer Reid, is a diverse collection of union songs spanning 5 centuries worth of labour history. The primary focus of Jennifer’s music is nineteenth century Industrial Revolution work songs, mainly on the topics of weaving, mining and navvies from the North West, especially Manchester and Lancashire. Jennifer weaves on a handloom, giving a distinctive understanding of the work dialect in the lyrics in the lyrics she studies and sings. She is the perfect curator and musician to pull together this excellent compilation, which acts as a window into hundreds of years of working class culture.
The compilation begins almost four hundred years ago in the 1640s. The World Turned Upside Down focuses on Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers group he formed in opposition to landlordism- The Diggers would occupy private lands and plough them to plant crops. Winstanley was born Wigan and UNISON North West still plays a role in celebrating the movement during the annual Wigan Diggers festival.
This year is the 200th anniversary of Peterloo, the massacre which took place in St Peter’s Field, Manchester. The fourth track in the collection, originally a poem written by Rochdale dialect poet Harvey Kershaw, is a blow by blow account of what happened on that day. 60,000 workers from all over the region marched to Manchester to listen to speeches and peacefully demonstrate amidst widespread hunger and deprivation. What followed was a brutal dispersal by armed cavalry, with fifteen people killed and over five hundred injured. The song provides an important record of a shameful day in our country’s history- UNISON North West will march on 18 August in memory of those who lost their lives at Peterloo.
Next up, The Handloom Weaver’s Lament sheds light on the period which produced the Luddite movement. Being described as a Luddite nowadays is usually meant as an insult, insinuating that you are unwilling to move with the times. This is an inaccurate depiction of the original Luddite movement though, who were actually protesting against the attacks upon their working standards which came as a result of the mechanisation of the cotton weaving industry. There are major parallels with the challenges facing workers in 2019 as we struggle with reductions in standards of living in the age of automation and artificial intelligence.
Last week, I was moved by the courage and unity of striking Compass staff at the picket lines outside Whiston Hospital. As they stood together and sung in full voice, I was reminded of So We All Came Out On Strike, the tale of “The Singing Strikers”. This track tells the story of 600 women who had no prior experience of trade union activity but won their 1928 dispute in just 12 weeks- during this struggle they kept their spirits up by singing. Fingers crossed our very own singing strikers in Whiston will win their dispute within 12 weeks!
In more recent history, Parkside Occupation is about the iconic 1993 Lancashire Women Against Pit Closures campaign. 25 pits were to be closed, one of which was Parkside Colliery in Newton-le-Willows which was occupied by protesters until August 1994. This song conjures images for me of our own Wigan, Wrightington and Leigh members’ victorious dispute, which meant that their jobs remained within the NHS. Last year, as a celebration of their success, we took the strikers on a UNISON NW trip to see Maxine Peake’s excellent Queens of the Coal Age production which documented the principled occupation of Parkside pit.
The final song on the CD is The Ballad of Accounting which was suggested for inclusion by UNISON North West regional secretary Kevan Nelson, who believes that the song perfectly encapsulates Rodney Bickerstaffe’s politics and mind-set. What a fitting way to finish a collection of songs which are dedicated to Rodney and which are testament to the strength through struggle our movement has demonstrated across centuries.
Copies of Arise Ye Starveilings are available upon request via the comms mailbox. You can find more of Jennifer’s music at http://jenniferreid.weebly.com/