Old fashioned values

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"The affairs of the world are ordered in accordance with orthodox opinions. Owen saw that in the world a small class of people were possessed of a great abundance.

"He saw also that a large number lived lives of semi-starvation from the cradle to the grave, while a yet smaller but still very great number actually died of hunger.

"Seeing all this, he thought that it was wrong, that the system, which had produced such results, was rotten and should be altered. And he sought out and eagerly read the writings of those who thought they knew how it might be done.

"It was because he was in the habit of speaking of these subjects that his fellow workmen came to the conclusion that there was probably something wrong with his mind."

This quote comes from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell.

Tressell, whose real name was Robert Noonan, was a house painter who lived in Hastings. He died in the Liverpool Royal Infirmary in 1911.

His book was published in 1914 - after his death. It is regarded as a classic in the labour movement canon. While a difficult book to read at times, its value as a piece of fiction is that it told a great truth about the attitude of working people to their plight during the early part of the 20th century.

Almost 100 years on, the words of Tressell still resonate today in our digital age, so much so that it is a marvel to behold. Our 24/7 globalised world would no doubt befuddle Noonan should he be transported to modern day Britain. So much of modern technology is taken for granted. Yet in the space of 100 years we have seen man-made flight developed through to putting a man on the moon.

Often when we talk about the past we think of 100 years as a long time ago. In a personal sense this is true, but in terms of human history it is a relatively short period.

Yet we are apt to forget that so much has happened in the last 100 years. It is not just the technological changes that have done so much to change our world. But the idea that the common people have a right to determine their own future is relatively new.

The universal franchise will be 100 years old in 2030. It will be the anniversary of when women and men over the age of 21 were given the vote.

This had to be fought for by women and men who were probably being told that what they were doing couldn't be done, or that they were bad or mad.

So it is today, despite all the improvements and marvels of technology, we see in newspapers, television and radio - the clever clogs telling workers they are failing to modernise or being old fashioned if they try to see things in a different light.

Witness the recent strikes by postal workers.

If there is one enduring theme by all the commentators, it is that postal workers are wrong and the bosses are right. With one or two notable exceptions the media has been hostile to the CWU or championed the case of management. Yet despite this, CWU members returned a massive yes vote for strike action - 77.15 percent on a 68 percent turnout - an absolute majority.

A large part of the successful ballot was that the ferociousness of the attack on our members' conditions was massive. Our communications have vastly improved, and the leadership has been resolute.

All these factors played their part. However, it is my belief that our activists who put forward the union's case day in day out achieved a large part of the success-answering arguments put forward by managers and the media.

I bet that some of the best organised workplaces, where members are the strongest, would be the places where the modern day "Owens" are making their case for a better future, not just for postal workers but for all workers.

It's not called a struggle for nothing.


Billy Hayes is the general secretary of the CWU, the communication workers' union. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is available from Bookmarks bookshop.