Yeovil TUC: Opposing cuts, organising solidarity

First, a bit of local South Somersetworking-class history. George Mitchell (1826-1901) was a hero of trade unionism in the 19th century, when most rural workers had no vote and lived under appalling conditions. Born in Montacute, into extreme poverty, he worked initially as a farm labourer before getting a job on Ham Hill in the quarry. In Frome, he became qualified as a stonemason. Moving toLondon, he became rich through his stonemason’s business. He decided to use his wealth to return to Somerset to improve the lot of agricultural workers and their families by building the National Agricultural Labourers’Union. George organised open-air mass meetings, starting in Montacute where about 1,000 people gathered and resolved to set up a branch of the union. This was followed by mass meetings in Chard, Yeovil and elsewhere. To emphasise his humble beginnings, he called himself “One from the Plough”.

Some of his biggest meetings, attracting as many as 20,000 men, women and children, were held on Ham Hill. One such meeting, in 1875, passed a resolution, proposed by George, demanding votes for all adults. Another resolution demanded “a school board in every parish” – meaning universal primary education. You can read all about George in a fine book by local writer Brendon Owen. It is called-of course- One from the Plough and is sold only at Montacute post office!

We believe that the present dire situation requires a revival of such mass action, demanding economic justice. If our forebears could do it without phones, emails or Facebook, what is stopping us? Only lack of confidence in ourselves and each other.

The main functions of our local trades union council are to organise solidarity with workers who are in dispute with their employer, to exchange information, and to represent the trade union movement in the local community. Currently our main concern is to oppose the cuts in public services, pensions and state benefits. You may remember that we initiated a Town Meeting on the subject in February. Currently, the Somerset County Council branch of UNISON is urging its members to wear black wristbands in memory of the Somersetthat we believe is being destroyed. Council leader Ken Maddock wants to turn the County Council into a mere commissioning body, employing only a fraction of its former staff and getting almost all of its much reduced services done by private profit-seeking contractors. We appeal to anyone who wants to join us in campaigning against the cuts to contact us via our website

The closure of public libraries is being challenged in the High Court. The County Council wants to close the small library inSunningdale Road. One of our members has set up a Facebook page called “Save Sunningdale Library in Yeovil”. Why not join? Every little helps!

At our May Day celebration this year, one of the speakers was an 18-year-old student who had taken part in the student demonstrations against the rise in tuition fees. He told the meeting that his whole generation felt a deep sense of having been betrayed, and that they would never forget it.

All state secondary schools in the Yeovil area have now become academies. We think that this is an attack on local democracy. One local head teacher has described the involvement of the County Council in his school as “bureaucracy”, but we call it democracy. This move is the very opposite of the localism that the government claims to believe in. The schools will become more like businesses that have been awarded a government contract, and less like public services. Services previously provided by the County Council will now be provided by private companies driven by the profit motive. That is a backward step for education.

If your pension is being reduced, your housing benefit is being cut, you are losing some of your child benefit or tax credit; if you have lost your Education Maintenance Allowance, your job, your local bus service, or whatever it is, please tell us about your experience. You don’t have to suffer in silence! Use our website or write to the Secretary, Yeovil TUC, at Unity Hall,Central Road,YeovilBA20 1JL.

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