The ‘low-skilled’ workforce saved us before. They will do so again.

Gas Workers and General Labourers Union

Badge from Gas Workers and General Labourers Union in TUC Library’s badge collection

Our guest blogger is Edda Nicolson, PhD Researcher in Labour and Social History at University of Wolverhampton

On the afternoon of the 13th June 1938, Sir Walter Citrine of the Trade Union Congress held a meeting with several notable characters of the labour movement. None of them were younger than 75; all of them had seen just how quickly the world can change through the resilience and determination of the ‘low-skilled’ workforce. From starting their working lives as young as six years old, they played key roles in growing the labour movement that provided us with the working environments that we rely on today: weekends, paid holidays, safety equipment and fair wages.

Once again, it is our workforce rather than our political leaders that are striding towards this challenge and showing resilience, ingenuity and solidarity. This observation does not negate the need for leadership during crisis, but simply seeks to consider who we think of as world-changing heroes. 1938 was a good time to pause for reflection: in three decades Britain had seen its first global war, a flu pandemic, mass unemployment and a return to slum-level deprivation that had been punctuated by episodes of industrial unrest. With Hitler having annexed Austria only a couple of months before this meeting, what new challenges were they about to face?

Portrait of Ben Tillett 1889

The present-day social media commentary on the Covid-19 crisis has been punctuated by repeated observations that our present-day heroes are our so-called ‘unskilled’ workers. Despite overwhelming evidence that workers in low-paid roles are integral to the economy, a yearly earnings floor for migrants coming to the UK of just £20,480 has been suggested by the Home Secretary. This has served to alienate a large sector of our valuable workforce in sectors from construction to nursing and given rise to questions about which roles we value, and why.

Looking back to those sept- and octogenarians gathered around a table in 1938, I cannot see anyone who would have made today’s threshold when they started their working lives. Nevertheless, they played integral roles in creating what it means to have a job in the UK. Ben Tillett, leader of the 1889 London Dock strike, told his friends that afternoon of the time he was ordered to scoop the flattened remains of his colleague out of the way following a fatal accident, before having to get on with his task of loading cargo onto a ship. Will Thorne, then an MP for Plaistow but formally the general secretary of the Gas Workers union, spoke of being unable to read even at the time of his marriage as a young man.

Their frustration at these dangerous and hopeless working conditions spurred them on to seek a new way of living and working that benefited society as a whole. Their fight brought us the weekend, the idea of universal education and the concept of a minimum wage. Today’s low skilled workers, those currently stacking our depleted shelves, caring for our vulnerable elderly and those nursing our most desperately ill, have much in common with those men that reminisced on their achievements in 1938. It seems that we now have an opportunity once more to look towards our vital workforce as the heroes that are going to once again change the world.


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