Interview: Under Fire
Politics: And the Winners Are ...
Economics: The Common Wealth
History: Walking for Justice
International: Deja Vu
Legal: The Rights Stuff
Review: That Cinderella Fella
Poetry: Is Howard Kidding?
The Locker Room
Age of Consent
Make Ads Not Law
Nice One, Workers!
Dog Eat Dog
Walking for Justice
. The practice of celebrating the gaining of the eight-hour working day has been at its most exemplary in Australia. Street marches began in the 1860s, even though most workers could only see it as a bit of a pipe dream then.
The workers taking to the streets is the aspect of this that continues strongly. Walking in defiance of the norms of society, in large groups and small is a symbol of long term opposition to rules of private ownership and the rules of those who would seek to keep workers, environmentalists, students, the unemployed, women's groups in their place and keep their concerns out of the public domain.
English and French historians have been the most active in looking at the history of "the crowd" and "social banditry" as they have termed it.
E P Thompson, Peter Linebaugh and George Rude, amongst many others, have looked at the field of crime, not how the police have tried to prevent it, but into the social circumstances that led to it. "Social crime" that receives obvious wide public support as opposed to "crime without qualification". That public support is expressed in the masses gathering outside British gaols, supporting the condemned, helping them escape, and in the case of Newgate, destroying the place. In Australia the popularity of bushrangers is an expression of this. In England the folklore surrounding such highwaymen as Dick Turpin and the escape artist Jack Sheppard was an expression of the disdain for authority and the retention of the idea of popular custom against the rights of private property owners.
To leap suddenly from the 1700s to the 1930s, the right of way of ramblers was another expression of the customary right and the popular reclamation the earth.
Dave Renton dates the revival of the customary right to community access to the action that took place in the Peak District of the UK.
"The trespass movement began on 24 April 1932, when around 600 ramblers walked from Hayfield in Derbyshire to Kinder Scout, a high plateau in the Peak District, roughly halfway between Manchester and Sheffield.
The great issue which motivated the protesters was access. Their area, the Peak District, composed of moorland and mountains, was bad farming land and used mostly to graze sheep or to keep game birds. Kinder Scout itself was used to hold grouse for local landlords. These rich men only rarely went shooting and Kinder Scout was worked only around 12 days a year. The rest of the time the land was deserted, and walkers were not allowed."
The trespassers demanded one simple change: the landowners should open a public path through Kinder Scout, allowing local walkers to ramble through when the land was not in use. But behind this simple demand there were deeper questions. By the 1920s and 1930s most ramblers were working class. With so many unemployed, rambling grew in popularity. Tens of thousands of workers used their Sundays to go walking. By 1932 it is estimated that 15,000 working class ramblers left Manchester every Sunday."
The 20th century expression of the support for social crime is expressed by Renton in the same way the rich felt disgust and fear of the other classes:
"The rich loathed the ragged workers they saw walking on their land, while the ramblers were contemptuous of the pampered aristocrats who claimed to possess the earth."
The British Workers' Sports Federation (BWSF) was largely made up of members and supporters of the Communist Party, which enjoyed significant working class support. Raphael Samuel saw walking as a major component of the socialist lifestyle. Cycling was also a popular socialist activity. The founder of Radio 2KY in Sydney, Emil Voigt, when he was involved with various left wing groups in the UK in the early 1900s, was part of a vegetarian cycling club and of the Clarion Club in Manchester before he came to Australia.
Rebecca Solnit, however, reports that the Association for the protection of Ancient Footpaths was formed near York in 1824, and in 1826 the Manchester Association of the same name was formed. Solnit's book :Wanderlust is more typically American in the approach of the individual to walking, so her own epiphany, if I can use the term, on discovering a history in the UK of a "culture in which trespassing is a mass movement" is illuminating.
E P Thompson in Whigs and Hunters discusses the protests against enclosure and exclusion from such places as Epping Forest in the early 1700s and Solnit notes that the Footpath Preservation Society won the battle for access in the 1880s. Solnit observes that for British people, here over 90% of land is "private property" the people have a deeply held feeling that the land is their heritage and it is not right to exclude them from it. In the US and Australia, the concept of private property is more accepted, but there are also large areas of land that are national parks, crown land reserves etc that are available to all.
Taking back the streets was also a feature of Thompson's best known work, The Making of the English Working Class. Food riots were a particular feature. The image of village people rolling the large wheels of cheese down the streets sticks in my mind. He goes further into these issues in his collection, Customs in Common where he clearly delineates the "moral economy" of the people from the laws the wealthy have devised to rob the people of land, custom and security.
Solnit's take on the history of rambling, rural walking makes the interesting point that some at least of its origins lay in the rise of industrialisation and the increase in town living and working, hence the need to get to the countryside where much beauty was to be seen in the estates of the rich. This is seen by her to shift to a full frontal assault on the notion of private property and privilege. Thompson and others begin from a different perspective where they see the rise of the rural gentry and private property itself as a "theft" of the customary rights of the common people, and the theft of those very commons. The advent of rural walking, in the form of Wordsworth and the poets of the Lakes district and their Jacobinism were an individual expression of walking as pursuit, but the later development of walking clubs and preservation societies to reassert the rights of way, can be seen as collective response in the tradition of the English person's right to their own land. Again Solnit sees the reclaiming of access to these spaces more as an individual benefit, albeit reclaimed by a broader movement. The social historians view is however, that reclaiming the paths, as with reclaiming the streets, is a communal assertion of the rights of all against the rights of the few.
In Australia Aboriginal people held the land in common, so to speak. The land perhaps held them and they needed to safeguard it. The mass theft of that land by invasion did not remove their claim. The walking they did on this land was a part of the land itself and how it was made and managed. The rise of a land rights movement was expressed most strongly by the walking away from European stations and practices, and a reclamation of what was theirs, what was embodied in their very selves. The Gurindji simply said give us our land. They walked off Wave Hill and went to their place.
The landless peasants movements in Brazil are another expression of feet on the street and the highways walking to land claimed as private property by the rich and powerful but denied to those who have nothing. By simply moving on to vacant land they are threatening the mighty and demonstrating the power of the people.
Women "reclaim the night" from their oppressors, denying the power of violence against them by their solidarity against those who seek to keep them in their place.
Cyclists and urban dwellers in various western cities reclaim the streets with parities and blockades. The success of those opposed to the New World Order in Seattle was a success in people taking to the streets against efforts to exclude them. The power of the state has been cranked in to action in more obvious and more dangerous ways against such protests since then.
Does this bring us back to the eight-hour day marches. Unions in Australia have along tradition of claiming the eight-hour day. It is a public holiday still (different days in various states) even if a march is not held everywhere. Brisbane has it as part of May Day, the largest day of celebration of the working classes and anti-systemic movements around the world. In the US a separate Labour Day was established by Congress to divert people from the revolutionary aspects of May Day, but the day has become very significant for the US labour movement for the same reasons, asserting it as a workers day.
The importance of the marches in Australia can be seen in the great efforts put in to producing trade union banners and floats. Surviving photos from the early 20th century, posters dating back to the 1880s and race meetings, sports days, carnivals were organised all over Australia to claim the day as one of leisure and community solidarity.
Union picnic days are also a reflection of this assertion of time for workers to be themselves, with their families and friends.
The Green Bans saw unionists and communities taking to the streets and the chimneys to defend community places, buildings, parks and lives from the claims of private property. The late, wonderful Denis Kevans, in his wonderful marching song The Green Ban Fusiliers captured the feet on the street marching for us all:
Up Broadway to the MBA come the Green Ban Fusiliers.
They stole the street with their marching feet, placards high above their ears.
In Sydney town they would not lie down, they gave Martin 's scabs some cheer,
And it 's up Broadway to the MBA come the Green Ban Fusiliers.
The actions of stonemasons in Sydney on 2nd October 1855 in walking off two building sites together and celebrating in a diner the same night are an indication of the power of joint action and the sense of solidarity and strength that it brings.
Workers and their families have their brains and their bodies. They can use these to reclaim the streets and the commons the world over.
The street, the public paths, the land are what we hold in common. The eight-day marches, protest meetings, stop works and other union actions re expressions of this solidarity and sense of community that resonate with a long tradition of common people acting for the common good.
Peter Linebaugh (2003) The London Hanged: Crime and civil society in the eighteenth century (London: Verso) 2nd edition
E P Thompson. The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin, 1968)
Rebecca Solnit (2000) Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Penguin). Particularly chapter 10
Dave Renton, Peak District 24th April 1932 (Red Letter Days) Issue 229 of Socialist Review Published April 1999 http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/sr229/renton.htm
Pamphlet on 100th Anniversary of the eight hour movement. Sydney 1955.
Jo„o Pedro Stedile, (2002) Landless Battalions: The Sem Terra Movement of Brazil in New Left Review 15, May-June http://www.newleftreview.net/NLR24904.shtml
Frank Hardy 1978. The Unlucky Australians (Sydney: Pan, (first published by Thomas Nelson 1968) was the first detailed look at the Gurindji.
Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly in the song From Little Things Big Things Grow present the shortest and most powerful history of the walk off however.
Mark Gregory has The Green Ban Fusiliers on his terrific union songs site: http://unionsong.com/muse/unionsong/u041.html
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