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Llanelli: The spirit of 1911

On 15 August, comrades from Swansea, Merthyr, Runcorn and Bristol attended the annual commemoration of the part played by Llanelli workers in the rail strike of 1911.

This national strike raged with particular ferocity in Liverpool, where two workers were shot dead by the military, and in Llanelli, where two workers were likewise shot and another four perished in the subsequent struggle against the police and army.

All 500 of Llanelli’s railmen came out in support of the strike, and an estimated total of about 5,000 workers were involved in the occupation of both the town’s level crossings, bringing all rail transport to a halt.

Our party has supported the commemoration of this event every year since the centenary in 2011, recognising it as a milestone in the history of the British working class.

After the hundred or so participants had marched from the railway station to the town centre, we paused for a rally before climbing the hill to Box Cemetery, where our party comrades took their turn to lay flowers in memory of the workers slain by the army. The socialist choir Cor Cochion sang the International in Welsh.

A number of speeches were made at the rally, with the need for unity a strong common theme, but with differing notions of how this unity is to be forged.

Least appropriate for the occasion was the contribution from the Labour MP for Llanelli, whose feeble excuses for having abstained from the vote against austerity cuts drew some well-deserved barracking. One local shouted that the Labour party had had dominance in Llanelli for over 90 years and they had done very little for the town.

In truth, her eulogy for class compromise could hardly have been less in keeping with the true spirit of 1911 – a spirit of courage, solidarity and revolt.

Our own party’s speaker brought greetings to those gathered from the CPGB-ML, and then continued:

“We meet here today to commemorate the part played by the working class of Llanelli in the national rail strike of 1911, and to mourn the deaths of comrades Leonard Worsell and John John.

“The army acted in panic on that day, driven into frenzy by the success with which Llanelli railway station was shut down and occupied by the workers, who were acting in solidarity with railway workers all over Britain.

“This display of the collective strength of the working class – not only by rail workers but also by tin-plate workers and others – should remind us all that, given the right leadership, workers have the power to shut down capitalism for good. We just need to use it.

“With its Trade Union Bill, the government plans to criminalise any meaningful exercise of the right to strike. For public-service workers, no strike ballot will succeed unless at least 40 percent of the total electorate vote to strike.

“To put this in context, the recent Tory victory at the polls, heralded by the media as a ‘landslide’, was voted for by just 22 percent of the electorate.

“If a strike ballot survives all the obstacles thrown in its path by the new bill, other rules are planned that will conspire to remove the sting from industrial action.

“Two weeks notice of a strike will have to be given – to give the employer ample time to hire in agency workers to break the strike. When it comes to picketing, a member of the union will have to make himself known to the police and be available to them at all times. That person will then be accountable for the way the picket conducts itself.

“It is not hard to see what this will mean in practice, when even the most polite effort to dissuade workers from crossing the picket line can be interpreted as ‘intimidation’. To cap it all, supposed infractions of picketing rules will no longer be treated as civil offences, but as criminal offences.

“Capitalism is in the midst of an overproduction crisis which will be deeper than both of those which resulted in the two great wars of the last century. That is why imperialism is imposing crushing austerity at home and generating criminal wars abroad.

‘And that is why the right to strike, the right to resist against the imposition of austerity, the right to resist against warmongering, will increasingly be criminalised.

“Repressive moves against asylum seekers, so-called ‘benefit scroungers’ and disaffected youth are preparing the way for repressive moves against anyone who says NO to austerity, NO to fascism and NO to war.

“That is why, as well as remembering the fallen comrades John John and Leonard Worsell, we also remember Private Harold Spiers, who, when ordered to turn his weapon on his fellow workers, threw down his gun, preferring to face court martial sooner than commit a crime against humanity.

“Since the Nuremberg Tribunal that followed WW2, it has been established that ‘just following orders’ is no defence. It is time for the organised working class to stop following unjust orders and unjust laws.

“It is time for the unions to organise a movement of non-cooperation with warmongering, non-cooperation with austerity, non-cooperation with capitalism.

“Long live the spirit of 1911!”

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