Sunday 25 February 2018

Classics and Strike Action Ancient and Modern

Rameses III: forced to negotiate
Should a classics prof. publish her blog when going on strike? Why not? Blogging is not an activity I am contracted to do. It will have no effect on the speed at which my employers do or do not decide, finally, to return to the negotiation table. So in honour of my striking colleagues and our wonderful student supporters across the nation, here’s my potted retrospect of the relationship between ancient world studies and strikes.

The 'Turin Strike Papyrus'
The first known strikers were the Deir El-Medina artisans who worked in the Egyptian Valley of the Kings in the twelfth century BCE. Unpaid for six months, they laid down their tools and occupied a royal mortuary temple.  A record of their (ultimately successful! Yay!) strike survives on a papyrus in Turin’s Museo Egizio. This what the strikers said to the bureaucrats in charge of them: ‘The prospect of hunger and thirst has driven us to this; there is no clothing, there is no fish, there are no vegetables. Send to Pharaoh, our good lord, about it, and send to the vizier, our superior, that we may be supplied with provisions.’

The 494 BCE Secession of the Plebs
In ancient Rome, the procedure called the secessio plebis was invented in 494 BCE, when the plebeians underlined their objections to the ludicrous debt laws which the patricians refused to reform by organising a sit-in on the Mons Sacer (Sacred Mountain) just outside Rome. Also successful, the plebs won representation in the new office of the Tribune of the Plebs. H.G. Wells, an advocate of equality and human rights, wrote in 1920 of 494 BCE, ‘the plebeians seem to have invented the strike, which now makes its first appearance in history.’[1]

One of the landmark strikes in British Labour History was organised by the London dock workers in 1889. It resulted in pay concessions and the recognition of trade unions as a political force to be reckoned with. A peaceful approach to protests, especially carnivalesque processions, successfully engaged public sympathies. Dockers dressed up as figures from classical mythology—Neptune, a helmeted warrior she-god, and Hercules, a hero with whom dock workers,  as sellers of their own muscle power, often identified.
Liverpool Dockers=Hercules strangling Capitalism

Jump forwards to 1890, and the cartoon published in Punch to comment on a year of industrial unrest in Bristol.  Mr Punch takes Chronos on a tour of the planets. Saturn says that a new Titanomachy—fight between Zeus/Jove and the Titans—is taking place. Jove is Capital, sitting on the ramparts of Privilege, and ‘bastioned by big bags of bullion.’ He wants to treat all the Titans as his servants. But Labour-Briareus,  a son of Gaia and Uranus with a hundred hands, is not letting Jove/Capital get off lightly: ‘But look at the huge Hundred-Handed One, armed with the scythe and the sickle, / The hammer, the spade, and the pick!’ However many hands Capital may succeed in removing, the Labour movement can sprout more.
Workers as Briareus

The leader of a Roman slave revolt was the chosen hero of the great novels of ‘Red Clydeside’, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Spartacus (1933). The way the narrative is framed made it impossible for readers not to draw parallels between Crassus’ army and the British Ruling Class during the Great Depression.
Spartacus in Clydeside Activism

And in 1980,Triton was imagined as working-class leader by an anarchist group in London. They used this still from Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963) to protest against the threat that containerization posed to traditional dock-workers’ jobs. The fish-tailed god no longer parts the clashing cliffs for the Argonauts to pass through unharmed, but instead represents the power of the self-organised and unified dockers.

The predicted cold weather suggests that I won’t want to dress up as a sea-god, snake-strangler or gladiator on the picket line tomorrow in defence of reasonable pensions for university teachers in old age. But I do know that the classical image which has most inspired me personally is Aesop’s fable of the twig bundle, which often appeared on early Trade Union banners.

The fable said that a father, worn out by the quarrels between his sons, asked them each in turn to break a tightly bound bundle of twigs. Each son failed. Then he asked them to break a single twig, a feat which they easily accomplished, because strength lies in unity. So the fable was integrated into the banners of several unions, for example the 1898 banner of the Watford branches of the Worker’s Union and the Ashton & Haydon miners’ union. I knew all the research I did with Dr Henry Stead for our Classics & Class project would come in useful one day!

My preferred placard would reproduce this illustration—complete with the red pileus cap of the ancient freedman and modern revolutionary--from the beautiful Baby’s Own Aesop by socialist artist Walter Crane: striking colleagues, UNITY IS STRENGTH!! 

[1]  H.G. Wells, Outline Of History, page 225

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