Labour must win the next General Election says Unite's leading rural campaigner, Ivan Monckton
Unite’s Ivan Monckton has been an agricultural workers champion since the 1970s. Today, he has a better relationship with many farmers, some of whom hated him so much that they’d cross the road to avoid him. The improved bond is though only because there are far fewer farm workers than when the freelance countryside contractor started taking on the role of being the Voice for the Voiceless.
Although he is unpaid for his untiring efforts and is now aged 65, Ivan, a big fan of Leslie Smith, the vocal critic of austerity who died aged 95 in November 2018, is determined to remain active well into the future.
Ivan, full of enthusiasm and energy, is also optimistic that a future Labour Government will introduce policies that will create more agricultural workers for him to represent. “I never worried when farmers got upset with me. It meant I was successfully representing workers who could not speak up for themselves because their employment, housing and social standing all depended on not falling out with the famers, who thankfully I have never relied on for work.”
Ivan, who has a well stocked library of rural social history books, recognises how having such independence has been crucial role in the development and sustainability of agricultural trade unionism. “Joseph Arch owned his own home and his skills as a hedge layer meant he could always find work, George Edwards was a small holder and the Higdons at Burston were teachers. I am following the same tradition.”
Born in a terraced house in Wolverhampton, his parents harboured hopes of him going to University but on a North Wales camping trip he visited a Forestry Commission (FC) exhibition. When he returned to England he wrote and got a job in 1974 with the organisation at Presteigne in Powys, close to the English border.
Ivan, who comes from a family with a trade union tradition, twice unsuccessfully sent off his form to join the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). He then suffered a serious accident that left him incapacitated for over a year. Recognising their own mistake, the TGWU represented Ivan and he obtained £2,200 compensation. “It was a great example of the vital insurance role that unions play and why every worker should be in one. Forestry work can be very dangerous and it certainly was in the 1970s.”
On his return to work, Ivan stood for election as shop steward and won. He quickly realised, “I have a certain gift for the gab. I can argue a good case and bulls**t a bad one. I can generally get by at any meeting and get something for the people I represent.”
Ivan’s union involvement was deepened when he was elected onto the TGWU District Committee and began representing Welsh workers on the national committee for agricultural and allied workers. He has subsequently been on virtually every committee within the TGWU/UNITE including the national executive council, which he served on from 1984 until 2017.
At the FC, Ivan, who rejected opportunities to take a management role, became part of the TGWU wages negotiating team but he departed his post when he became seriously unwell with rheumatoid arthritis and was not expected to make a recovery. Happily he later successfully experimented with alternative forms of medicine. “I was back working as freelancer for the FC within a year of leaving, which had been cushioned because the TGWU had negotiated a small lump sum and I had a pension. It was another example of why being in a union is essential.”
As a countryside contractor since the 1980s, Ivan, who lives with his partner in a remote cottage at the end of a long muddy road outside Evenjobb, near Old Radnor, has built numerous small bridges and paths, erected thousands of signs and hung many gates and fences. “Most of my work has been with the local council on providing the infrastructure for rights of way. For many years I did every single piece of work, some of which was exhausting, on around 50 miles of OFFA’s Dyke, the large earthwork that largely follows the Welsh/English border.”
Recently, Ivan has utilised the skills learnt at the FC to do forestry work that over the winter included woodland management on a local private woodland. Coppicing is a traditional method of exploiting the capacity of many species of trees to put out new shoots from their stump or roots if cut down. In a coppiced wood, young tree stems are repeatedly cut down to near ground level. A coppiced wood is harvested in sections with hazel, which takes around a decade to mature, being eagerly sought after by craft workers. Watching Ivan drag out the tree stems he had used a chain saw to cut down it was clear this is back breaking work. Surely he just now needs after work to go home, rest and put his feet up? As if!
“I remain fully committed to my union work. I have been a branch secretary for over thirty years and I have represented, with varying degrees of success, numerous farm workers in battles to keep their jobs and homes. There has also been struggles for compensation for injured workers. ”
Ivan is the equalities officer within his local branch in North East (NE) Wales and he chairs the Unite NE and Mid Wales area activists committee. He is on the Unite negotiating team for agricultural workers on the Welsh Agricultural Advisory Panel or Wages Board that was established by the Welsh Assembly after the coalition Government scrapped the England and Wales AWB in 2013.
“It was vindictive by the Cameron-Clegg government and was the most shocking political act against the rural working class in my lifetime.
“It was not as if it had proven possible to obtain great wages for agricultural workers. Unite’s prediction that removing the protection that the AWB gave to farmworkers would make things worse in England has proven to be true.
“After I spoke at a conference about why we need an AWB the Welsh Labour ministers listened, then went to the Supreme Court to successfully obtain a legal ruling before establishing a board consisting of two members of UNITE, two members of Welsh farming unions and three independent members. In the second year the seven of us agreed on a substantial 9.85% pay rise. “
During the campaign to elect a new Labour leader in 2015, Ivan spoke at a Jeremy Corbyn support rally in Cardiff. He was delighted when the Chippenham born socialist, whose long running commitment to tacking rural poverty is well known amongst activists such as Ivan, was elected. “Jeremy, who lived in Shropshire as a boy, has been a regular visitor and speaker at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Annual Festival. Much of what he says I agree passionately with. I have been in the Labour Party all through my life. At times I have found the Party leaders have not reflected by beliefs and hopes.”
What would Ivan like to see a future Labour Government do in the countryside? “Jeremy has already committed to restoring the AWB. We need improved public transport as many people don’t have a car. There is plenty of housing going up round here but none is public or is affordable enough to purchase. That needs to change. Planning rules need to be upheld.
“Roving safety reps to prevent the large number of farming tragedies would be good. The £3 billion that currently goes to large landowners from the Common Agricultural Policy could be switched towards creating more jobs on the land. There is plenty that could be done including looking after the trees we have got rather than seeing them bulldozed down when they become diseased.
“Once a General Election is called I will be doing my best to get Labour into power. We need a radical change of direction after the unnecessary austerity that has been imposed on working class people.”