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Introducing Industrial Relations using Thomas the Tank

Posted by James Simms on November 29, 2019


Teaching Hack

Whatever topic I was teaching, trade unions seemed to pop up numerous times across the history teaching curriculum, whether it was in the study of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in Crime and Punishment, or the Nazi consolidation of power.  They might often only get a mention in passing but, broadly speaking, students need to know what they are and how they work.

Trade unions can be traced back to the seventeenth century in British history, and have played a crucial role in history.

Unfortunately, they also have the most boring name that anyone could possibly have thought up.  ‘Trade’ and ‘Union’, two vague and drab concepts that don’t have a whole lot to do with each other and contain absolutely no fun letters - not an X, a K or a Z in sight.  


Trade unions are an interesting concept, but they have a boring sort of a name.


Which is a pity because, whether you’re looking at it from a historical, political, citizenship or general being-a-human-in-the-world point of view, trade unions are really important.    

For a few years, this inevitably meant that I’d periodically end up saying  “...and remember that the trade unions...  Yes, trade unions. Oh. Don’t you? Well...”, diverting my lesson off back into the medieval guilds, the nineteenth-century matchstick girl movement and some desultory political debate, running over the end-of-lesson bell and then having to recap it next lesson anyway.  Because, regardless of cultural significance, the term ‘Trade Union’ is too boring to hold in the adolescent mind overnight. 
Then I hit on a ten-minute starter activity that gripped any class, stayed with them for the duration of the course and worked for all years, from Y7 to Y12. This may or may not have been a lucky break based on the fact that my son was two at the time.  
What is this magic formula?  It’s there at the top of the post.  Watch it now.  Without the credits it’s four minutes and 40 seconds of your life. 
Then watch it with your class (they will like it, even if they pretend not to).  And then discuss it.  
If you want to keep it simple:
Trade Union:  Henry, James and Gordon
Employer:  The Fat Controller/ Sir Topham Hat
Strike:  ‘Henry is sulking, there’s no train’
Dispute:  ‘Tender Engines Don’t Shunt!’ (working conditions)
Impact:  ‘There’s no train and the passengers are saying this is a bad railway’ 
The episode also deals with strike-breakers (Percy, Thomas and Edward) and lock-outs (‘Gordon, James and Henry were cold, lonely and miserable. They wished now they hadn’t been so silly’) The passengers, by the way, don’t mind because they know that the three other engines were having a lesson.  

The Fat Controller effects a lockout in the episode, leaving strikers Gordon, James and Henry 'cold, lonely and miserable'
Try to use the Ringo Starr version, if you can, because in it Edward, suffering from workplace intimidation by the strikers, is told that he has ‘black wheels’ - a play on the term ‘black-leg’, a derogatory term for strike-breakers.  In later versions this has been edited to ‘grey wheels’, I assume for good and heart-felt reasons, but the cultural significance gets lost and there’s an interesting discussion to be had there too.  

Middle-class volunteers were used to undermine the 1926 UK General Strike.  Awdry's 'Troublesome Engines' was published in 1951


An important issue to flag up here - and it is important - is that the Reverend Awdry’s political opinion of strikes and strikers shows through this story in a big way.  There are goodies and baddies, and, in the interest of being completely objective and politically neutral (ofcourse ofcourse) this needs pointing out.  
This can lead to some interesting discussions as well, however.  What are the different ways in which people might view strike action? Are there any circumstances in which Henry, James and Gordon’s actions would be justifiable?  How long can the passengers be expected to bear with the situation without using another railway?  Where should Edward’s loyalties lie, given that he doesn’t get paid
If you want to get really philosophical about it, is it fair that the engines owe their existence to, and are purely defined by, their role on the railway? Could the same be said of workers? Do we all just want to be ‘Really Useful Engines’?  
So there’s a lot of potential to really get under the skin of industrial relations, if you want to, or else you can stick to using it as a quick metaphor that will stick with your students and provides an easy point of reference every time the term ‘trade union’ pops up.
And the students that scoff the loudest?  Those are inevitably the ones that ask to watch it again next lesson.