Thousands of trade unionists, students and campaigners filled the streets of central Birmingham last Sunday, defying pouring rain to join the Right to Work march on the Tory party conference.
The march caught the mood of growing anger at the Tories’ plans to launch the biggest onslaught on the welfare state and workers’ livelihoods in living memory. And it fed the determination to launch a fightback on a scale to match.
Around 7,000 people marched, with many coming in impressive workplace delegations.
A large contingent of postal workers marched with their CWU union banners and groups of Unison members from as far apart as Portsmouth and Dundee joined the march.
They mingled with numerous trades council banners and delegations from the PCS, the GMB, the NUJ and a wide range of other unions.
Large groups of students, whose new term is just beginning, added to the lively atmosphere, chanting “Tory scum—out of Brum!” at passing Tory conference delegates.
Disability rights campaigners and claimants’ groups marched against the Tories’ plans to savage housing benefit and throw hundreds of thousands off incapacity benefit. Sunday’s march must be a launchpad for pulling in bigger forces for the battles ahead.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, told marchers, “There are some at the TUC who say we can’t have a demo as nobody will come. But if thousands of people will come to Birmingham, on a Sunday, in the rain, how many thousands could the TUC get if it mobilised?
“Strikes are inevitable. We are stronger if we get together. Striking together will not just happen on its own.”
The march showed the potential for strong anti-cuts resistance, and for the coordinated strike action that the TUC recently backed. It also gave a glimpse of the pressure needed to get a general strike.
The demonstration was addressed by Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, the presidents of the UCU and NUJ unions, the vice-president of the CWU, a Green Party representative, and Birmingham Respect councillor Salma Yaqoob. Speakers from Greece and Portugal spoke of the battle against austerity and cuts across Europe.
Seven national unions and the National Union of Students backed the march. Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, sent a message of support.
Tony Anthrobus, joint branch secretary for the Unite union at King’s College Hospital (KCH) in London, summed up the mood of many on the march when he told Socialist Worker, “We have millionaires running the country. The Tories are all about making the poor poorer.
“But during the election they covered up what they planned to do.
“At KCH we’ve seen cuts in pay, changes to conditions and a spate of allegations of bullying and harassment.
“Plans for more cuts and privatisation in the NHS are a disaster waiting to happen.
“All the action we’re taking should be coordinated. We shouldn’t have one organisation doing one thing and others doing something else.
“On our coach we’ve got teachers, hospital workers, care workers—all going to Birmingham together against the Tories. This is how it should be.”
“We organised a 1,000-strong demonstration at work recently over the attacks we face, and we’re here to show our support for everyone facing cuts and job losses. Forty people from the site have come today.
“We may need to take industrial action to build on the protest.”
Matt Jones, Unite rep, MoD, Donnington
Council workers from Birmingham and Sheffield joined the protest. Both councils have threatened thousands of workers with the sack if they don’t accept massive pay cuts and attacks on conditions.
Caroline Johnson, Unison assistant branch secretary at Birmingham council, told Socialist Worker the march was important for the city.
She said, “A care assistant said to me today, ‘this is so amazing, look at the power we have got!’
“The mood is for fighting—every workplace meeting I’ve done has voted unanimously for a strike ballot.”
Roger Jenkins, the GMB union officer responsible for Birmingham council, added, “People are saying ‘if my job’s going, I’m not going without a fight’.”
A similar process is taking place in Sheffield.
“Most workers are finding out about it through the newspaper,” said Michelle, a Sheffield council Unison member.
“We are holding mass meetings and are building an anti-cuts campaign across Sheffield. And if management don’t back down we will have to ballot for strikes.”
“I’m here today to make sure that there is a voice for young trade union members—we need to mobilise more through events like this.
“Even with the rain beating down, so many people are marching. It restores your faith in our movement and our ability to fight back.”
Abi Quinsey, young members’ officer for Birmingham council Unison
Coaches of students arrived from around the country. One contingent of 50 marched behind the Manchester university banner.
Manchester student Jamie explained to Socialist Worker that
the Combined Studies department closed at the end of the last academic year.
“That means students can no longer study courses like History and English or French and Politics.”
“The university authorities have already said they aim to ‘find’ another £9 million cut this year,” he added.
Kieran came from Westminster Kingsway College in London. He told Socialist Worker, “I’m not happy to be pushed into debt.
“But I’m not just angry about cuts to students—it’s also attacks on benefits and services.”
Civil service workers
“In Birmingham we are losing 200 job centre jobs, and there are attacks on our redundancies and pensions.
“Demos like today are important because they give us confidence.Nobody wants to strike but we may have no choice. It should be coordinated—and we should stand in solidarity with one another. And we need to unite with young people and pensioners too, not just trade unionists.”
PCS workers in Birmingham
“We need to fight. There’s around £123 billion of tax evaded and avoided by the rich every year. But instead of recruiting more workers to collect it, the government is cutting these workers.”
Charlotte Wiltshire, PCS South Wales
Connexions youth advice services (pictured above on the demo) were hit in the first wave of Tory cuts shortly after the general election.
“We deal with young unemployed people and any loss of our jobs will have a knock on effect on the service we offer them,” Naj Iman, a Unison steward at Connexions in Birmingham, told Socialist Worker. “They will become a lost generation.”
John Griffin, Connexions section convenor for Unison, added, “By March 2011 we could be gone altogether. But we are going to fight.
“We have launched a campaign. So far we have held two mass leafleting days and got 3,000 signatures on our petition, but we are also going to hold a ballot for a strike.”
Disability rights campaigner Linda Burnip said, “Cameron and Osborne say living on benefits is a lifestyle choice—but disabled people know different.”
Theresa Rayner, from the Disabled Activists Network, added, “Some people have committed suicide because their benefits are under attack. Without decent benefits, disabled people can’t take part in society. The Tories are attacking the most vulnerable.”
Around 100 post workers in the CWU union came to the demonstration.
Angie Mulcahy, the area processing rep from the threatened Bow Locks mail centre in east London, told Socialist Worker, “Management are trying to create a climate of panic and fear among postal workers.
“In London they want to close two mail centres. But we are planning a fightback—and it starts with this demo.
“The cuts will affect everyone. The CWU should support workers fighting back, and we expect the same solidarity in return.”
The marchers heard a rally before they set off to take on the Tories.
Left wing Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn told the rally, “This is the time to mobilise, organise and defend the welfare state.”
And Labour MP John McDonnell added to cheers, “I’ve got a warning for the Tories—if you come for us, we will come for you.”
Salma Yaqoob, the leader of the Respect party and a councillor in Birmingham, said “We have extremists in our midst, extremists who want to destroy our British way of life. They want to take our jobs and our homes. I’m talking about the Tories!
“We have to tell them, ‘no, you will not get away with it’”, she added.
Chris Bambery from the Right to Work campaign said, “If in Greece, if in France, if in Spain they can have a general strike against cuts and austerity, then we can have a general strike here in Britain.”
Right to Work chair Paul Brandon added, “The resistance is starting now.”
“I drive a dustcart. The Tories’ cuts will mean job losses, worse services and a poorer education for my kids.
“We need a national strike, for at least one day. Let’s bring the country to a standstill, both public and private sector.
“We need to show the Tories that working people will stand together.”
Chris Price, GMB branch secretary, Bath & North East Somerset council
Labour Party members also joined the demonstration.
“I’m here to show solidarity, especially from the Labour Party,” Stuart Newbold, a Labour and Co-operative councillor in Cambridge, told Socialist Worker.
“I don’t want to see working people being made to pay for the crisis. You can’t shrink your way out of the debt.
“I’m enthusiastic about Ed Miliband—I couldn’t have stood another bout of New Labour. I feel relieved.”
Cath Collins, a Unison union member working in the NHS, said, “I joined the Labour Party after the Tories got in. I voted for Ed Miliband. I don’t know why he’s so scared of being called Red Ed as I think underneath he’s more left.
“He tried to please everyone in his leader’s speech. I liked some of it but when he attacked strikes I thought, you were elected with union votes.
“I think we’ll need more demonstrations—people need to stand up, not do as they’re told.”
Mike Adamson is the branch secretary of Hull city Unison and a member of the Labour Party. He said, “What I’m most worried about is a return to the 1980s.
“We brought a coach from Hull, a coalition of different people—Labour, Connaught workers, all sorts of people. That’s what we need to beat the cuts.”
For our online coverage of the protest from the day go to Right to Work protest at the Tory Party conference as it happens
Why we don’t need cuts—and how to fight
Published by Right to Work.
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