East London saw Britain’s first big, united strike against Tory cuts last week.
Some 5,000 council workers and teachers walked out together across Tower Hamlets.
The Unison and NUT union members formed joint picket lines on Wednesday of last week. Then, later that morning, some 1,500 strikers marched through the borough.
The coordinated action between the two unions hit the council hard. Most schools shut down for the day.
Graham Eddy, Tower Hamlets Unison assistant branch secretary, spoke to Socialist Worker on the picket line outside the town hall.
“We’ve come together in a joint strike with the NUT—so they can’t say they’ll cut the support staff and save some teachers,” he said. “We’re unifying to say ‘no’.”
Workers on the 30-strong picket line at Phoenix School on Bow Road blew whistles and held up signs for drivers who honked loudly in support.
Mohammed, a learning support worker in Unison, told Socialist Worker, “This is about us all being together. There are people here who might not have jobs tomorrow. This school is part of the community.”
Bin workers refused to cross the picket line at the nearby Central Foundation Girls School as Unison and NUT members stood together.
Sheila McGregor, an NUT rep at the school, told Socialist Worker, “Nationally unions have been too slow to call action, but the TUC demonstration last Saturday was a brilliant start.
“Today wasn’t all easy—we managed to build the strike at the base of the union. Local activists fought for the ballots.
“If this can happen in Tower Hamlets it can happen anywhere. This is part of action to stop the cuts together.”
Unison member Cathy was picketing the council’s car park. “Today and the massive turnout on 26 March shows what people think,” she said.
“This is about defending public services.”
The workers in Tower Hamlets were also boosted by striking on the same day as other NUT members in nearby Camden (see below).
Students came out onto picket lines to support their teachers. At Morpeth School in Bethnal Green, one student chained himself to the gates to help close the school.
Year 11 students who had exams scheduled that day dropped a banner showing their support for the teachers.
The action was against 500 job cuts that will hit everything from social services to schools and youth workers.
The march set off from Bethnal Green, through the rich and poor parts of the borough that sit close together, on its way to a rally in Whitechapel.
As the strikers passed council estates, people leaned out of their windows clapping and cheering.
And when the march past Barclays bank, protesters chanted, “Barclays bank pays no tax, Tower Hamlets gets the axe” and “1, 2, 3, 4, cut the rich, not the poor”.
Tower Hamlets has the highest rate of child poverty in London—yet dozens of huge banks are based there.
As Graham Eddy pointed out, “There is an alternative: tax the bankers over at Canary Wharf—make them pay.”
Sobia, a parent, also joined the march. “I think it’s my duty to come here,” she said. “They are spending so much money on war—in Afghanistan and Libya—but depriving me and my kids of basics like schools and hospitals.”
After the march it was standing room only as strikers and supporters crammed into a rally at the London Muslim Centre.
“You are an absolute inspiration,” Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, told the strikers. “We want this fight everywhere.” He pointed to the possibility of joint action over pensions.
“The PCS is already in discussions with the NUT and UCU to plan now for a joint strike that, if members vote for it, will see us have close on a million people on strike before the summer,” he said.
“My appeal to every other public sector union is this—it should be all of us.”
He got a standing ovation, and the crowd chanted “general strike, general strike”.
The strikes laid the groundwork for united action in the future—they should be a model for resistance nationally.
John McLoughlin, Tower Hamlets Unison branch secretary, told the crowd about how they’d got there: “In Tower Hamlets we sat down last September and said we’ll work together to get coordinated strikes. It was a gamble—but
I am bowled over by you today.
“That tells me everything I need to know—where people are given a lead, they will stand up and fight.
“It’s a simple message—together we are much stronger. We have set a marker that the future is bringing our unions together to strike together.”