Socialist Worker

I disobeyed order to break a strike

Issue No. 1828

I HAVE been watching the troops running Green Goddesses during the firefighters' strike. I used to be a squaddie many years ago. In 1975 the Labour government faced a strike over pay by dust workers in Glasgow.

It wanted to use troops to break the strike. We were stationed in Hampshire at the time. I was about 22 years old. I had heard the media talking about rats infesting Glasgow. This was the image in the 1999 film Ratcatcher.

We had orders to go to Glasgow to clean up the city. As Royal Engineers we would be using bulldozers to take the rubbish away to dumps. I knew the bin workers in Glasgow were low paid. I knew they wouldn't be out on strike for no reason.

I told the sergeant major 'I'm not going.' I said I would not break a strike. I couldn't put others out of work. All soldiers are meant to obey orders. This was an order I could not obey. So I was sent to jail. I was put in a cell in the barracks, and I was there for several weeks until the end of the dispute. Six or seven months later I asked to be discharged from the army, and strangely enough no one objected!

I was young and not very political when I joined the army. My apprenticeship was over and I thought, 'What do I do now?' I wanted something different. One day I was travelling on a train in uniform, and this guy started talking to me about socialism. I was really taken with the ideas, but I was very naive - I looked in the military library for books on Marx! Those ideas stuck with me.

When the strike happened I just could not go against my conscience. I'm sure today there are a few soldiers who are not happy about what they are doing. We have to build solidarity for the firefighters to help them win and defeat this strikebreaking government.
John, Scotland


Why do disabled people face more cuts in benefits?

I HAVE been disabled since breaking my neck in a car crash in 1984. I wasn't involved much in disability politics until something happened in 1997. It was a protest by disabled people from the Direct Action Network (DAN) outside 10 Downing Street.

They spilled out from their wheelchairs all over the street, red paint had been splashed around to mimic blood, and a hand-made placard read ' Tony Blair doesn't care'.

The stunt sharply exposed the Thatcherite welfare-cutting agenda of New Labour. It forced a retreat from the attacks on incapacity benefits. I wondered then how long it would be before New Labour would come back to attack disabled people.

Pensions secretary Andrew Smith announced last week that hundreds of thousands of people on incapacity benefit are to be forced to attend a monthly interview to assess whether they are fit for work, or risk losing 20 percent of their benefit.

This will mean new claimants will face up to six 'work-focused interviews' in the first six months. This is about putting constant pressure on people who are too ill to work, yet who the government wants to scapegoat as 'workshy'. The actions of DAN showed that New Labour can be forced back on the retreat with a strong opposition. I hope we can do it again, and this time I want to be there.
Mark Swindells, Manchester


Dollars to kill

THE MEDIA was full of reports about the suicide bomber in Israel on Thursday of last week. They devoted lots of space to the 11 who died. But there was little mention of how the Israeli army murdered another 13 Palestinians in the past week, including four bystanders in the West Bank town of Tulkarim on Tuesday. Among the dead was a 13 year old Palestinian boy.

The Israeli state has stepped up its attacks on Palestinians under the cover of Bush and Blair's drive for war on Iraq. But you won't hear a word of criticism from Bush. The US government wants to increase its military budget to Israel in 2004. It is due to pay $2.1 billion to Israel next year, and in 2004 that will go up to $2.16 billion, or £1.48 billion.

So Ariel Sharon can buy even more guns and tanks with US money to slaughter Palestinian families.
Jo Pendle, London


Sitting down?

I WENT to a very interesting meeting recently where the speaker discussed the campaign in the 1960s and 70s against the Vietnam War. They pointed out that a popular anti-war slogan of the day was 'They can't arrest us all!' I think this still holds good today.

With hundreds of US bombers eager to dispatch their loads on the people of Iraq, I want to make it clear that the next time I sit down on the road in protest I will not be getting back up again. I hope that as many people as possible will do the same. Like many others I broke the law during the struggle against the poll tax and in the process helped consign Tory leader Margaret Thatcher to an early political death.

I will be just as proud when I'm carted off for expressing my solidarity with the Iraqi people and my opposition to US and British terror!
Leigh, Swansea


End of the affair

THE NEW Labour juggernaut got a flat tyre last week at University College London. Bosses Sir Derek Roberts (provost of UCL) and Sir Richard Sykes (rector of Imperial College) were both enthusiastic about merging the two colleges. They boasted of friends at the Department for Education who were also gung-ho for the merger.

They planned to railroad it through with less than ten weeks from announcement to agreement. Richard Sykes engineered the merger between Glaxo and SmithKlineBeecham, creating a monopoly in the pharmaceutical industry accompanied by ruthless redundancies.

Sykes also announced plans to charge students top-up fees of between £6,000 and £15,000 per year. Sir Derek Roberts was a non-executive manager of the privatised rail company Railtrack. UCL workers were originally told there were no plans for redundancies for academic staff. Technical and support staff were given no such assurance. Then plans were leaked for about 20 percent redundancies among academic staff too.

A united front of senior academics and rank and file staff campaigned to stop the merger. We won. Now the merger is off, Sir Derek furiously denounces what he calls 'a campaign of lies and disinformation'.

It is wonderful to see powerful bullies humiliated. It is also satisfying to see those shamed faces who had argued only last week, 'You can't stop progress. Let's accept that and try to get the best possible deal we can.' Sykes and Roberts's reputations are now in tatters. Our victory shows that top-up fees can be stopped as well.
Robin Hirsch and Sean Wallis, UCL staff


Thanks, readers

THANKS TO everyone who sent in e-mails describing their experiences at the European Social Forum in Florence. We received many more than we could print, but each reinforced the impression of an inspiring political event. We would also like to thank the many photographers who have sent in pictures from Florence, and many other issues ranging from anti-war protests to the firefighters' strike and disputes across Britain.

Your reports and photos make a real difference to our coverage. We encourage you to keep sending them in. Our e-mail address is reports@socialistworker.co.uk
Socialist Worker editorial board


Postal points

I AGREE with much of what Socialist Worker says about the firefighters' dispute. But I am not convinced that the way to fund our justified increase is to put up taxes on higher earners and businesses. Surely the only result of this would be firms fleeing to the US, thereby reducing the overall tax take?
Firefighter, Homerton station, east London


I WILL never cease to be amazed at the stupidity of this government. Why can't the government give the firefighters what they deserve, and that is the pay that should go with this dangerous job? They say they can't do this, but they can spend millions on preparing troops for war.
Joe Rutherford, Tyneside


LABOUR councillors in Leeds have voted themselves a 50 percent pay rise. Yet when it comes to the firefighters and their justified pay claim, Tony Blair calls it excessive and inflationary. So who is worth more to society? Councillors who are pushing through privatisation and school closures, or firefighters who risk life and limb every day? I know which side I'm on.
John Appleyard, West Yorkshire


RECENT reports have revealed again that large numbers of pensioners are not receiving all the benefits due to them. As the fat cats get richer, and Bush and Blair plan to spend billions on war, many pensioners are in poverty.

Pensioners want an end to means testing, and a decent state pension for all with a restoration of the link between pensions and earnings. We want the right to free long term care. I recently took part in a huge pensioners' rally and march in London. The mood was angry.

Pensioners have done so much to create the wealth in society, and we are trodden underfoot.
Bartley Willcock, treasurer of Manchester TUC Pensioners Association (personal capacity)


I AM appalled to see buses still going round London with adverts for Poppy Day sponsored by BAe. These appear near the slogan 'Red letter day'. BAe is an arms firm that profits from the creation of more war victims of the sort that Poppy Day is supposed to remember.
Jane Wilson, by e-mail


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Article information

Letters
Sat 30 Nov 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1828
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