Thursday, 10 July 2014

Britain needs the right to strike

Stoke on a sunny Thursday morning in early July, the day when public sector workers across the country went on strike over pay, pensions and working conditions.

The town is a somewhat shabby collection of discount stores, charity shops and empty units; over to the left of where I’m standing they’re building a new hall of residence for students at the nearby Staffordshire university and outside the Wetherspoons at the end of London Road a handful of early drinkers are smoking cigarettes.

This is the sort of place in which the ‘hard working families’ Francis Maude and David Cameron have spent the run-up to the strike saying will be hit hardest by it live; despite the brave talk of recovery from the PM and the man who gave him his first job in politics many of them are struggling to make ends meet. As shoppers amble around me enjoying the sunlight it is hard to discern much sign of the chaotic standstill right wing politicians and their nervous bedfellows at the BBC predicted the strike would cause.

By the time I arrive in Kingsway, the broad tarmacked area outside the Civic Centre the crowd is slowly building. There are stalls representing the unions taking part, GMB, PCS, NUT and alphabet soup of protest; along with ones for the Socialist and Green parties and campaigns by the local branch of the People’s Assembly and people fighting to protect the NHS.

Over the next forty minutes or so the crowd grows to maybe two hundred strong with a distinct carnival atmosphere setting in. More or less everyone seems to know everyone else and old style embroidered union banners mix with shiny paper placards printed out the night before, a young woman wearing a top hat and frock coat wanders past and there are several people in t-shirts with the legend ‘Get Angry And Fight’ printed on them wandering around; subverting in the name of protest the somewhat patronising ‘slogan’ of the recession.

The age range of the participants is wider than often at such events with several families with young children present. One includes a small boy clutching proudly a handwritten placard reading ‘My Daddy is Worth More’, nice to see someone learning the habit of protest early.

Only slightly behind schedule Steve Jones of the North Staffs Trades Council takes to the podium to introduce the speakers, getting in the process a bigger laugh than he probably deserved by holding up a rather withered looks in twig and saying it is another unions branch that has fallen foul of the cuts.

First to speak is Clive Rushton of UNISON, the crowd gives one of the biggest cheers of the day when he addresses them as ‘comrades’, several other speakers will do the same with a similar response. There may be a message there for the handful of Labour councillors watching rather sheepishly from the side-lines, it might be time to embrace rather than hide their party’s working class roots.

He attacks the government for its unwillingness to negotiate with public sector unions and praises the work his members do providing essential services and says the strike is there chance to send a clear message that ‘enough is enough.’

Linda Goodwin of the NUT turns her fire on the demands placed on teachers by ever more stringent OFSTEAD inspections and attacks government plans for performance related pay for teachers as unsuitable since people in education work collaboratively; a sensible point that will probably be lost on busy, publicity chasing Michael Gove.

Colin Griffith of GMB gets another big cheer when he proclaims himself to be ‘working class and proud’, followed by some pantomime boos when he revisits memories of the damage done to heavy industry by the Tory governments of the 1980’s. This time, he says, they’ve got public services in their sights. To strong applause he calls for money to be clawed back from tax avoiders to be used to fund better public services.

Margaret Armstrong of UNITE is equally combative as she says their treatment of public sector workers demonstrates the values of this government, meaning they want to pay the people who deliver essential services poverty wages and then condemn them when they protest. It was time, she said, for working people to ‘pick up their heads, get off their knees and fight back.’

The final speaker of the day is Jason Hill, President of the Trades Council who launches into an impassioned attack on the ‘obscenity’ of the government’s approach to the economy, listing to rising cheers zero hours contracts, benefits reform and privatisation. Austerity, he says, isn’t the way to encourage growth; you do that by rebuilding public services and having a government that is unafraid to stand up for working people.

Then almost as soon as it began the whole thing is over, as the Birmingham Clarion Singers sing political songs old and new people are folding up trestle tables and rolling up banners. All of a sudden we have left behind the elevated plain of demonstration and returned to the everyday world of the school run, bills to pay and moss growing in the lawn.

The strike in Stoke or elsewhere didn’t bring the country grinding to a halt and drive the forces of the market back into the sea, it was never going to. What it did do was articulate the anger of public sector workers doing vital but unglamorous jobs at how they have been treated by the coalition and bubbling away behind their public discontent is that of the silently disgruntled majority who know that whatever the politicians say the recovery hasn’t begun for them.

The question is can a Labour Party so timidly unsure of what and who it represents that it didn’t dare associate itself with the strike offer them an alternative?

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