23 June 2013
On Saturday over 4000 trade unionists and anti austerity campaigners from all over Britain gathered in London for the first Peoples assembly. It was massive and impressive in a variety of ways. A fantastic line up of excellent speakers spoke about the need to fight back against austerity. Mark Serwotka, Tony Benn, Salma Yaqoob, Owen Jones, Mark Steel, Francesca Martinez and many more were inspiring. They provided much of what people had come to hear but what was even more impressive was a strong, united mood for real change and a determination to fight to get it. Unite the Resistance has held conferences all around the country in the last few months. We know the tide is turning and that there are fantastic activists doing important work pushing back the cuts where they live and work. The People’s assembly brought them all together so that their voices were heard loud and clear. Owen Jones opened the conference saying “our time is now.” It was, and people seized it. Every speaker who talked about taking action now, or striking back against the Tories now got huge applause. Nobody even dared suggest waiting for a general election.
Mark Serwotka and others made it clear in their contributions that knowing that we are against austerity is not enough. We need to be clear what our alternative is and how to get it. Frances O’Grady spoke of going beyond minimum wage to fair pay, Caroline Lucas announced that she is fighting in parliament for rail re nationalisation, Christine Blower argued that universal free school meals for all kids would feed kids who are hungry but also raise educational standards. Unite the resistance is campaigning for our own 10 point alternative. Read it here (link). Although a few Labour party MPs supported the people’s assembly Ed Miliband chose the same day not to listen to those thousands but instead to announce that under Labour there would be no alternative to austerity. The People’s assembly was united in condemning that as a betrayal. Mark Serwotka said “If Labour won’t provide an alternative to austerity they must be swept away and replaced with politicians who will” This summed up the mood of the assembly well and received a huge round of applause. People do now want an alternative and they will fight for it with those willing to work for it. Unite the Resistance will help build local People’s Assembly groups now to fight for that alternative in their communities and through the trade unions. New alliances were forged yesterday. Francesca Martinez summed up the mood when she said “We have the power” people felt it in that assembly and left determined to use it.
The session opened with speakers describing the campaigns around the country fighting against cuts in the NHS, closures, privatisation and cover ups. There was a huge cheer for the people in Lewisham who marched in their thousands against the A+E closure. Speakers encouraged all those present to join local Keep Our NHS public groups. There were applause for the Yorkshire ambulance drivers who have been striking to defend the requirement for qualified staff.
Speakers congratulated the unions for at last backing a national demo to defend the NHS. This will be on Sept 29th, the day of the Tory party demo, when Unite the Resistance has called for a protest. However the loudest applause were for the call for strike action together with occupations and protests, and a general strike as the sort of action needed to defend the NHS. The last speaker was a nurse who said that people should stand up and be active in the union. She said it is possible to win small victories if people got organised. She said ‘If you organise a local group people will come. We have saved services where I live. We still have power’.
Speakers from the floor spoke with passion about their own campaigns including one against the private company Virgin. She concluded: ‘We need a national campaign against Virgin’. The loudest message coming from the session was the need to make the demo on 29th Sept on the kind of scale we have seen in Brazil; we need hundreds of thousands to protest.
Christine Blower opened the education session talking about the way education is being reduced to a system where nothing counts but test scores and teachers are de-professionalised. She spoke of one Headteacher whose school was inspected and all the teaching was found to be good or outstanding, yet the school were failed by Ofsted because the test scores of the previous year were below the floor target. Gove’s attack on national pay bargaining is really about softening up the sector for privatisation, she said. Alex Kenny, chairing the meeting urged all to attend and publicise the march ‘Stand up for Education’ on Tues 25th June in London, gathering at Westminster, Victoria Street and marching to Gove’s office. A pupil talked about how the student movement had radicalised many in her school and had led to a walk out over bombing in Gaza.
Speakers from the floor talked about the threats of forced Academy status and the opening of Free schools which are a threat to the spirit of collaboration and community. Teachers talked about the need to get the message to parents that the strikes about to start next week on Thurs 27th in the North West are about much more than pay and conditions and are about defending decent state education. A parent spoke about how his 5 year old already knew what level he was at and was put off going to school as the drive to test children at a younger and younger age was putting him off school. The ‘Defend school history’ campaign talked about how the pressure being put on Gove was having some success and urged people to get involved.
Most speakers talked about the strike and the importance of solidarity. One teacher said that she was glad that the joint action with the NASUWT had been called but said that since the action had been called Gove had stepped up his assault, so we needed to step up the action with a radical programme such as striking one day per week until we had won the dispute.
The second half of the meeting heard from NUS exec members and students, as well as teachers and UCU members, involved in occupations of Sussex and Warwick Universities. People spoke of the effect of tripling tuition fees and the need to continue to fight on this and the restoration of EMA.
A lecturer involved in teacher education spoke of the decimation of teacher training. Many courses are being closed and the PGCE is being replaced by schemes where new teachers will be trained in schools and ordinary teachers will be asked to take over the work of teacher education.
Next week will be an important step in the fight against the government, when the two big teaching unions take unprecedented joint action in the North West on Thursday 27th June. All unions and activists should aim to bring support and solidarity to those on strike. There will be four marches and rallies:
|Manchester: Assemble from 10am at the Cathedral Gardens, Manchester, M4 3BG|
Rally: Piccadilly Hotel, Portland Street, Manchester, M1 4PH 11am to 12 noon
|Liverpool: Assemble from 10am at The Pier Head, Liverpool, L3 1BW|
Rally: St George’s Hall, St George’s Place, Liverpool, L1 1JJ 11am to 12 noon
|Preston: Assemble from 11am at The Assembly Pub, 32 Lune Street, Preston, PR1 2NN|
Rally: Flag Market (Market Square), Cheapside, Preston, PR1 2PP 11.45 to 12.30
|Chester: Assemble from 10am at Chester Town Hall, Northgate Street, Chester, CH1 2HJ|
Rally: Queen Hotel, City Road, Chester, CH1 3AH 11am to 12 noon
These are as well as the march and rally in London on Tuesday 25th June, meeting Westminster Cathedral Pizza 5.30, marching to the DFE and on to a rally at the Emmanuel centre, Marsham St at 6.30pm.
The session held in the marquee was standing room only, a welcome reflection of the concern of those in the anti austerity movement not simply with the economic crisis but equally with the environmental crisis. The session was addressed by Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, Chris Baugh, Deputy General Secretary of the PCS, Manual Cortes General Secretary of TSSA and Charles Secrett an ex director of Friends of the Earth.
All speakers underlined the reality of a changing climate and the urgency of tackling the issue. Caroline Lucas stressed again that the anti-austerity movement had to engage with the issue of climate change, a crisis which was as urgent as the economic one. “There are no jobs on a dead planet” she stressed.
The issue of climate jobs was central to the argument about how work could be created to dramatically reduce emissions. Manual Cortes stressed the need to get people out of cars and onto public transport and that the best way of doing this was to have a publicly run transport system. Caroline Lucas received huge cheers when she announced that she would be introducing a private members bill calling for the re nationalisation of the railways.
Chris Baugh argued that the trade union movement had a strong history of fighting on important social issues and climate change was just such an issue. It, like the economic crisis was a product of a capitalist system in which profit was put before need. He called for trade unions to support environmentalists and for environmentalist to support trade unions.
He pointed out that the current battle against fracking was an absolutely vital one and one in which links between trade unions and environmentalists should be forged. He called for support for the day of protest and direct action at West Burton Power Station to defend the activists from No Dash for Gas.
In response to questions about whether capitalism was to blame for the changing climate, the platform speakers agreed and re stressed the need for the movement against austerity and the system that had produced it, to engage with the ecological crisis.
To reinforce this point Caroline Lucas finished by describing a cartoon in which a student asks the question “but what if climate change isn’t happening and we’ve created a better world for nothing?”
Chris Baugh finished by explaining that the One Million Climate Jobs report already supported by four national unions was to be updated. This can be a powerful tool for local People’s Assemblies who want to campaign against the environmental crisis as well as the economic one.
Suzanne Jeffery, Chair, Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group.