As a wave of strikes over pay and other issues continues to grow, the TUC march on Saturday was the biggest union demo for many years. rs21 members report.
Photo by Steve Eason
The march, organised under the slogan We Demand Better, was impressive more than anything for its size, much larger than many expected. With perhaps 75,000 people taking part, the end of the demo was still arriving in Parliament Square an hour after the rally began. Most of the march was made up of delegations from unions – whether big unions like UNISON and Unite or smaller ones including bakers or physiotherapists. Despite occasional rain there was a cheerful mood, with marchers accompanied by several brass bands and huge balloons, waving flags and letting off coloured smoke. Union banners raised traditional slogans like “unity is strength” – but there were also banners welcoming refugees and several included LGBT rainbows.
Other campaigning groups also took part, including a big delegation from ACORN, a climate justice block and members of London Renters Union. Right-wing Labour MP Wes Streeting, widely believed to be positioning himself for a leadership bid and wanting to burnish his few left credentials, marched with a UNISON placard.
The reason for the big turnout was plain – the march was linked to an increase in strike action over the cost of living. Over forty thousand RMT rail workers will be out on strike on three days this week (Tuesday 21, Thursday 23 and Saturday 26 June) with chaos predicted on the days in between and London Underground workers also striking on Tuesday. The success of the national rail strike is vital to the growing wave of actions in defence of a living wage, and speaker after speaker pledged support for the RMT, with the sizeable RMT delegation getting huge cheers.
It’s not just rail workers taking action. The GMB speaker at Saturday’s demo hailed their members in Wealden on the south coast, where refuse workers have just taken part in a six-week strike – which concluded last week with them winning a pay rise of up to 27 percent.
Communications workers in the CWU are currently balloting for strike action in both Royal Mail, BT, Openreach and EE, and those campaigns have plainly revitalised the union – its delegation was one of the biggest on the march, with one branch banner after another, often accompanied by dozens of members.
Sharon Graham, recently-elected general secretary of Unite, has been a key figure in this new and determined mood. In the last week alone, Unite has won pay rises of almost £2,500 a year for Leicester bus drivers, an 8.5 percent pay rise for Croydon refuse workers and a 21 percent increase for workers at Gatwick airport. Sharon won loud applause on Saturday when she told the rally, ’we’re not going to get change by lobbying in Westminster. We’re going to get change by doing it ourselves.’
Sharon Graham and Frances O’Grady at the protest. Photo by Steve Eason.
That means the TUC has to follow through on the pledge made by Frances O’Grady, its General Secretary, that ’this demo is just the beginning‘. The march was a first step – and was followed by reports that teachers’ and health workers’ unions may strike in the autumn. Millions of people are affected by the rising costs of food, fuel and housing. There is the potential for unions to stand at the centre of a huge campaign which combines industrial strength with community organising.
As well as strikes across different industries, other strategies to take on the cost of living are being built. The march saw the launch of the new Don’t Pay campaign with a mass leafleting operation calling for an energy bills payment strike from October. Just Stop Oil are organising a protest on 23 July, raising demands linking the cost-of-living crisis to climate breakdown. We need to break from dependence on fossil fuels and control costs by a move to renewables – yet the government is going ahead with the new Jackdaw North Sea gas field.
Today’s march was an impressive size, but even bigger protests can be built which draw in people in non-union workplaces, people concerned about the climate emergency, people who want to defend LGBT rights and the thousands who organised two years ago under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Such a movement could do real damage to a Tory government buffeted by Partygate and divided over its political direction and Johnson’s future. The key first step is building solidarity for this week’s rail strikes.