“This Bill is to take away our right as free citizens to take strike action. They’re doing it on behalf of the people who pay the lobby fees.”Eddie Dempsey, RMT Assistant General Secretary
By Ben Folley
Hundreds of activists joined a trade union demonstration at Downing St against the Conservatives Strikes Bill as MPs debated the Second Reading in the Commons.
The demonstration, called by the RMT union, saw hundreds of activists waving flags from a range of unions including Unite, GMB, FBU and PCS as well as RMT, brave freezing temperatures.
TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said, “We need to nail the lie this is about safety. It is not paramedics causing harm. It is Steve Barclay, Jeremy Hunt and Rish Sunak.” He said, “we’ve had ten years of staff cuts, ten years of pay cuts so the crisis in public services is down to the Tories.” He urged those present to get out on the 1st February TUC day of action, support the 100,000 civil servants, 100,000 teachers and tens of thousands of UCU members who would be striking, and use the day to build the movement in defence of the right to strike.
Joanna Riveira, from NHS Workers Say NO, who works in Homerton Hospital in east London, said NHS workers don’t want to strike but are desperate, with many relying on foodbanks and worried about paying rent. She said there were too many instances of one nurse being left to oversee a full ward, or being asked to remain on after a twelve hour shift due to staff shortages. She highlighted the Strikes Bill was only building on earlier legislation like the Police Bill and the Public Order Bill and said, “if we have to will we will break the anti-protest and anti-strike laws.”
Matt Wrack from the FBU, said, “They are attacking our movement to drive down wages”, but he warned, “people see the rich getting richer whilst working people have to tighten belts” and as a result there was “a growing mood of resistance.” He also gave a warning to the movement and said, “Don’t rely on the courts. We need to build a mass movement to say we won’t comply,” and urged activists to build political pressure, rather than parliamentary or legal means.
Labour MPs joining the demo included Zarah Sultana and Bell Ribeiro-Addy from the Socialist Campaign Group. They were also joined by Lords colleague, Lord John Hendy KC.
Sultana warned the Bill would pass through the Commons, and would eventually be passed into law, and any further legal attempt to stop it may only be temporary. She said “we need to defeat it politically, through demonstrations like this.” She also urged people to speak to their neighbours where they live and ask, “If you’re pay is too low or bills too high” and to ask who they blamed. She said, tell them that “it’s not because of refugees or trans people, its because of the Tories.”
Onay Kasab, from Unite, asked “what kind of people threaten to put nurses out of work because they want to defend the NHS?” He said it is unions who protect citizens, who defend public services and who defend the right to strike, and it was necessary to build the resistance against Conservative anti-democratic initiatives.
Bell Riberio-Addy, explained that she’d “come from opening of debate where Labour MPs have been declaring our union memberships.” She said Labour MPs were pleased to do so, because the unions were winning across the country.
She condemned the Government’s focus on minimum service levels on strike days and said “the unions deliver minimum service levels. Nurses and paramedics do that. It’s the Govermnent that fails to deliver minimum service levels.”
She also said that “people are not dying because unions are striking. Unions are striking because people are dying.”
And on the effect of the legislation, she said that “If you try and curb protests and strikes you will just encourage more protests and strikes.”
Eddie Dempsey, from the RMT, said “this Bill is to take away our right as free citizens to take strike action. They’re doing it on behalf of the people who pay the lobby fees. The corporations who they’ve been looking after. We’ve got to stick together and we’ve got to unite democrats, people who love freedom, trade unionists.”
Mick Lynch of the RMT pressed Keir Starmer and the Labour frontbench to demonstrate empathy with striking unions, to back the current actions taking place, to commit to repealing all anti-union laws, and to bring in new workers rights.
Other speakers included Chris Webb from CWU, Jo Grady from UCU, Lord John Hendy KC, Andrea Egan from UNISON.
Protests against the Strikes Bill and in support of industrial action is growing.
On Wednesday 18 January, NHS Workers Say No have called a Central London protest in support of the nurses and paramedics industrial action campaign.
On Wednesday 1 February, the TUC Day of Action to Defend the Right to Strike will take place on the same day as strike action by the PCS civil servants union, the NEU teachers union and UCU lecturers union.