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Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Green Shoots of Protest

Brighton’s First Organised Trade Union Demonstration for over a Decade

Class struggle in the workplace had declined immensely in the past two decades as trade unions ability to defend their membership has been significantly weakened. New Labour came to power in 1997 with Tony Blair boasting that he would preside over the most restrictive anti-union laws in Europe.

The unions have been led for the most part, with honourable exceptions [RMT (rail and seaman’s union) PCS (Public & Civil Servants union) and FBU (fire brigades union) by time serving bureaucrats afraid of their own shadow. The Trades Union Congress has been adept at nothing so much as raising the white standard of surrender. Cowardice has been made into an art-form and the ‘left’ leadership of Unite (formerly T&G) has been no different from the more traditional right-wing unions like the GMB). Unison, the Local Government Workers Union, led by David Prentice has talked (fitfully) left but acted as a traditional right-wing union, always seeking the to postpone, delay and undermine collective action and engaging in tricks such as calling an industrial action ballot in the run-up to Christmas.

Nowhere has the decline been felt more than in the traditional bastion of the left with its support for industrial militancy than the Trades Council movement. Numbers attending have declined and the composition of those making up the TCs has changed. So it was more than welcome that Brighton & Hove District Trades Union Council, over a century old and first chaired by the anarchist Kropotkin, organised the first trade union demonstration (other than spontaneous demonstrations by unions holding one day actions) for well over a decade.

When I first came to Brighton 35 years ago there was an annual march every May Day as well as a social and dance in the evening. Time was when 60-70 manual workers mainly would attend Trades Council. Today it is less than a third of that. Even in the beginning of the 1980’s the annual demonstration would be organised by the Council of Labour made up of the Labour Party, Trades Council and Co-operative movement. Today there is no co-operative movement and New Labour boycotted today’s march with a handful of left-wingers attending.

It is therefore all the more to the credit of the Trades Council that over 500 people attended the rally at The Level and the winding march to the Town Hall in a windswept Bartholomew Square. Congratulations should go to the influx of younger workers into Trades Council, primarily members of the Socialist Party.

The rally began at 12.00 with a Attilla the Stockbroker who did a wonderfully funny performance of poetry accompanied by a banjo, an act that was repeated at the end of the march. There followed a series of speakers including a woman from the Brighton Universities Campaign to Prevent the Closure of the Phoenix nursery. I have a personal interest in this. I was Vice-President of the student union of the then Brighton Polytechnic from 1977-79 and I made the achievement of a nursery my main campaigning priority alongside regular occupations on overseas student fees and autonomy. It is therefore somewhat a shock to realise that that which one wins in one era becomes threatened a generation later.

There were a number of Trade Union speakers including the RMT, PCS and GMB – which led by the refuse workers in Hollingdean, where the unemployed centre is based – have ensured that the Council’s attempts to lower their wages were ignominiously defeat. Other speakers included Dave Hill, the Trade Union & Socialist Coalition candidate for Brighton Kemptown and ex-leader of the Labour Group on East Sussex County Council, who the Unemployed Centre and TC activists are backing. It was in my opinion regrettable though that Caroline Lucas MEP for the Green Party and parliamentary candidate for Brighton Pavilion, was not allowed to speak. Brighton Pavilion is the best chance in Britain for a Green MP to be elected and despite the petit-bourgeois politics of the Green Party it has an active left. Caroline herself has an impeccable record as an MEP supporting both workers struggles, asylum seekers and on international issues such as Palestine. The reasons given, that she was not nominated by a trade union, didn’t frankly stand up.

I spoke on behalf of Brighton Benefits Campaign and the Brighton & Hove Unemployed Workers Centre. In a speech that we well received I made the point that the rich and prosperous, the bankers and the parasites that govern this country, can only maintain their domination by divide and rule – whether it is Black and White, asylum seeker and indigenous worker, those in work and those unemployed. This was how the British ruling class maintained an empire covering ¼ of the world. They have adverts attacking ‘benefit thieves’ but you won’t find Brown or the rest of the New Labour scum trashing their bankers’ friends who have enjoyed an entirely different welfare system.

Bankers who gamble away the nation’s wealth don’t face sanctions, i.e. loss of all income for 2, 4 and then 26 weeks. They get rewarded with million pound bonuses and of course, in our wonderful free market system, the banks are too big to fail, which is another reason to take them into public ownership. At a time of rising unemployment we have ‘welfare reforms’ designed to push people into any job, however badly paid. The intention is clear. Unemployment is to be the whip used to scourge the organised working class. And if that means forcing lone parents to seek work when their youngest child is 7 years old, then so be it because the profitability of capitalism is dependent on it. Likewise New Labour has abolished nearly all disability benefits and was stopped from abolishing Disability Living Allowance last year owing to a late but very campaign mounted against not only the government but scabbing charities such as Disability Alliance.

Although significantly weakened the Labour Movement has not gone away!

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