Tens of thousands of workers marched through London in a defiant rallying of the labour movement and a show of determination to take on the Tories, reports Chris Nineham
On Saturday, for the first time in years, tens of thousands of trade unionists streamed through central London demanding change.
The TUC demonstration was headed up by blocs of thousands from Unison and Unite but there were tremendous contingents of civil servants, teachers, communication workers, firefighters and more.
And then there were the rail workers. Led by a brass band, thousands of RMT members followed by their Aslef colleagues made up the noisiest part of the demo and received enthusiastic applause at various points along the way and massive cheers as they entered the Parliament Square at the end of the demo.
For this was not just a token march. The official slogans may have been vague - ‘we demand better’ and ‘enough is enough’ - reflecting the fact that the TUC’s efforts to build the demo were weak and unpolitical, but on the day everyone was focussed on the fact that workers face the biggest attacks from employers and government for decades. And there was a fighting mood.
The cost of living crisis is the central issue, but it is part of a wider offensive that has included fire and rehire, all kinds of other enforced restructuring and relentless attacks on the NHS and other public services.
Some groups on the march, including bus and rail workers, hospital ancillary staff and refuse workers, had been on strike themselves recently. Others, like council workers, civil servants and teachers, are balloting for strikes or will be soon. Many of the contingents reflected this experience; lots of young activists, very diverse, very angry.
And everyone was backing the rail workers to the hilt because they are about to lead off the fight with a national strike which starts on Tuesday.
The unions were followed up by a wide array of campaigning groups from the People’s Assembly that had helped build the demonstration, to NHS and housing campaigns, anti-racist and anti-war contingents, Covid justice groups and climate campaigners, all joined by a range of socialist groups and some Labour Party branches.
Despite the TUC’s approach to it, this was a noticeably political demonstration, coinciding as it did with a big crisis for the government. ‘Tories, Tories, Tories, out, out, out!’ was a favourite chant. People waved anti-government placards up and down the march. At Parliament Square union leaders got the biggest cheers when they backed the rail workers and called out the Tories, not just for their attacks on workers living standards, but for their sleaze, for their cuts to services, for their attempts to scapegoat refugees and to crack down on workers’ right to strike.
Whatever their estimates of the size of the demonstration which ran from 50,000 to more than 100,000, everyone was pleased with the turnout. It was a defiant rallying of the labour movement. After the defeat of Corbyn’s Labour, the sorry spectacle of Starmer’s leadership and the difficult years of the pandemic, it was a signal workers are starting to take matters into their own hands. It will have given a big shot of confidence to all those under attack and gearing up to respond.
Many speakers in Parliament Square made the point that this was just the start of a fightback. By committing to strike next week, the rail workers have already ensured that is the case. We all need to make sure the unity and solidarity so movingly on display on the streets of London in Saturday rolls over to the picket lines this week and to all the struggles that are to come.
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Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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