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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 75/No. 14      April 11, 2011


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(lead article)
UK union protest draws
hundreds of thousands
Government austerity begins to bite
Militant/Jonathan Silberman
Workers, students, others protest government austerity measures in London, March 26.

LONDON—Hundreds of thousands demonstrated here March 26 against government cuts to jobs and welfare. The Trades Union Congress, which called the protest, said 400,000 participated. Police put the figure at more than 250,000.

“I’ve not seen a union march like this since I arrived from Ghana 27 years ago,” said Kojo Acheampong, one of 100 members of the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union who marched behind their union banner.

Workers in the public sector were predominant. Among the larger contingents were Unison, health and public sector workers; PCS civil servants; Unite; and GMB, which organize manual local government workers; and the National Union of Teachers (NUT). Local community groups and professional bodies were also present.

Protesters spoke to the Militant about how they were being affected by the cuts. David Payne, a mental care worker, and Eva Bruneel, a Kingston hospital midwife, said that recruitment freezes had led to job losses and “hot-desking”—a number of workers using the same desk. “We have less time with people,” Payne said.

Some spoke of fights. Lilian Julius, a member of the University and College Union (UCU) at Hackney Community College, said that strike action there had been solid. The UCU is fighting cuts to pensions. Ian Varnes, 34, a teaching assistant and NUT member in Tower Hamlets, London, said his union will be on strike against job cuts March 30. Also on strike that day are the National Union of Teachers members in Camden and Unison in Tower Hamlets.

A student at Francis Combe Academy in Watford spoke of a six-hour protest at the school March 23. Some 150 students boycotted lessons and staged a demonstration against cuts to teaching jobs.

Private sector workers also brought their disputes to the demonstration. A coachload of Unite members at Burton’s Foods in Wallasey on Merseyside highlighted their fight against 342 workers losing their jobs through the threatened closure of the plant.

Protesters carried placards or wore clothing with union slogans. Others made their own signs.

Nicholas Timmins writes in the March 23 Financial Times that “the 81bn [US$130 billion] of spending cuts that the chancellor has instituted have barely begun to bite… . [A]lmost nothing has happened yet.” An editorial in the paper praised the government’s approach for restoring confidence in the bond markets, forecasting that “deeper cuts will bite with increasing severity over the coming years.”

Price Waterhouse Coopers now estimates that 1 million jobs will be axed as a result of the government austerity. Even before this kicks in, unemployment is rising. According to official figures, 2.53 million or 8 percent of the workforce are unemployed, with workers who are black or Asian at twice the national average. Some 30 percent of young blacks and Asians are jobless, up from 20 percent in 2007.

Labour Party leader Edward Miliband and union officials at the protest rally condemned the government’s austerity program as being “too far, too fast,” a slogan that was printed on vests distributed by Unite. They advanced a program of class collaboration and economic nationalism.

Unite secretary-general Len McCluskey told the BBC that the government should “concentrate on economic growth through tax fairness.”

A study by the Centre for Economics and Business Studies reports that the average employee is taking home 1,000 (US$1,600), less than two years ago, a 5 percent drop.

Workers were buoyed up by the action, including many who didn’t participate. Those who did learned from one another about the fights they’re involved in and are looking to breaking with years of a low level of union struggles, during which employers and successive governments have successfully driven to raise the rate of exploitation. As Anne Carroll, forced to retire early on medical grounds, emphasized to the Militant, “You’ve just got to take a stand.”

Ögmundur Johnsson and Julie Crawford contributed to the article.
Related articles:
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Grocery store workers win right to join Atlanta march
L.A. rally: ‘We stand with Wisconsin unions’
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