Over 4000 gathered in Westminster Central Hall in London on Saturday for the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, the largest anti-cuts conference since the recession began. The day aimed to be one of ‘discussion and debate’ focusing on how to ‘turn the tide on austerity’, and was organised by the Coalition of Resistance with the backing of many of the major trade unions.
Myself and University of York Green Party Chair Nick Devlin were delegates for the university society. Here’s a York view of what we saw on a historic day that launched the UK’s first united movement against austerity.
Owen Jones, journalist and author of ‘Chavs’, kicked off the conference, describing workers as ‘the real wealth creators’ and calling for unity on the left, as well as mass civil disobedience to reverse austerity. TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady also spoke in the opening session, describing the Tory-led government’s attacks as ‘class war’. ‘They fight for their side – so we will fight for ours’. She called for the bedroom tax to be scrapped and replaced with a mansion tax, and encouraged delegates to ‘educate, agitate and organise’ in communities and workplaces across Britain.
Throughout the day’s 15 sessions and workshops, speakers called on delegates to support the NUT/NASUWT teachers’ unions’ joint strike action over the coming months, to march against the Tory conference in Manchester on September 29th, and to rally on the NHS’s 65th birthday on July 5th – among a range of other practical actions.
In the ‘Mobilising Millions: Re-Unionising the UK’ session, speakers from both the floor and panel discussed how to revitalise the trade union movement in Britain, especially among the traditionally unorganised – young people being a case in point. Kelly Tomlinson from Unite explained the urgency of educating the youth about unions, and she pointed to the recently established Unite Community membership scheme as a way of organising those who are students or who aren’t in work. Nick was inspired to join up after the talk.
Following Tomlinson, John Hendy QC explained ‘the problem of the British economy is the collapse of collective bargaining’. He noted the spectacular decline in collective bargaining coverage in the UK, from 82% in the late 1970s to just 23% now, despite the European average still being around 80%. The UK has been hit hardest by anti-union crackdowns, despite collective bargaining being an internationally-recognised human right.
Speakers from the floor noted the surge in outsourcing, the continuing stagnation in wages (a pre-recession trend), the dramatic rise in executive pay and inequality (the CEO average being £4.5m), and the fact that 2/3rds of children in poverty live in a household with at least one parent in work. Others described the rise in casualised labour in Further Education (at 60%), the recent successful organising campaign by BECTU among (largely young and non-British) Visual Effects workers, and other recent organising drives among service sector workers, such as the bakers’ union’s 100% union density among Greggs workers in Leeds. The most popular call from delegates however was for the TUC to ‘name the date’ for a general strike – something brought up at the last TUC conference.
Of particular interest to students who work – often in the un-unionised service sector – some pointed to low union density not always being a barrier, noting the recent successful construction workers campaign against pay cuts in the industry, despite union membership there being just 10%. Being a small workplace was also no barrier – indeed in one speaker’s own outsourced company small size made it easier to organise and quickly reach high levels of density (in his case over 90%) due to campaigns being easier to win at a lower level.
In the session on education, students and teachers voiced opposition to Gove’s reforms, angered by the tactics being used to force good schools to turn into academies despite performing well. Speeches from the floor welcomed that the NUT and NASUWT were striking together for the first time in their history.
A huge groundswell of potential support for an alternative to austerity exists, with PA organiser Sam Fairbairn noting that around 30% of the public consistently oppose all cuts. Co-organiser John Rees called for national action of all forms on the 5th November – Bonfire Night. He also proposed the draft PA declaration, to be fully ratified at the recall People’s Assembly in early 2014 and discussed by local PAs in the meantime.
Excellent participatory sessions saw groups split off to draw answers to important modern problems – media ownership, fixing the political system, reforming the City and so on. The workshop on building local People’s Assemblies saw regional People’s Assemblies begin to emerge through discussion, with one planned for Yorkshire and cities within it. A Facebook page and email list will shortly be established, along with an informal meeting at the end of June in Leeds.
Green MP Caroline Lucas used the conference to announce her plans to introduce a bill this week to renationalise rail. She also called for hope among the left and an end to negativism.
In the closing plenary, Unite union leader Len McClusky called for co-ordinated anti-austerity strike action, mass civil disobedience and all possible resistance – even so far as breaking the anti-union laws – in order to reverse the cuts. He demanded the wealthy pay their taxes, and explained the annual earnings of the top world billionaires could wipe out world poverty. Disabled activist Francesca Martinez said the country’s elite are keen to ‘keep their profits, but share the deficit’.
The People’s Assembly trended on Twitter over the whole of Saturday, and was covered by most of the major news networks. The conference itself built on a number of high-profile local People’s Assembly gatherings in recent months.
Both Nick and I left the conference feeling inspired to help build a People’s Assembly in York, and encouraged that finally, five years after the recession began, the left is starting to get over its squabbles and begin to build a truly united movement against austerity.