About 150 people gathered at Goldsmiths College last night for a rally hosted by Lewisham Trades Council to help build for the TUC's March 26th demonstration. The meeting showed the growing determination of trade unionists to take action - but also the frustration at the lack of clear lead from national union leaders.
Doris Smith from the Lewisham Pensioners Forum set a good opening tone, calling on Lewisham councillors to remember the Council's motto: "the welfare of the people is the highest law" and asking what the Government could do if all the London Councils, stood firm together and refused to implement the Government's cuts. Bindz Patel from Goldsmiths Students Union spoke out against cuts to the EMA and Jody McIntyre pointed out the hypocrisy of Cameron in criticising dictatorships while arming them with British weaponry. To cheers Jody said that "they could unseat me from my wheelchair [on the student demonstration in December] but we're going to unseat this Government".
Mick Burke, socialist economist, pointed out that we are in the middle of one of the biggest strikes for years - an investment strike by the banks. This was the real cause of the continuing crisis, not 'excessive' expenditure. In fact, he reminded the meeting that there had been no spending 'splurge' under the last Labour Government - they had spent a lower percentage of GDP than Thatcher - and taxed the wealthy at a lower rate too. Mick correctly said that the banks aren't investing because they can't make a profit. What he didn't spell out, however, is that this is the logic of capitalism. To be implemented, the TUC's programme for investing for 'jobs, growth and justice', needs a socialist plan where the banks are nationalised under democratic working class control and management to make sure that the resources of society are invested to meet public need, not private profit.
Unfortunately, many trade unionists present left frustrated by the contributions from the two national trade union speakers. Heather Wakefield, UNISON Local Government National Secretary gave no impression that UNISON were going to call the national action needed to defend her members from these swingeing cuts, saying that "we've still got a long way to go to convince people" and that "many are still not ready to stick their head above the parapet". TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber talked about having to "win the democratic argument" - presumably a reference to needing to defeat the Con-Dems at the ballot box - but, as a heckler called out, "Labour are making the cuts too". Brendan did make a reference to "serious disputes" that may lie ahead but certainly failed to give the call for joint public sector co-ordinated action that should have been made, instead just calling for "the broadest possible coalition" against the cuts.
That large platform of speakers left no time for debate and gave local trade unionists like myself only time for a quick two minute contribution from the floor. I had the chance to congratulate everyone who had been on the Lewisham Carnival Against Cuts on Saturday - the kind of 'broad coalition' of trade unions, communities and service users that is being built on the ground in opposition to cuts being implemented by all the main parties. I called on trade unionists to build for March 26th - but not to leave it there. I was cheered when I said that the massive demonstration must be a platform to build co-ordinated strike action.
Other rousing contributions from local representatives from UNISON, UCU and PCS were also warmly applauded. Let's hope that Brendan and Heather got the message that Lewisham trade unionists want to take action to defend our communities from these cuts - but that they have a responsibility to call national action.