The People’s Assembly Against Austerity – A Round-Up

Over 4000 gathered in Westminster Central Hall in London on Saturday for the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, organised by the Coalition of Resistance with the backing of major unions. The day aimed to be one of ‘discussion and debate’ focusing on how to ‘turn the tide on austerity’. 15 sessions and workshops took place to discuss how to tackle the cuts, protect public services and launch co-ordinated action – building on massive local PA gatherings in recent months.

Owen Jones began 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 plenary, 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. She encouraged delegates to ‘educate, agitate and organise’ in communities and workplaces across Britain. Unite’s Steve Turner spoke to promote the TUC and Unite bus tours currently going round the UK, with Unite’s ‘People United’ tour launching from the People’s Assembly on the day.

In the ‘Mobilising Millions: Re-Unionising the UK’ session, a range of speakers from both the floor and panel discussed how to revitalise the trade union movement here, especially among the traditionally unorganised.

  • Kelly Tomlinson from Unite explained the urgency of educating young people about unions, and urged delegates to talk to their friends who are not members and get them involved. She pointed to the recently established Unite Community membership scheme as a way of organising those who aren’t in work.
  • 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 BFAWU’s 100% union density among Greggs workers in Leeds!  One speaker congratulated last Thursday’s strike at Huddersfield College which was 80-pickets strong. A key call from delegates was for the TUC to ‘name the date’ for a general strike.
  • Unite construction workers also pointed to low union density not always being a barrier, noting the recent successful ‘sparks’ campaign against pay cuts by grass-roots activists in the sector. Another speaker also said being a small workplace was no barrier – indeed in his own outsourced company it made it easier to organise and quickly reach high levels of density (in his case over 90%) due to campaigns being easier to win with a small workforce.

In other sessions, Unite’s Andrew Murray spoke of the need for workers to make the country ‘ungovernable’ if austerity continues, pointing to up-coming co-ordinated industrial action. 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 PA’s in the meantime.

Excellent participatory workshops 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.

The People’s Assembly trended on Twitter over the whole of Saturday, and was covered by most of the major news networks.

In the closing plenary, 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 – to reverse the cuts. He demanded of the wealthy – ‘pay your taxes, you greedy bastards!’, 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’.

Throughout the day speakers called on delegates to support the NUT/NASUWT 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.

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