Life has got a lot more involved and busier since my last blog. Time seems to be precious and the blogging has been duly relegated towards the bottom of the priorities. I intend to do a “catch up” piece soon, but one recent event was so momentous I felt it time to get back on the keys and capture the experience.

Defend Public ServicesYesterday I travelled to London and joined thousands of others (estimates range between 250,000 and 500,000, but I favour something towards the top end) on the March for the Alternative. This was a demonstration and rally against the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s cuts to public services, and their refusal to consider other fairer alternatives to reducing the budget deficit. My day started at 5am as I hauled my unwilling body out of bed, and I managed to get a bus into Leeds to make the coach rendez-vous point in time. Settled on the back seat with Dave, Daljit and Stewie, we set off to the capital at 6:45am.

The decision to park the coaches at Wembley and have people travel in by the Underground had been controversial at UNISON branch meetings. However it went smoothly and turned out to be a good idea, particularly as London Transport told us to pay at the destination station, and did not enforce it there either! (Plus it gave us chance to see the new Wembley Stadium). So we were at Waterloo station around 11:30am, and soon crossing the Waterloo Bridge with many other protesters. That was where we had first glimpse of the magnitude of the event. Victoria Embankment was rammed solid with people for as far as the eye could see. A truly stunning sight.

Victoria EmbankmentTaking photos from Waterloo Bridge led to my first separation of the day. The lads went off in front, but some how I ended up overtaking them as we tried to make our way along the Strand way to the access to the Embankment. The first feeder street was blocked off by stewards, and the next was packed solid but I eventually made my way down it. The swapping of text messages allowed the other three lads to catch up at the bottom of Arundel Street, where the confused crowd was slowly heading towards the main body of the demonstration. The reunion was short lived however, as just as we got on the Embankment I spotted a Yorkshire CND banner, snapped a photo of it, briefly spoke to one of the bearers who I knew, and turned to find my companions gone. There was no way of spotting them in such a sea of people, and the next time I would see them was on the backseat of the coach, late and delaying our departure!

It is impossible to do justice to the scenes I witnessed. I’ve never been in such a huge mass of people before. The mood was upbeat, almost celebratory, a loud blend of chants, whistles, drums, and various performing bands. One moment it would be the brass of the RMT Union, the next the wail of bagpipes. The crowd was colourful too, Trade Unions wearing their colours, individuals in fancy dress, banners and placards of all hues. I was there in my capacity of UNISON Steward but I was also supporting the Green Party and CND, fleece replete with badges, UNISON flag in one hand, Coalition of Resistance placard in the other. Westminster Green PartyThe hunt for a Green Party placard proved fruitless, leaving me kicking myself for not being organised enough to make and bring my own. However there were a large number of Green Party banners and placards present, including the beautiful Westminster Green Party creation.

The march to Hyde Park took much longer than expected and I think the organisers planned. I did spend much of my time photographing and filming events, but even so progress was slow anyway. There was a jam in Whitehall approaching Nelson’s Column, but I was surprised how few had gathered outside Downing Street when I reached it. However if the Prime Minister was home he would have known we were there, treated to sustained and loud booing. The lads texted me to say that they had reached Hyde Park and the rally was drawing to a close so they were heading for a pint. I was determined to reach the park at least, so battled on, by this time hungry and feet aching. En route I passed Fortnum & Mason, and the Ritz Hotel, which later were making the headlines due to an occupation, and an Anarchist attack. The latter was looking worse for wear, paint splashes up the frontage, while two confused guests peered down from their window at the baying crowd below.

I made Hyde Park about 3:45pm, missing the major speakers by some while. Probably just as well as I doubt I’d have been impressed by what Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband had to say. It seemed rank hypocrisy for him to be speaking at a rally about the alternatives to cuts when his party was advocating cutting too, merely changing the speed and severity of these measures. There had been a campaign #WhyisntCarolinespeaking on Twitter, and many Green Party members had contacted the TUC to ask why Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas was not on the platform. The Green Party’s manifesto and policies contain the alternatives that the March was calling for, where Labour’s do not. These requests had been turned down, no surprise that the Trade Union movement wanted to give Miliband chance to garner support. The simple fact is that Caroline Lucas would have wiped the floor with him, and could legitimately claim that she was offering an alternative, the sort that the three main parties could never do while a neo-liberal economic political consensus exists.

After walking past the stage, and over to Speaker’s Corner, I sat on the grass for a much needed sarnie and drink. A check of the map showed that Bond Street Underground station wasn’t too far away, and easiest for the Jubilee line back to Wembley Park. Green Party ProtestersBemused shoppers in Oxford Street took photos of the stragglers heading away from the rally, still chanting and waving their banners. Thankfully the queue at Bond Street tube station wasn’t too long, and I was away down the escalators. I bumped into one of my colleagues, Barry, on the platform, and remarkably there was two Councillors from Leeds in the carriage, one from my own ward. I’d really had enough of standing up by this point, but the train was full and there was little hope of a seat until Wembley. One last walk along Wembley Way, and we were back at the coaches. A flurry of text messages hurried Dave, Daljit, and Stewie on their way, holed up in Carnaby Street for a beer or two, with them finally arriving huffing and puffing following a last gasp dash. The coach left at 5:45pm, late but not drastically, and sailed effortlessly out of the car park and away from Wembley toward the motorway. A short break later we were back in Leeds at 9:40pm, and I got home around 10:20pm, some 17 hours after getting up. Exhausted, aching all over, but exhilarated. When’s the next march?!

Some more photos here.

Despite what you might think, this isn’t a whinge about the dreadful weather we’ve been having. Although I am getting rather annoyed that Summer seems to be disappearing into perpetual rain and a need for stout garments. No the title of this blog is a play on the phrase “Winter of Discontent”, taken from Shakespeare’s Richard III but used to described the Winter of 1978-9 when Britain faced widespread strikes by Trade Unions demanding larger pay rises for their members. The actions of the Trade Union movement back then were blamed for the demise of the Labour Government in the 1979 General Election. A cruel twist seeing as the Trade Union movement actually gave birth to the Labour Party and was its primary fundraisers. Fast forward nearly thirty years and the current Labour Government is in trouble again in the polls. Now to add to its woes the Trade Unions are once again kicking up a bit of a fuss. History repeating itself?

It’s unlikely that the industrial action carried out by Local Government sector workers today and tomorrow will enter into political folklore like the disruption brought about in 1978/9. Rubbish will not pile up on the streets, the dead will not go unburried. Mrs Thatcher’s severe anti-union employment laws of the 1980s will mean that sympathetic workers cannot strike in support. However Gordon Brown can well do without this sort of irritation from his union allies if he is to turn around negative polls and win the next election. While I do not wish for a return of a Conservative government (18 consecutive years of Conservative rule is enough to put you off the bastards for life), I have little sympathy for Labour as they have brought this on themselves.

I am a member of UNISON the public sector union. The union’s 600,000 members were balloted about strike action over the recent pay offer, and the reponse was in favour of strike action if necessary. As a result I am on strike for two days this week. The employers have offered a 2.45% rise while UNISON have asked for 6%. This might seem greedy but consider this…

Mortgages up 8%
Petrol up 22%
Bread up 9%
Milk up 17%
Fuel bills up 15%
Inflation up 4.3%

But council workers are being offered a pay rise of just 2.45%. Take inflation into account and it’s a pay CUT. Coming on top of 10 years below-inflation pay rises, it’s no wonder UNISON think this is the last straw. So we are striking on 16th and 17th July, and possibly again in the future if necessary.

It’s not because we want to. Many UNISON members are low-paid, part-time women workers, struggling to pay the bills – losing two days pay for strike action is not something done lightly. We are striking because the employers won’t even consider talking to us about a better offer. We know that the services we provide are essential to our community, and that shutting them down for two days will cause disruption and we’re genuinely sorry if people are inconvenienced. We just can’t afford another pay cut.

Furthermore unless we get a fair settlement on pay, local communities will suffer too. Services will simply get worse as councils continue to lose committed staff and struggle to find new employees prepared to work for such low pay. My particular department has problems finding high calibre IT staff as it cannot compete with the private sector salaries. Short staffed the department soldiers on trying to provide the same service with fewer resources, putting extra pressure on those who remain. Local council employees empty your bins, clean your schools, conduct your marriages and civil partnerships, care for your parks, check the safety of your food and look after your children in nurseries, schools and in care. And so much more.

The Labour government is desperate to keep inflation down and to avoid an economic recession. That strategy includes keeping public sector pay rises to the minimum. While there is money for wars and bailing out failing financial institutions there is nothing for the very section of society that the Labour party was set up to represent. Get it sorted Gordon. Public services cannot be done on the cheap, quality cannot be rewarded by empty praise and thanks alone. Support a decent pay rise for low paid local government workers.