Amy Gilligan reflects on Saturday’s TUC demonstration.
The large TUC demonstration on Saturday saw tens of thousands of trade unionists march through central London. Branch banners from across the country were visible in many of the union blocks, and groups from outside of the capital made up a substantial proportion of those marching. The demonstration was significantly larger than I was expecting: the Unison block alone took almost 25 minutes to enter Hyde Park. Women made up the majority of this and several other blocks.
The strikes in health last week clearly played an important role in mobilising health workers, both those who had been on strike and those who hadn’t. Banners in defence of the NHS were present throughout the demonstration, and the health service will certainly be a key mobilising issue over coming months. The Royal College of Nursing, joined by Russell Brand, formed one of the most lively parts of the march, and had mobilised numbers much larger than on previous demonstrations. They weren’t on strike last week, but on the demonstration RCN members were chanting that they should be being balloted.
It was also notable that unions not known for their militancy, such as Prospect, had sizable delegations, while others had a smaller presence than they had had on previous demonstrations. The NASWUT were, unusually, more visible than the NUT, possibly a product of the failure of the NUT leadership to join in the proposed strike action last week with local government workers (that itself was called off). This contrasted with the young and vibrant NUT block on the People’s Assembly demonstration in June, just before they took strike action on 10th July.
Organisation of the demonstration into fairly rigid union blocks meant it was visually impressive, but it did make the march feel to some extent that it was a ‘parade’ of the labour movement. The parade feeling was positive in that it was a product of people mobilising on the basis of clearly identifying as trade unionists, but on the other hand it meant the march felt somewhat directionless. It felt that the demonstration lacked much of the ‘edge’ and anger that was present on TUC demonstrations over the last few years: people were there because they felt ‘it’s the thing you should be do as a trade unionist’, rather than necessarily being there because this would be the way that they’d achieve a pay rise. There wasn’t a great deal of chanting, although union whistles and horns were used to full effect.
What the march didn’t do was draw in other social movements of the sort that were present on the ‘No to Austerity’ and Climate Change marches. It also had an older age profile than either of these marches. In part this is because it seemed to have been mainly built internally by each individual union, without much attempt to mobilise more widely or having people, particularly from London, just turn up.
Saturday showed that there is potential for trade unions to mobilise large numbers of people. However, the week before also showed that trade union leaders are also capable of demobilising workers when the leaders of Unison, Unite and GMB called off the local government strike. This is because the leaders of the big unions seem unwilling to rock the boat in the run up to a general election. If there’s going to be any sort of fightback between now and next May, we are going to have to organise independently of them.