Somerset Celebrates International Workers Day in Wells

Wells May Day march 2019

This weekend Labour Party members from across Somerset paraded their red flags through the city of Wells in celebration of International Workers Day as countless thousands did around the globe. The Chair of Wells Labour Party, John Fones,addressed the gathering from the bandstand with a rousing speech which we include in full here.

Did we lose – yes.But “Are we downhearted? No?”

After the local elections this week in Mendip and Sedgemoor, should Labour members be mourning and should we be downhearted? We should be sad that that voters chose to show their dissatisfaction with national politics and the Brexit fiasco by voting for people who will do little to turn the tide for ordinary people like you and me.

We should be sad that we are now saddled with a Brexit fiasco that will be the legacy of Tory Posh boys like Cameron, Johnson and Osborne and Gove and the populist rhetoric of a merchant banking spivs turned demagogue who spends their time trousering more cash speaking to right-wing audiences in the States and pandering to racism by slandering and caricaturing working class communities in this country.

john fonesWe should be sad that voters have turned their back on loyal and hard-working councillors like Mick Lerry in Sedgemoor. A man who had he been re-elected, would have been fighting hard in council to promote new social housing schemes in the face of continuing austerity measures from central government.

That we should be sad about.

But should we be downhearted and depressed – no we shouldn’t. Because the labour movement is strong here in Somerset. The labour movement is growing here in Somerset.

The labour movement, working trades unionists, are standing shoulder to shoulder with each other to support each other in campaigns in many different workplaces.

We have an opportunity now. One of the benefits of losing an election is that we can tell it how we see it – not in an attempt to win votes, but in an attempt to build the movement by speaking a few home truths. And I want to speak today about three issues: the economy and the way the economy is impacting the lives of working people.The need for real social housing schemes to support our next generation of working people . And our need to find solidarity with each other and with working people across the world. We should be reaching out to each other locally, nationally and internationally.

I want to refer to three things that I heard Tony Benn saying at rallies just like this one.

Marchers leave Cathedral green in Wells

Together in Wells again. So here we are again in Wells, marching in the grand tradition of workers everywhere, marching in support of workers everywhere.

Marching to show our solidarity and our support for working people here in rural Somerset, and our support for working people in a great manufacturing and industrial town in Swindon, with the workers at the Honda Factory – threatened because the company says it no longer makes business sense, despite the fact that the town will feel as if the heart has been ripped out of the local economy. This is where we should be building the vehicles that will power the green revolution in transport so desperately needed to combat the environmental catastrophe threatening to engulf this century and to wreck the lives of our children and grandchildren. But no – because market forces and so-called business logic dictate otherwise.

How many more jobs are going to be lost to the triple philosophies, the false and pernicious philosophies of Brexit and Austerity and Free Market forces. Jobs lost through a contraction in our economy. Jobs lost due to the asset stripping and handing over of assets to private companies, jobs lost as a result of the iniquitous Private Finance Initiatives instituted under a Blairite New Labour Government that only a socialist government can now roll back.

Bridgwater marchers in Wells

These calamities have resulted in a lack of national and local investment in our future.

How many more companies and organisations are going to be pushed into making workers redundant because of Tory and Lib Dem Austerity measures, because of austerity and a lack of investment.

Remember that Austerity economics are a hark back to the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph, the policies of monetarism that persuaded people to consider investment and state intervention in the economy as anathema.

I remember Tony Benn speaking at a rally in City Hall Newcastle where he said something that like so many things he said is still relevant today. He said (and I paraphrase), “it difficult to understand what is meant by monetarism unless you have a degree in economics, although in truth, a degree in economics makes it even harder to understand monetarism and austerity.

He said the same thing at the Durham Miners’ Gala in the following year.

What does it lead to – losing growth and losing jobs – and I’m talking about real jobs, not the jobs that are being touted around by Tory politicians now, zero hours and minimum hours contracts in so many industries where people, old and young are not sure whether they will have any hours next month and where companies can ride roughshod over workers’ rights because working people don’t know if they’ll even have a job next month.

Trades Unionists, Socialists, activists all marching as one

Just remember when you go shopping next time – just remember the Sainsbury workers who had new contracts imposed on them last year, who were threatened that is they didn’t sign their contracts they would lose their jobs and that they shouldn’t tell anybody about it. Remember that USDAW and Unite trades unionist are standing up to these management practices.

Just remember the Argos workers in Somerset last year who were told their jobs were going to be moved to a different part of the country, just remember the workers in Brakes in Highbridge – now moved to Avonmouth, and just remember the workers – many of them workers from abroad, from the EU and from countries like East Timor – at the Morrisons Distribution centre in Bridgwater, where workers can be told at the last minute each day that they have to stay on and work extra hours – or lose their jobs – this is the result of monetarism and austerity economics.

Just remember as well, that we should be supporting our fellow workers at the Trelleborg company in Bridgwater who are now engaged in an increasingly bitter trade dispute with a management that by the sound of it are adopting anti trade union practices, disciplining a trades unionist for wearing a trade union badge, tearing down notices, assaulting members of picket lines.

In the college where I work as a lecturer, but also where I am proud to be the Chair and Senior Shop Steward of my Union – UCU – we have had two redundancy processes in the last twelve months – the result of austerity and lack of investment in our future.

Through the backstreets towards the sunny uplands (well, the park)

Legacy of nine years of Tory and Lib Dem government

Some Voters seem to have very short memories. This remember is the legacy of the last nine years of Tory and Lib Dem government, a legacy in which students have been saddled with billions of pounds of debt after the LibDems reneged on their promises, a legacy in which workers in the public and private sectors have seen their conditions of service picked away at, their real pay packets eroded by pay caps and non-existent pay awards and their ability to demonstrate and take action against it shackled by draconian Trades Union legislation intended further to hamstring trades unionists and keep working people under the thumb of rich bosses and bad managers.

Let’s not forget that in this time of austerity, when Somerset County Council, a council that has wittingly gone along with the austerity agenda by cutting services but still finds itself as the council most likely to follow in the footsteps of Northampton – a council so broke and useless that it couldn’t even afford to have elections this week – in this time of austerity, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer – Philip Hammond – has not managed to to support local services, local policing, local health and care services and has certainly not managed to invest in our young people and young workers at schools and particularly colleges – but he has managed to put money in the pockets of the rich and the owners and leaders of big business corporations – by how much? In his first give away, he managed to put £71 billion in tax cuts into the pockets of big corporations – since then the total has risen to £110 billion.

Some sang socialist songs

And where does that money go – it’s meant to trickle down to the rest of the economy, but you can be damn sure the trickle has been diverted into huge pay awards for the people at the top rather than going to the people who need that pay and who would use that money to pay for much needed goods and services that would then create more jobs and help the economy grow.

From where have we come today?

What a magnificent march this has been. Are there as many people as last year? We even have minibuses arranged this time.

So – there may be working people here from all over the West Country, Wiltshire, Bristol, Bath, North Somerset – Weston Super Mare, Clevedon, Congresbury, and from NE Somerset – where the Constituency Labour Party was today originally planning to be choosing their candidate to stand against Mr Rees Mogg today, but luckily we are able to welcome them here as guests instead.

Mr Rees Mogg – another Tory Posh boy who seems to do things according to the precepts and practices of a forgotten era. An era of patronage and inherited wealth that does little for the many but continues to line the pockets of the few. Another Tory Posh boy who seems to want to recall not so much the divine right of kings, but to the divine right of Etonian Tory posh boys to tell the rest of us what is good for us, but in the meantime to line their own pockets.

Those pockets of course, now located in the European Union – so as to avoid the ravages of Brexit that he is working so hard to impose on the rest of us.

Solidarity Forever

And what about Dorset – last year we had friends and comrades from the Tolpuddle branch – there’s a place name to conjure with.

I stood there last year with my friend Richard Capps in the graveyard at Tolpuddle as he reminded me that Jeremy Corbyn had been attending the annual commemoration of the sacrifice of those first trade unionists for many years before he became the leader of the Labour Party. Richard and I stood together in Tolpuddle at the grave of the Tolpuddle Martyr James Hammett. James Hammett – a quiet man who was – so some say – prepared to be transported instead of his brother, (whose wife was expecting a baby), and who was transported, and who was then brought back because of the national outcry amongst working people across Britain.

A national outcry that resulted in a silent march across London of 100,000 people. That resulted in the martyrs being returned to their families in England.

That was real SOLIDARITY.

John Fones

And a man who – at the end of his life – in straitened circumstances – placed himself voluntarily in the workhouse so as not to be a further burden on his family. He was a quiet man who did what he could, without fuss to help others. They all did that.  They helped each other.  They were Trades Unionists.

… and I can’t speak here today without mentioning my friends and comrades from the Bridgwater Trades Union Council from Bridgwater, as Dave Chapple reminded us last year, the working-class capital of Somerset and indeed the West Country.

My union, UCU, organised a strike this year at Bridgwater and Taunton College and we settled on a deal that, for the first time in the memory of Bridgwater and Taunton College workers, achieved an across the board pay deal for all workers including 5% for the lowest paid workers in the College.

This would not have been achieved without our hugely successful picket line and the support of our friends and comrades in the Bridgwater and Taunton Trades Union Councils – notably our friends in the CWU, all of whom turned away, having refused to cross our picket line.

We support each other – CWU, FBU, RMT, BECTU, USDAW, Unison and Unite members all attended to support our picket and our demonstration in the centre of the town later, where I was proud and humbled to be able to speak on the steps of the statue to Robert Blake, the great Parliamentarian General at Sea who fought so successfully against the royalists in the 16th century.

The industrial traditions of Somerset

Today we remember the workers in our local history – miners in Radstock, mining on the Mendips, drainage workers organised in the first instance by the monks of Glastonbury – and, even then, bringing in expertise from the Netherlands to sort out the flooding on the Somerset Levels, agricultural workers and workers in our coastal industries,

Through the cathedral city

We remember the workers in the industries now long gone. Agricultural workers in the vast number of farms and other enterprises involved in the production of our basic human needs – food and drink.

In Highbridge – railway workers at that great junction between the GWR and the Somerset and Dorset line, moving building materials, foodstuffs, milk, leather, sheepskin, timber products.

Workers at those great wharves on the River Parrett and the River Brue, workers digging clay for the brickworks in Bridgwater and Highbridge. You might be living today in a house made from Somerset bricks made there many years ago. Probably better quality materials than some of the second class stuff being used in so called “affordable housing” today.

21st century industries

Trade Unionists should be standing together in all of our 21st Century industries – Agriculture, Health and Social Care, Heritage and Tourism, Logistics and Transport, Education & training, children’s services, Retail, the Charity and Voluntary Sector, Communications and IT, Media industries and gaming, Sport and leisure, Lifestyle, hair and beauty, Construction – and the list goes on.

We also include Non-carbon-based Power generation industries which should be linked with our green agenda, but seem mostly concerned in this area with providing investment opportunities for international power generation companies and construction companies with terrible records on blacklisting trades unionists. Fortunately, we have our Unite shop stewards Richard and PJ at Hinkley Point C to help protect the rights of the workers on those sites.

Young people are showing us the way on the green agenda and we should be responding and answering their questions, inviting real science to guide us and not allowing the misguided anti-science agenda of Nigel Lawson and Claire Fox – a new convert to the merchant banker’s “in my pocket” Party.

And what about our green agenda?

That green agenda that will only happen with government intervention, that will only come about when governments stop trying to persuade business and manufacturing to go down the green route, but rather mandate them to do just that through the use of strong and far reaching legislation – if you want to give tax breaks to industry, then here is a prime candidate for a new green tax agenda that is not there just to line posh boys’ and investment bankers’ pockets.

Long speech isn’t it John…..

Which Unions

So who is here today – I am here from the UCU – the University and College Union, there will be other teachers here today? Members of NEU & NAS/UWT? Representatives from Unite and Unison? USDAW and GMB?  Transport workers are here today – RMT and Unite, maybe even some ASLEF members?  And what about our magnificent friends and comrades in the Bridgwater CWU – who never cross a picket line and who supported us so well in our UCU dispute.

Why do we continue to be engaged in this political struggle?

For better economic conditions and real investment that will transform the working and everyday lives of working people and an end to running down our services in the name of market forces, schools and colleges competing with each other for the same students, Hospitals and health trusts competing for patients, the assets of the NHS being sold off to private developers who then go on to win contracts for rebuilding the very same hospitals in a different place, it’s always the market that wins and the organisations that should be run on a principle of service to people becomes yet another organisation that is run solely for another principle – PROFIT.

For better working and living conditions – and that means more and better housing built by local authorities returning at the very least to Parker Morris Standards (standards abandoned by the Tories in 1980 because it didn’t suit the bosses of the big building companies) and who work solely for their local working people and not by private companies whose motivation is not the welfare of local people but profit, pure and simple.

picture from a totally different demo

Tony Benn made the point repeatedly that by offering people the chance to own their own homes, by removing the social housing stock that provided for millions of working-class people, the Tories also offered everyone the chance to take on a mortgage and place ourselves completely in hock to the banks and financiers. He told us that we should forever be bondage to the banks, with the result that we shall be much more timorous about taking industrial action when we don’t know if we shall be able to meet our debts next month – He was right about that as well and we have to work very hard to persuade our fellow trades unionists that engaging in a dispute will not mean ruin for themselves and their families. It’s all part of the Tory and Capitalist agenda to keep working people down.  And if we are not careful it will work.  Be on your guard.  Just remember that the latest government scheme to subsidise first time house ownership has simply put more money in the pockets of the owners of the big building companies – and there still aren’t enough houses.  Affordable housing, subsidies for first time owners – these schemes will not help.  The only thing that will help to revive and grow our housing stock is a strategic reintroduction of local authority social housing with local residents having a voice and a right to make decisions about the management of that social housing – you don’t have to owe thousands of pounds on a mortgage to be able to have a different coloured front door and to be proud of where you live.

And lastly why do we need to join unions, is it in case we get into trouble or are made redundant? Yes – but the main reason we join a union is not to look after ourselves, but to protect each other.

Thank goodness we don’t have to guard against the vile anti-union practices found in places like Columbia, where if you are a trade union activist you are likely to be murdered by any street thug who feels like earning $50 dollars from a company boss who thinks you are threatening to fight for workers’ rights in her or his company.

Nevertheless you still need to be on your guard.

Tony Benn reminded us that whatever we win this year, we shall need to win it again next year.

The event winds up

The forces of Capitalism and Management bullying will try every trick in the book to chip away at your conditions of service, every trick in the book to resist paying you the wages you deserve, every trick in the book to ensure that the profits of your industry go to managers, bosses and big shareholders – and not to the working people whose daily, hour-by-hour work creates the wealth that then stops in the pockets and investment funds of the few.

You need to be in a trade union.

You need to keep fighting – and that’s what we shall do.

If you are not vigilant, then whatever gains you make in a struggle this year, will be gone again next year. “You had a pay rise last year”, they will say. “You surely don’t expect another one.”

The forces of Capitalism and Management will be down on you again and again and again and …

Unless you actually struggle and fight every single year, you will lose it.

So “Are we going to continue to struggle?” Yes we are.

“Are we going to continue to fight?” Yes we are.

And “Are we going to continue to win, and win, and win again?” Yes we are.

Thank you, friends and comrades.

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