Monday, 7 May 2018

Reading's May Day Rally and March, 7 May 2018

Reading Trades Union Council's new banner makes its debut

On the early Bank Holiday Monday, 7 May, the Reading labour movement - joined by comrades from other local communities - amassed in the Forbury Gardens for the annual workers' festival - the May Day rally and march. Organised by the Reading Trades Union Council, the wealth and variety of the speakers, marchers and spectators was a credit to Reading's sense of solidarity. The speakers covered a range of subjects, respecting the fact that May Day is an international event, marked annually since 1889 following the Socialist International's call for a workers' annual day of protest at their first conference in Paris. Often associated with trade unionism, International Workers' Day is in fact a celebration of labour - both industrial and political - so it was perfectly appropriate that, behind the banners of the Reading Trades Union Council and the Slough Trades Council was that of the Reading & District Labour Party - later followed by other parties of the working class, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Britain.
Nick Hatton, the banner designer, with his creation
The Reading Trades Union Council was delighted to be able to display its new banner, which made its first outing during the rally. The design was subject to debate for a year before ideas were presented to Nick Hatton (Wokingham Labour Party) who produced a splendid synthesis of trade unionists' priorities. Nick captured local landmarks such as the Royal Berkshire Hospital, the Maiwand Lion and The Blade, referenced old industries (biscuit manufacture) and expanding ones (the railways) and gave a nod to historical struggles (the 1916 women's strike at Huntley & Palmers and the protest marches against nuclear weapons of the 1960s-80s). Accompanying these local references on the obverse of the banner are ageless slogans of the labour movement ('Unity is Strength', 'Knowledge is Power', 'Workers United', etc.) while the reverse honours three towering figures of Reading's past struggles: Sister Thora Silverthorne, Ian Mikardo MP and Alderman Len Quench.

John Partington (TSSA & RTUC) and Chris Reilly (RMT & RTUC)
There was no shortage of interest in RTUC's banner, with John Partington (TSSA) and Chris Reilly (RMT), the RTUC President, pleased to pose beside it.

Chris Williamson MP with Steve Geary (USDAW & RTUC)

Similarly, Chris WIlliamson, MP for Derby North who came to Reading especially for the May Day event, joined Steve Geary (USDAW) at the banner.

Reading Greenpeace
As well as trade unionists and politicians, Reading's May Day attracted other organisation with shared concerns. Reading Greenpeace brought their banner and hosted a stall, focusing on their concerns about fracking and also the pollution bombshell the world is faced with from plastic waste.

One initiative Greenpeace are promoting is a return to paper bags - recycled, off course - in shops and supermarkets to replace plastic bags and packaging.

Reading's Global Justice Now contingent
Global Justice Now, a group very active in Reading, hosting regular events in RISC on London Street, also attended with a stall of literature.

Reading University Marxist Society out in force
It was great to welcome students to the May Day event, with the Reading University Marxist Society bringing banners and attending in numbers.
Neil Adams (right, UNITE & RTUC) with the Socialist Party
The Reading Socialist Party, including two RTUC delegates, John Gillman and Neil Adams (both Unite), had a stall - well stocked with campaigning literature and information about current hot topics. They also kindly hosted the RTUC's own modest book collection which contained literature on the history of the labour movement - including two local publications: the memoir of Len Quelch, a former trade unionist and Labour representative on Reading Borough Council, and We Cannot Park on Both Sides, Mike Cooper and Ray Parkes's history of the Reading volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.

Justice for Orgreave
Justice for Orgreave attended the day with a stall, publicising the injustice meted out on the miners of South Yorkshire in 1984, who were indiscriminately attacked by the police then charged with rioting and imprisoned en masse. The miners and their supporters have been calling for an enquiry for decades and - following the success of the Hillsborough Enquiry in recent years - hope is still high, so long as the general public get behind them. Visitors on the day were encouraged to sign a petition calling for an enquiry - a petition which is also available online.

Banners at the bandstand
Around the Forbury Bandstand, from where the first batch of speeches took place, banners and flags were displayed in anticipation of the march. Greenpeace, Education Unlimited, NHS Not For Sale and the IWW regaled the scene side by side.

More banners at the bandstand
As did the flags of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Communist Party of Britain and the Reading & District Labour Party.

RMT's Reading Branch banner
The resplendent banner of the Reading RMT branch was striking as ever, alongside flags of Unite and Reading Pride.

Chris Reilly introduces the speakers
At 12:30, Chris Reilly took up the mantle of compère and introduced the first speaker, Chris Williamson, Labour MP for Derby North.
Chris Williamson MP commences the orations

After having addressed the Reading University Labour and Cooperative Society a fortnight earlier, Chris was already known to some of those present and his staunch defense of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party leadership and policies was familiar to even more. Chris made a powerful speech on the positives of Labour's Manifesto commitments, citing large scale public support for renationalisation of the rail industry, water and other utilities. He also stressed the economic benefits of these policies, however, with rail franchises costing the tax payer millions in subsidies whilst often failing to operate as viable service providers. The East Coast franchise is a case in point, being recently bailed out by the government (for the second time) in contrast to the much reduced subsidy and the profits being returned to the government by it when it was being run by (the publicly-owned) Directly Operated Railways. Similarly, Chris was critical of the oligopoly of the energy sector and the regional monopolies of the water companies, offering the public little or no choice whilst following each others' pricing policies.

Ben Chacko, editor of the Morning Star
The second speaker was Ben Chacko, editor of Britain's only socialist daily newspaper, the Morning Star. Ben gave a brief account of the paper, emerging from Communist Party ownership in the 1960s to being a cooperative ventured, owned by its readers and financially supported by many left wing organisations, including several trade unions. The main thrust of Ben's speech tackled media ownership and the struggle the Labour Party, trade unions and other progressive organisations and individuals face trying to gain coverage. Ben referenced recent reportage - in both print and televisual media - of the Salisbury nerve agent attack against the Skripals and the alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria. The Russian state was quickly accused of being behind both incidents - by the Conservative Government and the mass media - and Jeremy Corbyn was demonised for suggesting evidence was required before such serious allegations be made. Like Corbyn, the Morning Star maintained a more critical stance towards the initial accusations - and time has shown that clear cut responsibility for both attacks has been impossible to demonstrate thus far.

Steve Hedley, Senior Assistant General
Secretary of the RMT
The next speaker was the Senior Assistant General Secretary of the RMT, Steve Hedley - a returnee to RTUC having previously joined our 2016 pre-Referendum panel discussion on the pros and cons of leaving or remaining within the European Union. Steve talked about the interaction between the industrial and the political wings of the labour movement and the RMT's current debate on whether to reaffiliate to the Labour Party. Although the RMT ceased to be an affiliate trade union in 2004 it has continued to support political campaigns - including financing Labour candidates who represent its interests. Steve acknowledged, however, that Labour nationally under Jeremy Corbyn has moved closer to the RMT position and the case for reaffiliation is (in his opinion) strong - especially given the added influence reaffiliation would give to the RMT is shaping Labour Party policy. Steve also talked about areas of industrial struggle the RMT are engaged in, supporting blacklisted members in their fight for justice and opposing the imposition of Driver-only Operated trains - a national campaign against several rail franchises, though one won against Great Western Railway which has agreed not to expand its use on the new electrified Western Route.

John Booth, Justice for Orgreave
Following Steve was John Booth from Justice for Orgreave, the campaign for an inquiry into the South Yorkshire Police's alleged illegal activity in kettling and beating Orgreave miners and sympathisers during the Great Miners' Strike of 1984-85. John cited examples of 'fake news' 30 years before our current usage of the term, with the media reversing film to make a police baton charge look like an act of self-defence against strikers' aggression. In fact, the police (some of whom were alleged soldiers in police uniforms) charged the strikers and meted out unjustified punishments without legal authority. Miners were arrested and imprisoned for long stretches without trial - accused of rioting, which carried a potential life sentence at that time. Despite the length of time since the Orgreave incident, John is hopeful justice will come - with the 2016 Hillsborough Inquiry (involving the same police force) offering hope for delayed justice to the victims of Orgreave.

Samantha Wathen of Keep Our NHS Public (Swindon)
From Swindon, Samantha Wathen spoke on behalf of Keep Our NHS Public. Samantha told her own story - witnessing the progressive attacks on health and social care but keeping her head down and pushing on with her own life until complications during the birth of her two children risked her life and the dedicated staff of the Great Western Hospital saved her. That experience caused a 'Road to Damascus' conversion and Samantha threw herself into research about the NHS, government policy and the heroic efforts and results delivered by healthcare staff in the face of severe underfunding. Samantha was clear - the NHS does not require reform or 'improvement' through private sector involvement; it needs investment. The radicalisation of junior doctors in recent years over proposed contractual reform and of nurses over this year's pay negotiations show the impact of government policy. Staff sectors which traditionally didn't 'fight back' - held to ideological ransom with accusations of putting patients at risk if they took industrial action - are now realising that securing their future in their professions is in fact a way of reducing patient risk.

Aris Shukuroglou of the Reading
University Marxist Society
The final two speakers from the outdoor session represented the two sides of the university workforce - the students and the staff. Aris Shukuroglou of the Reading University Marxist Society presented a forceful argument for why students need to be considered (and should consider themselves) as workers in a monetised, marketised higher education system. A system where everything has a price - from tuition fees and accommodation to textbooks and other resources - and unprofitable departments are closed down promotes exploitation and immiseration of the student workforce. The pressure of workload, scrutiny of exam results and fear of post-graduation debt load result in increasing levels of mental health problems and high drop-out rates. But it can - and must - instead be channeled into militant action and the emergence of a political consciousness. During the recent university staff strike, led by UCU, a new sense of solidarity emerged among significant swathes of the student population - most graphically represented by the Marxist Society which staged an occupation of Whiteknights House - Reading University's administrative headquarters.

Par Kumaraswami from UCU
Par Kumaraswami of the University and College Union took up some of Aris's themes, decrying the marketisation of higher education and describing the staff bitterness caused by the pension reform dispute between UCU and the employers (Universities UK). Although the university staff have recently accepted the compromise offer made by UUK - it is contingent on a revaluation of the University Superannuation Scheme and further talks between the trade union and the employers.

The reverse of the Reading Trades Union Council banner
Following the speeches, the various banners and flags were assembled in preparation for the march. Reading Trades Union Council's banner - making its debut - took pride of place at the head of the march, followed by Slough Trades Council's and that of the Reading & District Labour Party.
Peter Woodward (Unite) and David McMullen (GMB) bear the RTUC
banner at the head of the mustering procession

The procession gathers
Solidarity from Slough Trades Council

Cllr Ruth McEwan (Unison), Cllr Rachel Eden (GMB), Micky Leng and
Billie Reynolds (Unison) with the Reading & District Labour Party banner

Reading's RMT Branch contingent

Kevin Brandstatter and Nikki Dancey of GMB and RTUC

John Partington (right) with a retired TSSA member

Chris Reilly and the RTUC lead the march down Friar Street
Once assembled, Chris Reilly, President of the RTUC and delegate from the RMT, led the procession, marching from the Forbury Gardens, down Friar Street and along West Street before continuing down Broad Street, Kings Street and Kings Road to the Outlook Pub.

RTUC on the march down Friar Street

Reading and District Labour Party march down Friar Street

The IWW join the parade
Once at the Outlook Pub, marchers could relax with refreshments in the booked downstairs room, and further speakers came forward.

Merry Cross of DPAC
Merry Cross of Berkshire's Disabled People Against Cuts commenced the afternoon session of addresses. Merry spoke on the campaigns DPAC are running - for which she welcomes solidarity action from other organisations and individuals - such as opposition to the Spare Room Subsidy (aka the Bedroom Tax), to the continued imposition of Universal Credit and to cuts to the NHS (particularly mental health services). Merry talked the audience through the barriers to access which disabled people face on a daily basis - especially since so many adapted vehicles have been taken off them by the thieving assessors of the personal independence payments. Many victims of the assessors remain prisoners in their homes or tensions have developed within families due to new reliances imposed on disabled people as a result of the new restrictions on mobility. These tensions and sense of helplessness are creating increased instances of depression, self-harm and suicide and throwing more pressure on the NHS and social care providers - at a time when healthcare funding is being restricted and staffing levels are at a crisis point.

Cherie Elston speaks on Justice for Colombia
Cherie Elston, speaking on Justice for Colombia, educated her audience on the civil war in Colombia and the social and economic impacts of it on the present generation. She spoke on the continued divisions in the country and the slow return of trust. She spoke of the economic hardship suffered and the need for both foreign investment in the country but also support for domestic industries and training and education to empower Colombians to determine their own future course.

Wendy Thomson from the Women's Equality Party
Wendy Thomson of the Women's Equality Party followed, reminding her listeners of the continued disabilities faced by women in society. This might be through male sense of entitlement leading to harassment and violence against women, or discrimination in the workplace during consideration of reward and promotion and - of course - the challenge for women of retaining their economic status in the workplace during and after career breaks when taking maternity leave and perform parenting duties (which is still a woman's preserve much more than a man's).

Kathy McCubbing from Palestine Solidarity
The final two speeches related to Palestine Solidarity. Kathy McCubbing and Jim Penn touched on historical context before talking about the discrimination faced by Palestinians - both in the Palestinian Territories and in Israel, and both Israeli-Palestinians and the stateless Palestinians living as refugees in their own land. The speakers identified areas of Israeli breach such as the occupation of Palestinian land and the continued expansion of Jewish Settlements in direct contravention of United Nations resolutions.

Jim Penn from Palestine Solidarity
They also highlighted daily barriers faced by Palestinians, such as border checks, Israeli military harassment and the constant economic disruption to international trade and aid directed against the Palestinians and their supporters by the Israeli state. Palestine has friends throughout the world, a strong liberation movement within the Palestinian Territories and support from pro-Palestine Israelis. Kathy and Jim encouraged continued support for Palestine and publicity of Israeli crimes against their practically besieged neighbour.

The Retreat Singers serenade the day to a conclusion
The highly successful day - with speeches, banners, flags, a march and enthusiastic people (adults and children from Reading and further afield) - was wrapped up with music from the Retreat Singers, friends of Reading Trades Union Council who have been welcomed to several events over the past couple of years and who never fail to entertain and keep spirits high!

Reading Trades Union Council would like to thank the speakers, singers and attendees - and we look forward to seeing you again at next year's International Workers' Day march - as well as many other events before then!

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