Wednesday, 30 November 2011

N30 in Liverpool and Bootle

Fifteen hours later, and all I can say is that I'm fucking done in. Today was the N30 public sector strike, with 3 million workers across 29 unions taking strike action and holding marches and rallies around the country. It was a great day, and truly invigorating - but much more is still to be done before we can hope to win this fight.

I woke up at 4.30 this morning, laying wide awake for the next half hour until my alarm went off. After my normal routine of getting showered and dressed (with extra layers!), walking the dog, then having breakfast, I headed out to the bus. At this point, it was pretty obvious where I was going - with two bags full of placards, a rolled-up banner and a seven-foot long wooden flagpole. The streets were empty, and the only man who passed me wished me luck, saying he was on his way to a picket line himself.

With the bus arriving at half past six, I found myself the first one on the picket line. The next person to arrive at my work was a scab, with headphones in and doing their best to stare at nothing. When I approached them, they dutifully took out their headphones, however after I enquired whether they were going into work the request to stay out in order to defend pensions and jobs was met with "I'm not interested" and the headphones going back in. The second scab to turn up was also adamant that "I don't want to talk about it." Neither could offer up any justification for their actions.

Just before seven, several other pickets turned up along with several senior managers going into work. I talked to one who agreed with me that his pension was under threat too, offered that his wife was on strike and said he hoped we got a good result. But he kept skirting around the issue of why he was going in, referring to the struggle in third person terms. Clearly, the central point of withdrawing your labour was lost on him.

Others who went in were equally evasive with their reasons. Excluding private sector cleaners, maybe twenty people crossed the picket line. Most were of higher pay grades, their response to requests not to cross the line ranging from "I'm not in the union" to selective deafness. One even claimed that it was important that he went in and he couldn't disclose the reasons why. Needless to say, though none could answer the arguments for the strike, none were swayed by them either.

On the positive side, we had an incredible level of support from the public - cars honking at us, lots of people taking our leaflets and people coming up to say it was "about time somebody gave these bastards a fight." We also had a high turnout on the picket line, the numbers there at one point outnumbering the total scabs who came into work between 7am and 5pm. Other picket lines reported similar levels of support. My other half reported seeing lots of people outside both Walton Prison and a police station. There were also a lot of pickets on at Hugh Baird College in the morning.

At about ten to nine, I and other Solidarity Federation comrades who had come down to support the picket lines went on a tour of pickets around Bootle. These included a pharmacy, Job Centre, tax office, council building and call centre. We distributed the latest edition of Catalyst and chatted to strikers, most reporting low numbers of scabs and strong support for the public. They were all pleased to see the solidarity we offered, and the level of support for the action all around gave everyone a morale boost.

One example of such support was the "Battle Bus" organised by Liverpool Against The Cuts. Kicking off at seven o'clock, it toured picket lines around the city, picking up strikes en route to the Pier Head for 11.30. It toured through Bootle between 9 and 9.45, stopping at The Triad where the Liverpool Socialist Singers knocked out a few songs on the picket line before more people embarked on their way into the midday rally. Simply seeing it, union banners hanging off the side and flags waving from the top, really added to the tone of the day.

Just after eleven, I hopped on a normal bus with several others to head into town for the rally. At this point, I started getting phone calls indicating that fascists had been sighted in town. The Occupy Liverpool camp had even been told by police that they would facilitate an EDL demonstration close to the camp that they had made so many threats against. Clearly, there would be some added fun for the day.

The march turned out to be enormous. Several thousand people had gathered at the Pier Head, with several thousand more at the Crown Courts for the smaller march route. In all, there must have been fifteen to twenty thousand people marching through the city, making a hell of a lot of noise and thousands of shoppers lining the route, taking pictures and offering support. At one point, as we snaked past the Liverpool One shopping district, clapping rippled through the crowd and soon exploded into a full round of applause.

In the middle of this, however, I heard cries of "communists out," and turned to see several well known faces from the BNP and the far-right. They pointed and jeered, but even as I shouted back at them to fuck off, they were told to shut up by several old women both on the march and amongst the spectators.

As the march finished at St George's Plateau, you quickly realised the scale of the thing. It wasn't quite the 80,000-strong "monster demonstration" of 1911, but it wasn't too far off. People filled the plateau, the surrounding area, and the pavement right up to the road. It was near impossible to move and it was truly a sight to behold. This was the power of the labour movement, even limited to the public sector, which had until today not been fully realised in the fight against the cuts.

There was another fascist interlude, first with one of them taking pictures of the marchers, then with seven of them being marched from Lime Street Station by police after using minors to hand out their leaflets. However, other than that we mostly milled around by the Occupy Camp, talked to different people and handed out Catalyst.

The rally itself was nothing new. A bunch of speeches which offered the same sentiments heard on the last rally, the one before, the one before that, etc. Quite fun to see was how quickly most of the crowd dispersed once the music started, mostly covers of The Beatles and other old songs. The rain may have helped, but it was incredibly quickly that the vast majority chose the pub over the rally!

After this, I and several Solfed comrades returned to Bootle to show solidarity with those still picketing. The day ended with a call out that the fascists had finally showed up at Occupy, but by the time we raced back up they were gone. Enough people now seem clued into what their game is that they won't pose a serious threat to those camping at the base of Wellington's Column. However, both that and fatigue marked the end of the day for me.

The main positive of the day, aside from the tremendous turnout and support, is that it shows how much the current struggle is radicalising people. There were far more people stood on picket lines in Bootle who hadn't come down before, and overwhelmingly they were the people who had come along to our meetings, received our leaflets and heard me banging on endlessly about the need for workers to push beyond the limited strategy that the trade union leadership is offering and demand more. If we can build on that, it has the potential to become something incredible.

But there are also still limitations. We are still a long way from building up a militant rank-and-file to critical mass. There is much more work to be done if we want to see mass pickets and strikers assemblies on the next strike - and I do. The clear alternative to central rallies where you're talked at by bureaucrats is to rebuild workers' confidence to take the struggle into their own hands.

That work must be done, and moreover it can be done. November 30 was a truly impressive day of action, but if we want to win then the next step has to be shattering all illusions in the union tops and building a rank-and-file movement that can make the country ungovernable.