Thursday, 10 November 2011

Total policing at London demos

Students and electricians demonstrated in London today. Though they are ostensibly protesting over different issues, the link between them is opposition to attacks on the working class by bosses and politicians. But the state was out in force too, following its attempts to intimidate people into not turning out to protest.

The Unite Union had designated today as a national day of action for electricians. The issue at the heart of this is de-skilling and pay cuts, following from Balfour Beatty and other employers vowing to scrap the longstanding JIB agreement. Not satisfied with how Unite was handling matters, the electricians formed the Sparks rank-and-file group, and has become a focal point for workers' anger through a series of unofficial protests, walkouts and occupations. At first, this led union officials to condemn the rank-and-file as "cancerous." However, the sheer ferocious militancy of the group has over time changed their minds.

That militancy was evident from first thing this morning, when 600 or so electricians broke through police times several times and marched to various sites across London. They called workers out with shouts of "one out, all out" before eventually making their way to the official Unite demonstration.

There, Len McCluskey received cheers when he declared: "I want to be clear. I welcome the work of the rank and file committee. I welcome direct action as part of this campaign." However, it is clear that they have been forced to this point by that direct action and will be looking for a way to first control then demobilise the movement. Adam Ford has documented the unfolding events in the most depth of any blogger I'm aware of and his analysis of how they're doing this by limiting the strike ballot to only Balfour Beatty workers is well worth reading.

One electrician told the Socialist Worker, "we have to put more and more pressure on the officials to make their talk real." However, it is clear that they need to do more than that - there is a limit to how far the officials can be pushed and at that limit the rank-and-file need to have a way to take control of the struggle for themselves. Otherwise all that can happen is sell out and demobilisation, if later than union tops originally intended it.

That said, the rest of the day appears to have provided plenty of interesting moments. The students march was kept apart from the electricians, but some students appear to have been able to circumvent this. Stories of students staging a sit-down protest in solidarity with sparks kettled by the police is definitely one of the more positive stories of the day.

However, it was evident yesterday that the police would be coming out with the explicit aim of repressing protest. This began with the news that officers were authorised to use "baton rounds" - a clear attempt to scare people off the demo, as well as dangerous incitement given the deadly record of their use in Northern Ireland. Then there were the threatening letters to a number of people who had previously been arrested at protests, regardless of whether or not they were convicted, essentially threatening them and warning them off turning out.

This thankfully didn't put people off and a significant number of people - anywhere between the police estimate of 2,000 and organiser estimate of 15,000 - showed up on the streets. But when they did, they faced a number of repressive tactics. The police trying to stop the electricians' march and later kettling them are two examples. This video This video and this video also show violent snatch-and-grab arrests by undercover officers during an obviously and entirely peaceful small protest in a park at several points on the march. Veterans of numerous protests will know the disdainful tome of the police and their willful nonchalance in the face of public scrutiny all too well. As ever they make it evident that they are not there to be reasoned with.

The demonstrations and other actions will continue, and of course we have the strikes on 30 November ahead of us. This struggle is far from over. But there are two positives to take from today. One, that solidarity is growing between workers in different disputes and two, that the behaviour of the police today has put another significant dent in the illusion that - in uniform - they can ever be on our side.