May Day in London, 2007
Here's one I took earlier
LEAVING CLERKENWELL GREEN LAST YEAR.
MAY DAY 2007 saw a fair sized crowd turn out to march in bright sunshine in London, with bands playing, to a rally in Trafalgar Square. The numbers were not so many as last year, but better than might have been expected. May 1st is not a holiday in Britain. Labour back in Harold Wilson's day compromised by making the first Monday in May a bank holiday, so last year the traditional International Workers' Day fell on an official holiday. This year we have to wait till May 8 for that.
Members of the Public and Commercial Servants (PCS) union were on strike today and though most were picketing workplaces in the morning, many of them made it to take pride of place on the march, and in Trafalgar Square. The workers are fighting the government's cuts in civil service jobs, and pay restrictions which would hold increases below the rate of inflation, thus amounting to a cut in their real wages, as one of the speakers pointed out.
Other union banners I saw included Transport and General Workers Region 1 (covering the London area and south-east), Ford workers from Dagenham, ASLEF branches from the railways, UCATT building workers, National Union of Journalists book branch, Equity, and trades union councils from Brent and Camden. There was also a pensioners' contingent.
Reinforcing the internationalism of the day there were, besides the Turkish workers whom we have come to expect, Colombian and Iranian refugee workers. We heard how Turkish workers were being attacked by police. Colombian trades unionists spoke about the death threats and killings they had to face at home.
A lively contingent from Kalayaan represented migrant domestic workers. Among their hand-painted placards one read: "1807 Slavery Abolished, 2007 Back Again?" This referred to a sore topical point, that while Britain has been officially patting itself on the back for the abolition two centuries ago of the slave trade, the government is proposing to take away rights which migrant domestic workers gained in recent years, by making it harder for them to leave employers who ill-treat them.
This was alluded to by one of the speakers, and others pledged support for the civil and public servants on strike today. But though Chancellor Gordon Brown who froze their pay is in poll position to replace Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party, and hence prime minister, no one mentioned that. Someone had asked me whether John McDonnell, the left-wing challenger for the leadership would be speaking. A fair question, since he is the mover of a trade union freedom bill which though modest, goes some way towards restoring the rights which were taken from us by Thatcher.
Greater London Association of Trades Union Council (GLATUC) has endorsed John McDonnell's leadership campaign. But the politics of the labour movement in London are never simple or straightforward. Though a speaker referred to union rights, particularly the right to take secondary action in solidarity with fellow workers (which could have won the Gate Gourmet dispute), John McDonnell's campaign was not mentioned.
Still, things have improved since the first May Day rally I attended in London, back in 1963, when Labour MP Bessie Braddock brought the international message that "A Labour government will ensure that Our Boys in Aden and Our Boys in Cyprus have all the best tanks and helicopters they need".
The only Labour politician on this year's platform, 83-year old retired MP and former minister Tony Benn, called, to applause, for the immediate withdrawal of British forces from Iraq and the Israeli occupiers from Palestine.
Earlier a contingent of "Autonomous Workers" (mostly young kids) waving black and red Anarchist flags had been marshalled into the area in front of the plinth, where they tried to look sinister with masked faces, and chanted slogans, though unable to drown out the speakers. Eventually, failing to attract more than the attention of photographers, they seemed to subside and start drifting away, outnumbered by PCS members who moved into the central area.
But the kids who stayed around to listen seemed genuinely impressed, particularly applauding veteran Benn when he said he had learned over the years that "The politics of tomorrow start in Trafalgar Square". I wish it were that simple. But seeing this militant optimism bridging generations seems a positive note on which to end.