A summer of discontent seemed a distinct possibility as the amphitheatre behind Temple Meads filled with a rippling sea of trade union banners.
Around 200 people, including representatives from most major unions in Bristol, gathered from midday (June 25) for a solidarity demo in support of RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport union) workers whose national strike has captured the imagination of the country.
Brendan Kelly, RMT regional organiser for south Wales and west, said the public support for the strikes across all the pickets he has visited has been huge. This, he said, was no surprise.
‘At the moment, every worker in this country is under attack, either on their conditions, their jobs, or foremost their pay.
‘Workers in this country have had their pay frozen, they’ve had their pay cut, they’ve had their jobs cut, and that’s unacceptable and the trade union movement…have to be absolutely saying as one movement we will not accept that. We have to say no,’ he said.
There were speakers from Unison, Unite, Acorn, the TUC, the NEU, the PCS, Bristol Climate Justice Coalition and the Bristol Green Party. Other groups present included XR Bristol, Bristol Transformed, Bristol Stop the War Coalition and People’s Assembly Against Austerity, who helped organise the event.
Speaking to the crowd, Tom Whittaker, of Bristol Stop the War Coalition, who was compering the demo, said: ‘This strike is a beacon of resistance for the whole of the working class, and everyone, every worker in Britain faced with inflation, faced with the driving down of wages and terms and conditions knows that if the RMT wins this strike we all win. Every worker wins.
‘And that’s the message we’re bringing today. Solidarity with the RMT. It’s a battle for all of us.’
Doing his bit to light the beacon, Kelly said the strikes could be used to inspire others to take action.
‘If we can make sure our movement and our dispute leads to other trade unions taking action not just in support of us but in support of themselves. We want to be in solidarity with care workers, health workers, local authority workers, civil servants and private sector workers as well,’ he said.
He added: ‘We all demand a pay rise, and actually if we all synchronise our actions on the same day, hey ho, we’ve got a general strike, haven’t we?’ His last comment drew a loud cheer from the crowd.
At 1pm the crowd began to march towards Temple Meads. They passed by the picket line which had stood outside the station since 6am in the morning and onwards to Castle Park.
Rail staff in the RMT union – 50,000 in total across 13 rail companies – have been on strike since June 21. The primary dispute is over a proposed £4bn cut to rail services which would manifest as pay cuts, longer working hours for staff and lower overtime and night rates, and fire and rehire policies to force new conditions on staff.
Rail bosses have said the cuts are necessary to ensure the rail services remain financially viable, but it has been pointed out that those same bosses took home millions in salaries and half a billion pounds was paid to shareholders in 2020, when rail travel was seriously hampered by the Covid pandemic.
In the crowd at the demo was Francis Bennett, a junior doctor working across Bristol and Bath. Dressed in scrubs and carrying a placard reading “NHS Solidarity Railway Workers,” Bennett said he had joined the protest because: ‘All of the workers that are getting shafted by this government need to stand together.’
Bennett said he was inspired by the RMT strikes. ‘I’m so appreciative of anybody that’s prepared to stand up for themselves and has the self-respect to stand up for themselves,’ he said.
He hopes the radical spirit of the present strikes will spread to other sectors, including the NHS The last major NHS strike came in 2016 when junior doctors fought government plans for longer working hours.
‘We’ve been too passive in the NHS for too long,’ said Bennett.
‘Pretty much everyone in the NHS has had real terms pay cuts over the last 10, 15 years. And it feels like there’s some momentum to do something finally about it,’ he added.
From next week, nursing staff within Unison at St Monica’s Trust in Westbury-on-Trym go on strike as they face pay cuts of up to 13 percent. Strike days are June 29 and July 2, 5 from 7am.
The march ended in Castle Park at 2pm. The union banners were folded and put away. The way things are going, they may find themselves being unfurled again before too long.