Banners of almost every major union were carried above one of the biggest marches Bristol has seen in recent years.
Around three thousand people marched led by striking workers from the National Education Union (NEU), the Universities and College Union (UCU), the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), and the train drivers union Aslef and the RMT.
People gathered on College Green from 10am on February 1. Numbers swelled ahead of 11am when members of the UCU arrived from an earlier rally outside the Victoria Rooms.
Sheila Caffrey, president of Bristol Trade Unions Council (TUC), said the march would ‘bring us all together, marking the solidarity between us -between workers, workplaces and between trade unions – in fights that we are being forced to have on pay, on conditions, on health and safety on funding into public services and against the constant barrage of cuts this government savages us with.’
With the full crowd assembled, the march began. The route took marchers from College Green along Rupert Street, through Broadmead and Nelson Street and back to College Green.
Why are teachers striking?
Teachers’ pay has fallen in real terms by one fifth since 2010, according to the NEU. The union is striking for an above-inflation pay rise, fully-funded so that it doesn’t have to come from existing schools funding.
Married couple Jackie and Steven are both secondary school teachers. For them the protest is about more than just pay and includes wider issues in education.
‘It’s not just about pay. It’s about funding the schools, schools are falling apart, kids are not getting a decent education,’ said Jackie.
As an example of the effects of funding cuts in recent years, Steven listed the problems his school faces: ‘We’ve got a floor in one of the halls that’s no longer useable because it’s collapsing inwards, there was a gas leak in one of the buildings that can’t be properly repaired, they found asbestos. It’s a falling apart school but there’s no money to repair it.’
They would like to buy a house and start a family, but worry that they couldn’t afford to do so on their current pay. Steven said to afford those things he would likely have to leave teaching for better paid work, a choice he described as ‘demoralising.’
‘I like education, I like teaching as a profession. It’s my favourite job I’ve ever had but I just don’t know if it’s sustainable over the long term unfortunately,’ he said.
Newly trained teacher Ben said that in his two years on the job he has already seen colleagues quit for better pay in other jobs.
‘Those I trained with have decided that other things are better and there’s a range of reasons for that but one way to keep people in and attract people is suitable pay that matches inflation at least,’ he said.
PCS protest ‘relentless attack’
PCS vice-president Hannah David said that workers had been subjected to a ‘relentless assault on living standards’ following the pandemic.
She said that 40,000 PCS members use food banks, 47,000 rely on Universal credit and 25,000 members are working for less than the National Minimum Wage.
Members of the PCS voted to strike for a 10% pay rise, pensions protection and no cuts to redundancy terms. There were 100,000 PCS members on strike today.
‘We’re clear that if the government continues to ignore these demands we will escalate further,’ Hannah said, adding: ‘We will continue to take hard-hitting, target action. We plan to cause further, significant disruption in all our workplaces until we win.’
Protecting the right to strike
The Bristol march comes two days after Tories voted the “anti-strike” bill through its third reading in Parliament.
The TUC held “Protect the Right to Strike” rallies across the UK and has a petition calling for the bill to be scrapped, which currently stands at over 265,000 signatures.
Under the proposed new law, the government would be able to set minimum service levels for public sector industries during strike action and set out who is required to work during strikes.
There would be no automatic protection from unfair dismissal for an employee who chooses to strike despite being told to work, and employers will be able to sue unions for losses should a strike take place contrary to the new rules.
The TUC has called the new law ‘spiteful,’ Keir Starmer has pledged to repeal it if in power, and even the Tory’s own Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised it as ‘badly written’ and ‘an extreme example of bad practice’ during the pre-vote commons debate.
Feature image: Wong Yat Him.
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