On the 10th of May the PCS, UNITE Health and UCU unions went on strike to defend their pensions from this austerity governments attacks. A rally followed in Millenium Square Leeds with some great speakers and a resolute feel that this was only the beginning of fighting this government and solidarity. Perhaps the most surprising and significant was the amazing walkout at Armley Prison in Leeds organised by the POA (Prison Officers Association).
Andy Smith – Leeds North West Branch
Pickets across Leeds started early yesterday morning in the next day of co-ordinated action. The most significant pickets in Leeds being outside the DVLA offices, the DWP, Leeds Metropolitan University, Leeds General Infirmary, Leeds Trinity University College and following the walkout at Armley Prison.
The day itself was inspirational and confirmed the fighting spirits within these unions and the rank and file members of unions in support of the incredible pensions struggle that is starting to really embarrass this government of toff’s as popular opinion is increasingly in support of the strikers.
Following a morning of rain, the picket’s spirits were still high and congregated outside Leeds Met University to march down to a rally at Millennium Square in Leeds. Around 300 people gathered in the pouring rain to listen to speakers from across the struggle, starting with introductions from Sheila Banks from Leeds Trades Union Council.
John McInally National Vice President of the PCS and Socialist Party member spoke first and discussed the need for unification of the struggle and the corruption that is becoming more obvious in government. In calling for left unity and solidarity with the POA officers taking action, despite the restrictive anti-union laws placed on them was fantastic. As Greece and the rest of Europe begin to backtrack on their position on austerity, the workers of the world can unite in struggle and John laid this out for everyone in attendance to supportive applause.
Next to speak was Jawanza Ipyana, the Leeds Met student’s union diversity officer. He discussed the need to unite students and workers as students are the next generation of workers, who will be denied an education system and an opportunity to work, with growing youth unemployment despite empty platitudes from the Labour Party about job creation, despite supporting cuts. As diversity officer, Jawanza has become a regular face on the pickets and at protests and played a role in the student movement last year and this experience has resulted in his call for the movements to be united in opposing all austerity parties.
Michael Blackwell from the UNITE teaching hospitals branch talked next. As a health worker in the face of privatisation through the back door, introduced with Labour’s failed PFI scheme, a call to unite all unions and bring the other unions who were not on strike was made, indicating that other unions were in supportive and banners from UNISON and other unions made their way to the demo in support either on their lunch or in support. Some UNISON members had been reported to have turned back from work on the advice of a rep, despite their union not taking strike action, the feeling of working class solidarity meant they did not feel they could cross the picket line.
Next up a member of the Pensioners Association discussed unity again and the failure of Labour to initiate an opposition to these cuts. This sentiment would or was replicated by all speakers on the demo as it has become more and more obvious that people voted (those who did) against austerity and not for the Labour Party, as can be shown in the nationwide increase in people voting TUSC.
Finally Paul Blackledge from Leeds Met UCU branch gave a rousing speech also discussing the need for a solid education system and fight back against a government of toffs intent on destroying the living conditions of working class people. A unified call for socialism and socialist action was put out, even up to and including civil disobedience and Paul discussed the nature of the unions and the requirement for young people to become involved in the struggle at every level.
Sheila Banks closed the meeting with some announcements and comparisons to the struggles in Greece and across the world and invited people to several meetings being organised across Leeds.
Before this however, Iain Dalton from the Socialist Party had gone across to support the Prison Officers Association walkout at Armley prison and had spoken to several people within the POA as to why they were taking action and what had caused this landmark walkout.
The interview went as follows:
Richard Chamberlain, POA branch chair at HMP Leeds, when interviewed by Iain Dalton outside Armley prison, said: “We’re protesting against the retirement age of prison officers which is now being confirmed and verified at 68. We don’t feel that’s safe, practical or realistic. We’ve had numerous reforms to the prison service pension over the years, the most recent of which was in 2006 which made our pension scheme absolutely sustainable and gave a retirement age of 65 to prison officers.
“The proposal which is now being implemented, for prison officers to retire at 68, is just ridiculous and outrageous. Other first line emergency services have been given dispensation so they’ve retained earlier retirement ages in recognition of the type of job that they do – people like the armed forces, police, fire service. We feel that should be extended to us. Talks have broken down. The government’s position is that prison officers should work longer, pay higher contributions and get a worse pension when they retire. Which is why we’ve been forced to take this action today.”