Report of the Launch Meeting held in the St Stephens Church Centre, Bath Street Glasgow on Saturday 25 January 2014
Chairman’s Opening Statement from Phil McGarry
Chair of Scottish People’s Assembly Steering Committee and of the Scottish People’s Charter Steering Committee; Political Officer of RMT Scotland
Phil welcomed the pack-out attendance which far exceeded expectations. He expressed thanks to all sponsoring and solidarity organisations and especially to those speakers who had travelled to Scotland to attend. He noted the presence of Peter Bunting, Assistant General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Brian Campfield, general secretary of NIPSA, the Irish public services union and Paddy Mackie heading a delegation from Belfast Trades Union Council.
The People’s Assembly against Austerity had been founded at a conference in London on 22 June 2012 attended by over 4,000 and sponsored by both trade unions and campaigning organisations in the community. The People’s Assembly was established in the same week that the TUC and the STUC had organised nationwide meetings to hear evidence on the impact of the government’s austerity measures.
In Scotland the organising Committee of the People’s Charter had decided to take steps to organise a Scottish People’s Assembly. The objective was to create a mass movement uniting trade unions and campaigning organisations in opposition to austerity. This launch was the first step.
Phil summarised what austerity meant for the people of Scotland – a class war on the sick, disabled and infirm which targeted and demonised the poor:
- Privatisation of public services
- Drastic reductions in benefits
- The Bedroom Tax
- An average reduction of wages in Scotland by £1292
The consequences could be seen in the 34,000 Scots now dependent on Food Banks and families forced to choose between heating their homes and eating. At the same time bankers were doubling up their earnings. Ross McEwen of the taxpayer rescued Royal Bank of Scotland had secured an annual pay cheque of just under £3 million.
But, Phil stressed, there was an alternative and it was clearly stated in the Six Points of the People’s Charter.
- Fair Economy for a fairer Britain
- More and Better Jobs
- Decent Homes for All
- Save and Improve our Services
- Fairness and Justice
- Better Future for All
We need to end:
- Child Poverty
- Zero Hours Contracts
- Trident and illegal wars
- Restore our Trade Union Rights and support the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom.
- Re-nationalise our Railways, Telecoms and Postal Services. Full return to Public Ownership of all utilities.
- Decent Living Wage for all
- Dignity in Retirement – end to Pensioner Poverty. Fact, some 1½ million Pensioners suffer from malnutrition. End to the EU Liberalisation Agenda – EU Privatisation Directives
Most of all we need fairness, dignity at Work and Social and Economic Justice for all
This programme had been endorsed by the STUC and all major unions. It was a programme supported by the People’s Assembly. It was a programme which could be achieved with the necessary political will, a mass movement and unity. In Scotland, ahead of the referendum in September, there would inevitably be differences over the preferred constitutional settlement. We must respect these differences but not allow them to divide our movement. “The People’s Assembly is about what unites us. We need to build a movement that can end austerity and demand a Better Way.”
Chief of Staff, Unite, speaking on behalf of the British Steering Committee of the People’s Assembly
Andrew began by stressing the honour it was to be invited to address “this great meeting” and to bring to it the greetings of the British Steering Committee and also of the general secretary of Unite the Union, Len McCluskey.
The objective of the People’s Assembly was to bring together the broadest alliance of trade unions, community groups, youth, students, pensioners and those with disabilities. All, without exception, were facing the most sustained assault ever, an assault which amounted to an attack on our civilisation. It was an attack resulting from a crisis not caused by ourselves but by the financial speculators of the City of London. The government, however, was now imposing its costs on the people and doing so with the intention of affecting a fundamental shift in power relations within the country.
He gave the example of the bedroom tax. Working class communities were being dispersed. At the same time the power of private landlords was being increased. At an inner city school in London where his wife worked as a teacher, half of all children had left the school over the past year – as their families were forced to move to cheaper housing elsewhere or became homeless. At the same time one landlord, Fergus Wilson, had accumulated a rental list of 1,000 inner city houses over the past four years and just announced he would exclude all those on benefit. What should we demand? That those houses should re-appropriated and used to provide homes for the homeless.
This was what the People’s Assembly was about: posing alternative for the people. Similar points could be made about ATOS and the denial of sick benefits. Every attempt was being made to demonise the poor at a time when half a million children were now dependent on Food Banks.
That’s why a People’s Assembly against Austerity was needed. That’s also why a political alternative had to be advanced – and why the People’s Assembly endorsed the six points of the People’s Charter.
The Labour Party had recently made some important pledges: to freeze energy prices and to build hundreds of thousands of new homes. But further pledges were also necessary. In place of Ed Ball’s pledge to balance the budget by 2020, he should be pledging to end child poverty by that date. We needed real, well paid jobs and an end to privatisation.
The People’s Assembly was about unity. Trade unions and communities were stronger together – and currently it was critical to defend trade unions as the basis for the only real power that could be exercised by ordinary people. The government was intent on still further attempts to hamstring trade unions at a time when the United Nations International Labour Organisation had criticised Britain for having some of the most restrictive laws in the world. The government’s Carr Inquiry was designed to do this.
In the last year Scotland had witnessed the use of these laws during the Ineos dispute at Grangemouth – resulting in the witch-hunting of honest union officers. The employers and the government should issue a full apology now that Police Scotland had cleared union members of any wrong doing.
However, what had happened illustrated the nature of our society. All power was concentrated at the top. There was the lack of any counterbalance at the bottom. Everyone knew the consequences of having a single super-power in international affairs. Injustice and criminal acts of war are the result. We had the same imbalance in our society now. The People’s Assembly was about developing our own class power in response. Its policies represented the only alternative to war and racism. They should open the way to an alternative society, to socialism.
General Secretary, Scottish Trades Union Congress
Graham welcomed the launch of the People’s Assembly in Scotland on behalf of the General Council of the STUC. The STUC’s Better Way campaign totally rejected the necessity for austerity, for mass unemployment and the destruction of the welfare state. And for the future the STUC would not be satisfied with policies that just offered ‘a little bit less of the same austerity’. The trades unions represented within the STUC wanted a real alternative and were determined to achieve it in association with the organisations of Civic Scotland. This movement would be significantly strengthened by the People’s Assembly.
Graham denounced the Coalition government’s cynical electioneering. “They are claiming economic recovery. But what is the reality? They promised 6.5 per cent growth and achieved 1.1 per cent – with the economy still smaller than in 2008. They had promised a debt reduction of £35 billion and increased it by £108 billion. They had promised to increase real wages by 2 per cent but presided over by the biggest fall since the 1920s. Today their so-called recovery was based on consumer debt and a boom in house prices for the rich in London while another financial crisis was looming just round the corner.”
The STUC had this summer organised visits to Food Banks across Scotland to bear witness to reality of poverty and to build stronger links with communities. It was clear that the most fundamental problem faced by our society today was that of inequality – in inequality of power as well as wealth and one which could not be reversed until anti-trade union legislation had been removed. The economic crisis resulted directly from this inequality of power which now represented a crisis for democracy. We needed parliaments with powers to address this crisis by exercising real power over capital and wealth.
Representing the Shrewsbury 24 campaign
The Chair introduced Ricky by reminding those present that the imprisonment for conspiracy of 24 striking building workers in 1972 represented an attempt to intimidate the whole trade union movement. The leaders had served long sentences and Des Warren died of the consequences. They were now seeking the disclosure of documents, withheld by the government for 42 years, and had last week won a Commons vote of 120 to 3 after collecting 100,000 signatures. He noted the presence in the audience of two others of the 24: Harry Chadwick and Terry Renshaw.
Ricky said he was so glad to be at a meeting against austerity that was ‘packed to the rafters’. He thanked all present for their support for the petition and pledged his backing for the People’s Assembly campaign. “I know what it is to be blacklisted and what it is to be imprisoned. But we must never give in. We face the destruction of our health services – now 120,000 nurses short. We face care homes for the elderly without qualified staff. We see the sick being hounded by ATOS and the government seeking 30,000 for the Territorial army as future cannon fodder. A quarter of all building workers are now unemployed – when we need them to build homes.”
Ricky called for people to show their anger and for demonstrations to be held in every major town and city across the whole of Britain.
Deputy President of the Public and Commercial Services Union, deputising for Janice Goodrich who was unwell.
Kevin said it was “a joy to come to Scotland to greet this great launch”. He represented the 4,500 strong HMRC branch of the union. His members saw the realities of inequality in Britain with what they estimated as £120 billion unpaid tax from the wealthy while the poorest were hounded. They Tory recovery was solely for the rich not for the additional one million people now in poverty.
The government had just announced proposals for selling off the Land Registry. What we needed was not more privatisation by restored public ownership for transport and energy. In 1945after all the losses of the last war Britain was still able to build 500,000 new houses, create the NHS and nationalise the Bank of England and all public utilities.
It was clear that the government was preparing a new offensive against the trade union movement. Francis Maude had announced the end of check-off and facility time in the civil service. If they succeeded, they would follow up elsewhere.
A year ago 75,000 people from across the country had marched together in Manchester against the Tories. What was needed now was that people strike together against the government.
Edinburgh Convener, Unison
John stressed that people felt the effects of austerity but so far the anger directed against the government was not on a mass scale. We had not yet defeated neo-liberal ideology – even in the Labour leadership. People had to be won to fight for the public sector and against privatisation; for redistribution and against ‘what can we afford’.
“The country is not broke. It is just that the money is in the wrong place. The richest 1 per cent has increased their wealth by £190 billion over the past four years. In Scotland we have already seen 39,000 jobs lost in local government; 50,000 in the public sector as a whole if we include the health service. And there are still another 60,000 jobs to go. We don’t need a freeze in the Council Tax. What we need are politicians in the councils willing to stand up to these cuts and not impose them.’
John concluded by saying that the People’s Assembly gave us the opportunity to focus on what unites us – on the battle for social justice.
Contributions from the floor included
Ian Leach from Glasgow UNISON representing care workers. Care workers were that evening starting their second 48 hour strike after being faced with changes in working hours that brought cuts of up to £1500 on annual wages of £18,000. The City Council had been using threats of redundancy and letters to workers’ homes. He called for solidarity and a 24 hour general strike.
Eileen Turnbull of the Shrewsbury 24 campaign thanked the people of Glasgow for their support and appealed for it to be continued. The release of documents will reveal the degree of collusion between the government and the contractors. They were currently appealing to the Criminal Convictions Review Board which had power to refer the convictions back to the Court of Appeal.
Penny Gower brought solidarity from Unite the Resistance. Penny called for a mass attendance at the march against the Tories in Edinburgh on 15 March and an indefinite General Strike.
Willie Black (Edinburgh) said they had disproved the anti-immigration lies of the media when thousands had turned out to search for the lost toddler from an Asian family. There were now 14 Food Banks in Edinburgh – all the more reason to mobilise against the Tories on 15 March.
Richard Neville, Unison steward, called for united action and instanced the current threats to staff in the Homeless Unit
Marion Nisbit, Glasgow Anti-Bedroom Tax, highlighted the impact of the austerity cuts on women and on the disabled. 80 per cent of those hit by the bedroom tax were disabled. She called for the overcoming of sectarian and political divides and for us to take inspiration from the likes of Mary Barbour and Helen Crawfurd. “We need union banners on the streets against the bedroom tax.”
Elaine Smith MSP
Deputy Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament, former Chair Campaign for Socialism, active member of the People’s Charter Organising Committee in Scotland and Convener of the RMT Parliamentary group at the Scottish Parliament
Elaine said she was proud to attend the launch. It was good to have the trade union movement backing the People’s Assembly but there needed to be support from elected representatives as well.
She had been on the Scottish People’s Charter committee from the beginning but the Charter never won full support from either the SNP or the Labour Party in the Scottish Parliament.
This was demonstrated by the reception of the Scottish People’s Charter petition in parliament where only a minority of MSPs supported. The demands were all within the power of the Scottish parliament:
- Extending industrial democracy
- Extending the living wage to public sector procurement
- Decent housing with rent regulation and no evictions for bedroom tax
- Bus regulation and public sector ferry services
- Ending the Council Tax freeze
- Promoting Credit Unions
The petition was sponsored on a cross-party basis but despite the presentation of a mass of supporting evidence the Petitions Committee closed the petition. The Scottish government claimed that its demands were already policy. Would that they were !
Now we were back fighting. The People’s Assembly had the power to unite people despite differences over the constitution. We had a common enemy in neo-liberal ideology and those who promoted it, the big business corporations who had turned governments into ATM machines for themselves.
The People’s Assembly had to take its politics into the communities. People needed to show their anger at the growing levels of poverty and inequality. It was political change we needed, not constitutional, including change in the Labour Party. The People’s Charter was about a Fair Society for All. That was the message we needed to get across.
Christina McKelvie MSP
Convener of the SNP Parliamentary Trade Union Group and Convener of the Parliamentary Committee for External Affairs
Christina said she was delighted to speak from the platform of the People’s Assembly. It was an excellent vehicle for bring communities together. Over the past year there had been a resurgence of political debate and the People’s Assembly represented common ground for all – support for a strong welfare state and for foreign policies based on fairness and equality, the only sure guarantee against terrorism.
She believed that a sense of fairness was in the Scottish DNA and we needed to fight for it. “If you don’t stand up for something, you will put up with anything”. Everybody should be treated the same. This was why the principle of universalism was so important and why she endorsed the content of the Commonweal document developed by the Jimmy Reid Foundation last year. We needed to reject the politics of despair and take the positive alternative of the People’s Assembly and the People’s Charter out to the people.
Katy Clark MP
Previously a solicitor working for UNISON, she was elected MP for North Ayrshire in 2005 and is a member of the RMT parliamentary group
Katy said she was proud to have been one of the original signatories of the People’s Assembly and proud to be on the platform at the Scottish launch. The People’s Assembly represented an opportunity to unite in a new way, across communities and trade unions on a mass scale. It was not just one more campaign. She congratulated the Steering Committee for its leadership in convening the Assembly.
The Tory plan was for an irreversible rolling back of the welfare state. In four years they had done more damage than in the previous generation. But this was not irreversible. The People’s Assembly was there to show that alternatives existed and that the cost of living crisis was not inevitable – and that it did not hit everyone. The rich were better off than ever.
People don’t need to be told this. What was lacking was confidence. Over the past four years we have not had victories. This is what was needed now. The People’s Assembly had to target issues where we could win, small ones if necessary first, and then build the momentum for real political change.
Cat is Chair of the Coalition of Resistance in Scotland and a member of Unite
Cat described the origins of the Coalition of Resistance as combining the energy of the student’s movement opposing privatisation with that of the trade unions resisting the first attacks by the Coalition government. She pointed to the total hypocrisy of the government. Wrongly claimed benefit did not exceed £1 billion – yet there was £70 billion of tax avoided by the richest in our society. Vital care services were being cut while £100 billion was spent on renewing Trident.
Neo-liberalism was the name of the economics justifying this system but the real problem was capitalism itself. We needed a different economic model. In Edinburgh on 15 March we had to show our anger at the Tories and the way they wielded class power on behalf of the richest – a class power used in Scotland very recently on behalf of Jim Ratcliffe at Ineos. Yet if they had money we had power in the richness of our collective skills. We must not despair. She quoted Tony Benn: ‘never give up”. If we stand together, our class can win.
Secretary of the national Assembly of Women and of the Women’s Assembly against Austerity – now backed by Diane Abbott, Ann Scargill, Carolyn Jones, Kate Hudson, Lyndsay German, Sarah Veale and many others
Anita expressed her support for the People’s Assembly and the alternative policies offered by the People’s Charter. “We face a ruling class that is both strategic and amoral. It is seeking nothing less than the restructuring of society in the interests of the very rich.”
It was important, she said, to put faces on these people and instanced Richie Rich of Barclays Bank who picked up a £17 million bonus and owned a string of race horses. Barclays Bank was also a place where you could pick up leaflets asking for donations for Food Banks. What hypocrisy!
Women were particularly at risk from the government’s assault – as workers, carers and service users.
As workers women were disproportionately affected by the public sector cuts. The gender pay gap had increased for the first time in five years and had now reached 15 per cent. This was why it was so important to increase women’s active involvement in the trade union movement.
Women were also vulnerable as carers – hit by the closures of nurseries and libraries, by services for the elderly and, as those who often paid the rent, by the bedroom tax. On Merseyside 14,000 tenants were now in arrears, 6,000 for the first time in their lives.
The National Assembly of Women had been formed in 1952 to campaign for peace and for women’s rights. Today it formed a critical component of the People’s Assembly movement and the Women’s Assembly against Austerity would seek to develop community involvement. There were already 200 delegates signed up to its convening conference in Conway Hall in London on 22 February.
“We need to get angry – and build unity”
Representing the Dundee People’s Assembly. Phil McGarry introduced him as the man who had up-ended the BBC’s Question Time in Cowdenbeath two days before by challenging the platform, previously a Labour councillor, he was now secretary of the Dundee area of the Communist Party
Ray said he was there to explain what had been done in Dundee to establish the Peoples Assembly. They had heard about the launch in 2012 through the Morning Star and decided to send down a delegation from the Trades Union Council, Unite and the Pensioners Forum – which was itself affiliated to the Trades Union Council. They organised a report back sponsored by Unite, PCS and Unison and attended by fifty people.
Ray stressed that the movement must be rooted within the organised working class – and quoted Marx that the organisation of working people was what was new and developing in our society as against what was rotten and decaying. “There is a crisis of capitalism on a global scale. Why are they attacking us ? Because they are greedy ? No. It’s because they are desperate. They have to weaken us. Otherwise the system is finished. But if we are defeated the result will be barbarism. This is what is at stake”.
Ray said that we had to mobilise for a transformation of policies. “The Labour Party is our party, the party of the trade union movement and the working class. We in the trade union movement and in the People’s Assembly, in Scotland and in London, have to unite to secure new policies. We need a working class manifesto going into the next election.”
CONTRIBUTION FROM THE FLOOR INCLUDED
John Milligan, RMT, Lanarkshire, had attended the founding conference. He said our objective should be to change the government but not to one for ‘responsible capitalism’. “We needed to break our links with the Labour Party and the United Kingdom”.
Jim McLevy, Glasgow anti-ATOS campaign, described the impact of ATOS on the lives of those suffering from disabilities and the need to expand the campaign of solidarity.
Dougie Malloy, Lanarkshire, stressed the need for unity, to respect differences but to combine under the banner of the People’s Assembly
Garry McLaughlan, Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation, called for a building of the chain of solidarity to prevent evictions as they become increasingly likely over the coming year.
Marc Livingstone, Glasgow Trades Union Council executive, stressed the key role of the organised trade union movement in re-establishing community organisation on a class basis. “We also need to look internationally and show solidarity with those fighting against austerity in Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland and remember that these policies stem from the neo-liberal policies of the EU Lisbon Treaty. It is being used by our ruling as well as others. There needs to be a progressive case for withdrawal.”
Closing Statement from the Chair, Phil McGarry
Phil congratulated delegates on a great day. “I have never seen such a broad base for a campaign”. From this launch he hoped Trades Union Councils across Scotland would follow the lead of Dundee and Fife and take steps to convene local Assemblies. The Scottish Steering Committee was due to meet on 15 February to assess the next steps and there would be a further Scottish meeting on Saturday 29 March. Phil thanked the sponsoring organisations: Unite, PCS, Unison, the Morning Star Scottish Campaign Committee, Clydebank Trades Union Council and the RMT. 197 of those attending had already left their emails for future involvement and he appealed for all others to do so before leaving the hall.
Phil concluded by stating that this formal Launch shows that people recognise that whatever the constitutional outcome is we will still have a battle on our hands to win a progressive Scotland. Today's proceedings have demonstrated there is Unity around our opposition to Austerity and a acknowledgement that winning that argument is of paramount importance. He hoped that the People’s Assembly in Scotland will give confidence to community campaigners around the country to highlight our opposition, and to utilise the organisation as a unifying umbrella to build the links and solidarity with all those in struggle. He closed the proceedings by wishing everyone a safe journey home.