Plymouth unions take fight against cuts to streets of London
Union chiefs call for a general strike as angry workers bring central London to a standstill. Keith Rossiter reports from the frontline of the austerity battle.
A CACOPHONY of whistles, vuvuzelas and chants could not hide the sombre mood as 150,000 anti-cuts protesters marched through the streets of London at the weekend.
The carnival atmosphere of last year's mass protest evaporated under grey skies as scores of coaches from Devon and Cornwall descended on London as part of a show of public anger at Government cuts.
Members of Unite from Plymouth were in the forefront of the march, which set out at noon on Saturday from the Embankment, heading past Parliament to Trafalgar Square, and along Piccadilly.
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Stuart Fegan, Plymouth-based regional officer for the GMB union, said the change of mood since the March 2011 rally was symptomatic of the times.
"The mood is bound to be more sombre as the cuts make an impact," he said.
Bearing banners and placards with slogans attacking cuts and austerity, the marchers headed for Hyde Park, where speakers including Labour leader Ed Miliband addressed a rally.
Union leaders called for a 24-hour general strike, but Mr Miliband was booed when he said that he could not promise "easy times", or rule out any cuts to services.
"What we are seeing is the Government's austerity plan starting to bite – and we don't think the plan is working," Mr Fegan said. "It's time to try a different approach."
Tony Staunton, Unite branch chairman at Plymouth City Council, warned: "In Plymouth we are seeing the real potential of families on the streets, whole families being turfed out with nowhere to sleep.
"In the 1980s there were people living in cardboard boxes, and we are heading back towards that time.
"The Government is waging a class war, and it's for the working class to wage war back."
Rob Miguel, Unite regional officer, said it was important to keep up the pressure because the Government tended to hope it would just die down.
Julie Deacon, who works for the revenues and benefits department at Plymouth City Council, said that as part of her job she would have to "extract money from those who have no money".
"From next April it will be horrendous. We are being sent on courses on how to extract more money," she said.
Skye Onley, 16, a student at Ivybridge Community College, said: "I am here for the future of the welfare state."
Dean Smith, a retired Plymouth advice worker, said the way the Government was cutting the welfare system was "a classic case of the thief pointing at an innocent person and shouting 'thief!' "
Speaking near the gates to Downing Street Phil Johns, a Unite member and Plymouth taxi driver, said: "I see this as a process of revolution.
"Capitalism can never work for ordinary people. I want a Socialist revolution, but we can do much better than the old Soviet Union."
Unlike the March 2011 demonstration, which was marred by Anarchist attacks, Saturday's march was largely peaceful.
The Ritz, targeted by Anarchists in 2011, had put up steel shutters on Saturday, but in the event they were not needed. Police guarded branches of Starbucks.
GMB member Kevin Robins, who is unemployed, said: "I hope the anger doesn't boil over into the kind of violence we have seen in Greece because that is uncontrolled and not helpful."
Jimmy Dent, Plymouth GMB branch secretary, said: "We have got to make the Government listen. They have to change or else we will be like Greece."
He welcomed the call for a general strike, saying: "If it's done in an appropriate manner and the people vote for it, then it could help."
Ray Stewart, branch secretary of the Plymouth health branch of GMB, said: "Frontline services are taking the brunt. Morale is already low because of pay cuts, so the cartel of South West health trusts seeking to cut our pay is not making things any easier.
"Industrial action is an option, but at this point members' greatest concern is for their jobs."
Suzie Franklin, branch secretary of Unison at Derriford hospital, said Plymouth nurses were "very angry. There has been a huge impact on morale and people are leaving in droves. The worry is that it will have an impact on patient care."
Lisa Noble, a teacher, brought her sons Ethan, 10, and Daniel, eight, on the march.
Ethan said: "At the moment it's not really affecting me but if this continues by the time I am old enough to work I might not be able to get a job."