5,000 march in Cheltenham as TUC refuses to call a general strike to smash all of the anti-union legislation

The front banner on the march commemorating the struggle to defend unions at the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ)

FIVE thousand trade unionists  descended on Cheltenham on Saturday, 40 years after 14 workers were sacked at GCHQ for refusing to sign away their rights to belong to a trade union.

The TUC organised a march through the town to mark the 40th anniversary and also to oppose the recently passed Minimum Service Levels legislation, which destroys the right to strike.

Tanbir Siddique Unite workplace and equality rep at Lloyds Bank and Secretary of Cheltenham and District Trades Council told News Line: ‘Working people need to collectively come together against anti-trade union laws that attack our rights to organise and take industrial action.

‘Our right to strike is a fundamental right, which is supported by international labour standards, that we must fight to defend.

‘Jobs, pay and conditions will likely continue to deteriorate under the next Labour government. The previous Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had three terms but failed to abolish a single anti-trade union legislation and continued with privatisation that was started by Margaret Thatcher. Workers of the world unite!’

Paul Donaldson general secretary of the hospital doctors union HCSA told News Line: ‘The NHS has been decimated and partly privatised over the last 13 years.

‘This has led to the erosion of pay for healthcare workers, especially doctors. After balloting, our members – consultants, junior doctors and SAS doctors – we had no option but but to consider, and indeed take, strike action to improve pay and conditions for our members, to prevent the loss of highly trained staff, and to ensure a reversal of the decline of the NHS during the reign of the current ruling party.’

At the rally before the march set off, on top of the fire engine emblazoned with a slogan ‘Workers of all Countries Unite’, President of the FDA, Tony Wallace said: ‘On 25th January, 1984, 14 workers were sacked and hundreds of others driven out from GCHQ  and it took 13 years for us to get the right to be in a union back when we returned to our jobs.

‘The Thatcher government was a vindictive government and wanted all unions banned. We will organise and resist like 1997 till this vindictive minimum service bill is put in the dustbin of history.’

Joanne Foulds, Unison SW region branch secretary, said: ‘When paramedics went on strike we responded to emergencies. We didn’t need a law, we worked with our employers as paramedics and it worked. This legislation will get rid of that

‘It has nothing to do with maintaining a service, it is a law to prevent hard-working people doing their job. There are 100,000 vacancies in the NHS. If the government paid people correctly, you wouldn’t have a staffing crisis.’

Jill Taylor, 23 years physiotherapist representing 65,000 workers said: ‘We work tirelessly to serve our patients. In Northern Ireland for the first time ever we had to strike as the last line of defence for our patients. We had no choice. We were exhausted not able to deliver care. Let me be clear, how dare they accuse us of making patients suffer. After years of austerity we are short staffed and underpaid. How dare they take away our democratic rights to strike!’

National officer of GMB, Charlotte Brompton said: ‘What happened here 40 years ago, is not the first attack on workers’ rights. Our organisations have been built up over centuries to protect working people. We remember GCHQ because we won it like we win strikes everywhere now. We will never back down.’

Dave Roberts, SW regional secretary of the FBU, said: ‘The government are trying to take away our voice. It is a coordinated attack on workers in the UK, who faced the worst anti-union  laws in the Western world. They have gone from clapping workers during Covid to sacking workers. Now they say accept what we say or get sacked. The entire working class are refusing to accept the dictates of capitalism.

‘In the southwest, the Avon fire and rescue service has been put on an emergency footing. Avon FBU fighters are enraged by this measure. Avon replied to this emergency by sacking 40 workers. How is that going to solve the problem? It is a brutal attack that will make things worse. Our members want to improve the quality of the fire service. Our public services demand investment. Avon firefighters will mobilise and organise to fight this legislation. We will not not rest till this legislation is repealed.’

The many union delegations from all corners of the UK then marched through Cheltenham, led by the fire engine and a PCS Samba band with the GCHQ banner at the head of the march.

There were chants of ‘What do we want? The right to strike! When do we want it? Now. Say it loud say it clear, refugees are welcome here.’

As well as the many trade union banners, there were Palestinian flags and chants of ‘Free, free Palestine! Ceasefire now!’

At the rally at the end of the march Mark Serwotka was introduced as in his final year as PCS general secretary after 25 years. He said: ‘Those trade unionists who defied Margaret Thatcher’s edict to ban unions were some of the bravest trade union members. They and their families had their whole lives turned upside down through their stand.

‘The Tories have an ideological hatred of trade unions. Now they are making it illegal to strike. I pay tribute to ASLEF who said they will strike more in response to the anti-union laws.’

Peter Wright, PCS Border Force, Home Office, then said: ‘Our PCS branch took strike action, and the army was brought in. The PCS is taking legal action against the Tories over their legislation on the Border Force, imposing, Minimal Service Levels. We won GCHQ and we will win again.’

TUC general secretary, Paul Nowak said: ‘40 years ago GCHQ workers were bullied and intimidated to try and make them leave their union. The sacked 14 union members refused to go away and they won their right to belong to a union. The TUC won that struggle and we will win again. We will get justice from a Labour government in its first hundred days. A message to employers – will resist you all the way.

‘We back the PCS’s legal action. We will stand by any worker who is sacked for defending the right to strike. 14 years of Tories have ruined this country so we must vote for a change of government to repeal the anti-union legislation. Let’s vote out this rotten Tory government.’

John Sheldon, ex-general secretary of the Civil Service Union, forerunner to the PCS civil servants union, said: ‘Forty years ago I was issued on 25th January 1984, with an edict from the government  banning unions at GCHQ. Six general secretaries of unions were with me in the room with the door locked. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing that unions were being banned. However, hundreds of unions backed our fight not to sign away our union rights. If we hadn’t fought this we wouldn’t be here today. In 1997, I was lucky enough to read out Labour government minister, Robin Cook’s letter that GCHQ workers have, once again, the right to join a union of their choice.’

Sharon, Graham, Unite general secretary, said: ‘40 years ago, 14 trade unionists took on the Tory government – fast forward now the same type of government is threatening us and our services. The Port Talbot workers here too are bravely fighting for 3,000 jobs and I send a message: “We are with you in this fight”. This legislation is war we will fight them and they will lose. When the time comes, if you don’t stand up now you will be the target next. We have declared that we have removed the requirement to act within the law. Like in 1921, it is better to break the law than break the poor. Any employer who uses this law we will fight and win. As for Labour as soon as you get in you must remove this law on the first day not in 100 days. Let’s build our movement. We are the vanguard, lift your  heads. See you on the picket line.’

HSCA junior doctor Karim Salem chairman said the Minimum Service Levels bill is disgraceful. It’s nothing short of an assault. We strike because we have a legitimate right to be concerned about the quality of service. The NHS is crumbling under pressure and chunks have been privatised.

‘We are fighting to preserve this jewel in the crown. It was born out of incredible hardship. It must be there for everyone, no matter race or religion. Doctors are passionate about the job they do but they are leaving because they are burnt out. I love my job. Better pay means more staff. It is the British people that will fight for our NHS.’

Christine McAnea, general secretary of Unison, said: ‘The government wants to blame the working class for everything that has gone wrong. They blame striking ambulance workers, doctors, nurses but the biggest danger to our NHS is this Tory government. We will continue to fight to get rid of the Tories and get a government that will get rid of this legislation.’

General Secretary of NEU Daniel Kebede, said: ‘Education is the best way to spread opportunities. The OECD says 5% of a government wealth should be spent on education rather than the current 3.9% in Britain. We need a minimum level of service for special needs children and to address the huge mental health crisis we have amongst children.

‘Parents and teachers should have minimum levels of standards of living like housing and income. A Labour government must repeal all the anti-union laws that have been brought in by successive governments, including Blair. We will resist and ensure our children are fed, educated and housed.’

Dawn Stuart, ASLEF train driver, said: ‘We are all here today to oppose the Minimum Service Levels bill and stand up for the right to strike. We are striking for a pay rise and safety on the railways. Minimum Service Levels is against safety. For 40% of service that is required means issuing 70% of drivers to be forced to work to maintain 40% service, but which has 100% of passengers is dangerous.’

Mick Whelan ASLEF general secretary, said: ‘We’ve had a wonderful two years with an economy where work doesn’t pay. Minimum Service Levels is not about giving a service, it is a tool to hurt the movement and sequestrate our assets and to take away your voice. Our leaders are our members. We thank TSSA and RMT for their strikes, which fought off the ticket office closures. If we don’t protect jobs, we’re not doing our job. We will get rid of these laws.’

Dave Ward, CWU general secretary, said: ‘We must bring the movement together to get rid of the Tories. We must hold Labour’s feet to the fire. We have to get rid of inequality we need a new deal for working people.’

Trevor Harns Border security rep Home Office group said: ‘The government has removed our right to strike under the Minimum Service Levels bill. PCS will not let this go and we are taking legal action.’

Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary, said: ‘I thank our activists for the last two years for taking so many strikes. The message from our new pay round in the spring when we will be striking is to the politicians, Tories, nationalists, Labour, if they want our votes, take note, I congratulate ASLEF, Hitachi and RMT London Underground workers for defying the Minimum Service Levels legislation. The official TUC policy is non-compliance. We must take action as a united force.’

Patrick Roache, NASUWT general secretary, said: ‘Victory to all the striking workers. We need justice for black-and-white people. The Tories have trashed our public services. They have stoked hatred and division. History is on our side. We will never be defeated. Teachers and emergency workers will not rest till all the anti-union laws are confined to the dustbin of history. Sunak call a general election now.’

Maryam Eslamdoust, general secretary of TSSA, said: ‘Minimum Service Levels will only limit the right to strike and ban unions. We are generally not a militant union but we will resist and we will stand on the shoulders of giants – the GCHQ workers. We will challenge in the courts in Parliament, and on the streets. Without the right to strike there are no rights.’

TUC President and general secretary of the FBU, Matt Wrack, said: ‘If you attack our rights we will fight. The FBU are covered by the Minimum Service Levels laws. What hypocrisy to talk about Minimum Service Levels when they spent 14 years destroying our fire service. We will hold Labour to account. We don’t trust politicians we rely on ourselves. We must rebuild our movement to organise workers in all sections. Trade unionism is the only protection.’

General secretary of UCU Jo Grady said: ‘I represent 125,000 workers who have time and time again gone out on strike. The Tories are after us because we threaten their class power. As a daughter of a miner I will never bend my knee to that mob. We have to take them out of office at the next ballot. We must turn this country upside down till we get rid of this joke of the law.’

Royal College of Midwives general secretary Jill Walton said: ‘I’m proud to be a midwife. We will never take action to endanger women and babies. We took action in Northern Ireland and made sure no one was endangered. Staff shortages mean we are burnt out and exhausted.’

At the end of the rally survivors of the 14 workers that were sacked and their families filled the platform to loud applause.

Gareth Morris, one of the 14 sacked GCHQ workers, said: ‘Being a trade union member is a basic right and saying we were a danger to national security was an insult. We had annual marches from 1985 till 1997 in snow and hail every January on the anniversary of our sackings. Thousands marched with us. We had support from all over the world and the TUC backed us.’
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