by Nick Golding, Daniel Lombard, Kirsty McGregor
Thousands of social care workers took to London’s streets last Saturday to stand up for service users in the face of massive cuts to care budgets.
They were among an estimated 500,000 protesters who joined the TUC-organised demonstration, March for the Alternative, against the coalition government’s plan to eliminate the structural budget deficit within four years.
With the cuts taking hold in communities across the UK, social care staff from unions such as Unison and Unite joined teachers, nurses, and other professionals to march.
Social workers told Community Care they were marching in protest not only against closures of care services and widespread redundancies, which are reducing capacity in teams, but against care packages being squeezed.
Unison’s national officer for social care Helga Pile said: “It is not surprising that Unison social care members marched in their tens of thousands – they work at the sharp end of these cuts. Day in, day out, they see the effect these cuts are having on some of the most vulnerable people in our society – and they know this is only the beginning.
“Unless there is a change of plan there will be even more misery to come, and our members know the consequences for communities will be dire.” Calls to strike were led by Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union. “We must use the march as a springboard to united action,” he told the rally in Hyde Park. “We will continue to meet together and march together, but we must also be prepared to strike together to defend jobs, pensions and pay.”
Instead of the “deep, rapid cuts” to public spending, the TUC wants the government to introduce a “Robin Hood tax” on banks to finance an economic investment programme.
A spokesperson for Unison said: “We don’t have precise figures but it’s safe to say that thousands of social care workers attended the march on behalf of Unison.”
Kirsty McGregor reflects on the UK’s biggest protest since the Iraq war demonstration in 2003.
An entrepreneur weaved among the crowd selling plastic whistles, to the delight of some and the raised eyebrows of others. Piercing blasts momentarily drowned out the steady rhythm of clapping, chatting, cheering and brass bands.
Chants of “Stop the cuts” and “We are the Tory haters” filled the air. Occasionally the background noise swelled to a roar; particularly when anarchists were spotted, charging past dressed in black, their faces masked. There was a constant threat of rain, but nothing could dampen the protesters’ spirits.
Everyone was companionable; individuals fell into step with groups, making friends. Union members brought their children, and students walked alongside pensioners. Placards slogans ranged from the simple (‘No cuts’) to the tongue-in-cheek (‘Let this be a sign’ and, to the police, ‘Don’t kettle me, I’ve got stuff to do’).
A hessian Trojan horse, the size of a double-decker bus and bearing the motto ‘TUC armed wing’, briefly threatened to jump the gates of Downing Street. It was later saved with a dousing of cider when a poorly-aimed firework set it alight.
The river of people flowed up Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square. Behind them, Big Ben was visible in a haze above the bright purples, greens and reds of the flags and banners. The jackets of police officers lining the streets added vivid bursts of yellow. A man sat astride one of the lion statues, waving a purple Unite flag and grinning at the frenzy of photographers assembled below.
The march swept through Piccadilly and up to Hyde Park, which had a festival atmosphere. Speeches from union leaders roused the crowd and hecklers revelled in the opportunity to make a point (“How much do you get paid?” one man shouted, as the chief of a national charity took to the stage).
Later, there was a more subdued tone. The park emptied and those bound for home saw the extent of the damage caused by paintballing anarchists, that had coated the walls of The Ritz and assorted High Street banks. Baffled tourists looked relieved as protesters filed into tube stations and aboard coaches.
Full coverage of the 26 March TUC-organised rally, including a photographic slideshow and video