Last Wednesday evening, 22nd May, around 200 disability activists blocked the junction at Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street for over an hour in protest at this government's continued attacks on disabled peoples' benefits, welfare resources, and indeed in all too many cases, their very existence.
Sean, in red, speaking to journalist, John Pring at Tottenham Court Road Protest
Earlier in the day, just a short distance away, a couple of hundred trade unionists were in attendance at the TUC's annual Disabled Workers' Conference, were Seán McGovern, Co-Chair of the TUC DWC, set the mood of for the event with a speech that told in stark terms this government's unremitting attack on our class, and especially the vicious lies and distortions it continued propagating at the expense of disabled people.
Finishing his address by stating that trade unionists must join with sisters and brothers within our communities, to send an unequivocal message to this government that disabled workers share the same struggle as unemployed sisters and brothers as well as those disabled who can't work.
The first few motions covered:
· Recruitment of Disabled Workers
· Defending the Welfare State and the Rights of Disabled People
· Protection of Disability Rights
· UN Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities
· Universal Credit and SEN Changes
· Changes to Work Choices Programme
The debate around these issues was very lively. The delegates were sending out a clear message; and the message was: 'We're not standing by and allowing this government to wreck our welfare state and kill thousands of us in the process!'
Straight after lunchtime, during which an excellent standing-room-only- fringe meeting on 'Autism and Neurodiversity in the Workplace took place chaired by Unite's Tom Butler, our first guest speaker of the afternoon, Francesca Martinez took to the platform.
For those of you who with the misfortune of not knowing who Francesca is, well she's an actor and comedian with disabilities; whose material, while very funny, also has a political edge. Francesca is deeply involved in the disabled people’s WOW (War On Welfare) petition.
Francesca told the conference that an “attack on basic human rights” was being perpetrated against disabled people by this government; and that
“People my age with so much to offer have been writing to me and expressing such worry over issues such as the closure of the Independent Living Fund. A very common thing written to me is a stark choice between losing all their care and being isolated at home or being forced into institutions.”
Ideology, not money are behind the benefits' cuts; and are aimed at those in our society who can least defend themselves.
Martinez received a standing ovation as she stated she'd be taking part in anti-austerity direct action; and that: "Those in power are not going to give in unless you force them to. That means making things uncomfortable. There is no other way things are going to change.”
Francesca finished by saying: “It might take more than marching and protesting. It might take a national strike. I don’t think change occurs because of polite pleading. I also support any action taken and I will be out there on the streets with you.”
With an international tour to start, Francesca left the hall to a standing ovation of tumultuous proportions. We liked her; we liked what she had to say; and, most importantly we liked the fact that what she said to us needed saying!
A few motions later, and Andy Greene from Disabled People Against the Cuts (or as they're better known across the country, DPAC) came on to speak on how ordinary people were dealing with the cuts.
DPAC, though a relatively young organization, has packed a lot into its short life. It wouldn't be amiss to say that this group of disabled people and their supporters have led the way in direct action against the austerity cuts and brutal way in which ATOS assess sick and disabled people for benefit; DPAC has carried the fight from the Internet and public meetings onto the street and indeed into government offices.
With an eloquence and determination, Andy's speech took hold of the conference; and when he appealed for trade union delegates to take direct action, they didn't take too much persuasion. Mandy Hudson, co-chair of the TUC Disabled Workers Committee, called for support for action to which the majority agreed; with that she closed the conference early and we made our way to Tottenham Court Road.
At around 5pm a group of disabled protestors stopped on the crossing by the Dominion Theatre at the top end of Tottenham Court Road, and began a protest. The theme of the protest was the coming together of disabled trade unionists and disabled grassroots campaigners. Our aim to show this government that we don't buy into their 'workers versus shirkers' propaganda; that whether we are disabled and in work or disabled and out of work, we are still one class; and this governments smashing of the welfare state and selling off of the NHS is a fight we must all join.
The demo went quite smoothly. Cabbies and bus drivers seemed bemused by a bunch of crips asserting their authority on the streets. Indeed, the police merely spoke to several of us, individually; and when they discovered that we were indeed all called 'Spasticus' they stood back and allowed the protest to continue.
Wednesday's action was important for a number of reasons. First it showed that disabled trade unionists aren't simply about attending countless committees where we, with the best intentions, vote on masses of motions that may or may not change the world. It also showed that direct action does have a place; and if the action is carried out in the correct way, that it’s a powerful medium in which to engage with the wider public.
Had we remained ensconced in our conference last week, we'd have moved a few motions quicker; and carried out very important work for our movement. Our conferences are a vital part of trade union democracy, and as such we should endeavor to ensure they are well attended, and as importantly, filled with issues that impact upon our members and the wider community. Our decision to take the conference to the streets was the correct decision; and I am proud to belong to a movement that sees the big picture and acts upon it.