A soggy and bitterly cold afternoon on Saturday (February 12) did not stop hundreds of people taking to the streets in Manchester to protest a cost of living crisis now engulfing the UK.
The demonstration in Manchester was only one protest in the nearly two dozen People’s Assembly events staged at cities across the UK, including in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow and many others.
Unite members stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other union members and people in their communities to send a loud and clear message that ordinary families will not be made to pay for a crisis not of their own making.
UniteLive caught up with Unite rep Andy Aspinall (pictured below) at the Manchester demo, who alongside his colleagues at pallet makers Chep UK, are now taking strike action over their pay, which has fallen far behind the cost of living after years of below-inflation pay rises.
“There’s no two ways about it – you cannot avoid the cost of living increases now,” he explained. “Everything has gone up – gas bills, electricity bills, household items, food – the lot. And to top it all off we’re expecting an increase in National Insurance in April. It’s having a massive impact on our members.”
“Our jobs at Chep used to be decently paid but our wages have massively stagnated over the years,” Andy added. “Year after year they’ve offered typically derisory pay offers – one per cent one year, when inflation had been at three per cent, for example.
“Over the last seven or eight years, we’ve had maybe only a six percent pay increase in total so in reality that’s a pay cut,” he noted. “And now the impact of years of stagnating wages has being keenly felt especially with the cost of living crisis now. This is why we’re taking a stand.”
Andy said that coming out to demonstrations like Saturday’s People’s Assembly demo was vitally important.
“Everyone is feeling the same pinch so it’s vital that we all come out and support each other,” he said. “All the support we’ve had from our community and the wider public ourselves during the strike has been phenomenal so we’re giving back to show our solidarity with everyone today.”
Unite branch secretary and First Manchester bus worker Sohail Khan (pictured below) also attended the demo in Manchester. He and his colleagues only just won their own pay dispute last week. Through their efforts, they’ve secured a nearly 9 per cent pay increase for the workers.
“The cost of living crisis really started to pick up pace when the Covid pandemic hit, so we’ve really been living this crisis for the last two years. During lockdown, obviously companies have used it as an excuse to freeze wages, so the increasing cost of everything – bills, food, fuel, rent, mortgages, you name it – has hit us hard.
“More and more of our members have been getting into debt – they’ve been turning to loans and credit cards just because they can’t cope. They’re scared to even turn on the telly or open a newspaper because they’re afraid of yet more announcements that will erode their standard of living, like the National Insurance hike, and the energy price cap increase.
“Even what we might consider a triumph in our recent pay increase isn’t really a triumph because we’ve gone years without a substantial pay increase and it’s just eaten away at our wages,” Sohail noted.
Sohail agreed with Andy that attending demonstrations especially now in this moment of crisis was absolutely pivotal to make sure everyone’s voices are heard.
“We’ve got to get out there and make some noise because it’s not just us who are facing a cost of living crisis – it’s everyone: people on benefits, students, pensioners, even future generations will be impacted by what’s happening now. We’ve got to keep going until we make enough noise so that the government and employers understand that we simply cannot cope – and we’re just not taking it anymore.”
Unite member and flight attendant Mikey (pictured below), attended Saturday’s demo to raise awareness of how the cost of living crisis has hit everyone.
“I work every single day because I cannot afford even a basic standard of living if I don’t – I literally don’t have a day off,” he said. “My biggest fear is that things are only going to get worse – if prices keep increasing then we’ll be right on the breadline. If that happens, I don’t know how I’m going to pay the mortgage or the bills and feed my children.
“We’re all working several jobs just to pay the bills and we’re all struggling especially after furlough was withdrawn. The government needs to cancel the National Insurance rise in April and they need to do something about the rising bills because we just can’t afford it.”
A range of speakers from the union movement and other campaigning organisations spoke at Saturday’s demo, including the striking Chep workers as well as Unite political officer Laura Smith, who is also a Labour councillor for Crewe South.
Laura explained why it was vital that everyone join a union now.
“I say people should get themselves in a trade union, and join those fighting to drive up wages,” she said. “It is a fact that those who are in a unionised workplace earn more than those who are not.
“This is a wages and earnings crisis,” she added. “Wages must go up and prices must be held down. The squeeze must be on profits and not on people.”
Speaking to UniteLive ahead of the demonstration, Unite organiser Joe Rollin said Saturday’s demonstrations were “just the start of building a movement around the cost of living crisis”.
“We know that demonstrations don’t change things overnight but they are a great way to support workers from all sections of society in their struggle for fair pay and to support our retired and Community members — who aren’t able to bargain collectively like others do in workplaces — in the struggles they face as well.
“We’re all united in the fact that none of us should be made to pay for the cost of living crisis,” he added. “It’s not of our making and we shouldn’t suffer because of it.”
By Hajera Blagg
Main pic by Mark Harvey