This is a speech given by Fire Brigades Union National Officer and Free Our Unions activist Riccardo la Torre (pictured above, centre) at the 2021 May Day protest in Southend in Essex. Republished from the Free Our Unions website; you can watch the speech as a video on their site here.
I’m Riccardo la Torre from the Fire Brigades Union, bringing May Day solidarity to all of you. It’s fantastic, and encouraging, to see that we’re all out here today demonstrating, protesting, which is our right and our freedom. We’re doing it in the face of a Bill that threatens that very right and those very freedoms. A bill which – I don’t apologise for this description – poses one of the most serious threats to working people, to our class, to our rights in a generation.
It directly attacks our right to have a voice, our right to stand up, our right to speak out, our right to be heard, our right to defend ourselves. It contains a perverse assault on those rights. It would allow for the police, for government, for the powers that be, to decide whether or not our protest is legitimate. Whether or not our voice is legitimate. It ain’t for the Old Bill to tell us whether our voice is legitimate, it’s not for the government – the very people we find ourselves having to protest against. Workers decide what workers’ voice is, and nobody else. We must stop this from coming in.
That voice of workers, the voice of the oppressed, the voice of the exploited, the voice of our class, the voice of protest has delivered, has won, the very freedoms we stand here with today. We’ve heard other comrades speak about it today: about the Chartists, the suffragettes, the civil rights movement. They want to silence that voice of protest. They want to silence it because it’s collective. When it’s collective and not divided, it’s stronger than them. They want to silence it because protest works.
Protest doesn’t just work in the headline wins, or in the pages of history books. We only have to look at recent history months for large and small wins. Protest stopped the European Super League. Protest delayed the very Bill that we’re talking about today. Protest u-turned the government on the decision about opening schools.
I was reading an article on the way over here, an interview with Jeremy Corbyn, and he was talking about the million people who protested against the Iraq war. He was asked whether he thinks protest works. He said there’s the immediately visible wins we can see. But it also works in other ways. Protest changes opinions, protest forms opinions; it shapes the other side of a narrative and an argument. Protest, even if not on the day, can work much further down the line. Protest can work in ways we don’t even see.
If we look at my industry, at my union, the Fire Brigades Union, at everything we have – that firefighters and control staff have – our pay, our rights, our safety, it’s been won directly or indirectly by protest, whether it’s in the workplace, on picket lines, in the streets or in Parliament. We have been gifted nothing by politicians. We’ve been gifted nothing by bosses. We’ve protested, we’ve demanded and we’ve won. We have to protect that right.
When thousands of firefighters marched on Parliament because this government unlawfully stole our pensions, we didn’t do it silently as this bill would have us do – no, we were heard and won – and I can assure you, the next time we do it, regardless of what this bill says, we will not be doing it silently and we will be heard.
Stopping this bill is vital, it’s essential to defend the rights we have, but it will only be a win to stand still. We have to go further as a movement as a movement, as organised workers, as trade unions. There is a raft of legislation out there that shackles workers, that silences working people and attacks working people, and that will continue to attack us afterwards. What I’m talking about is the anti-trade union laws. Not just the most recent, 2016 Act, but all of them, going back to the 80s. Laws that silence workers. Laws that stop workers from protesting; that tell us how we can take action, when we can take action, where we can take action and what we can take action about. It’s disgustingly undemocratic.
These laws say workers aren’t allowed to take industrial action about issues that aren’t directly related to their employment – about massive issues that affect working people every day. The climate crisis. Racism. Grenfell. It’s perverse that a parent cannot take industrial action to defend their child’s education, just because they’re not directly employed in education. We can’t take industrial action to defend the NHS, because we’re not employed in the NHS. A resident that lives in a death-trap of a home, wrapped in illegal cladding, flammable cladding, can’t take industrial action because they’re not employed in that industry.
It is perverse, brothers and sisters, and our movement has to put our eye on it, and fight to repeal all those laws. I don’t mean change them, I mean repeal them and replace them with strong rights to take action. We call on the Labour Party to be our parliamentary voice in that and demand a change, not just on the 2016 Trade Union Act, but on all trade union laws.
We have to realise this is one part of a wider agenda against working people. We’re all being attacked in our own ways. There is a White Paper coming, we believe this summer, that is attacking the Fire Brigades Union and the organised voice of firefighters even more. There is a White Paper coming on “fire service reform”, and what they mean by reform is ripping up our collective bargaining rights, and silencing our collective firefighters’ voice – the very voice that keeps firefighters alive when bosses and the government refuse to. Supported by the Home Office, supported by the fire chiefs’ council, that attack is coming our way this summer, and when it does we’ll be asking all of you to support our campaign and our fight.
If this bill and what it contains was being done in any other country that this government didn’t agree with politically, they would be calling it dictatorial – because that is exactly what it is. The bill has been delayed, not stopped. It’s been delayed, but we cannot delay our organisation and our activity to destroy it and make sure it never comes. We have to carry on activities like today. It’s great to see you today and I wholeheartedly thank the organisers. We must do more, must push on, we must do it together and collective. Happy International Workers’ Day, brothers and sisters. Solidarity.