IN a district that commemorates the avarice of empire, they gathered to proclaim revolt.

Glasgow’s Merchant City is named for the barons whose 18th century piracy endowed its grandeur. The walls of the Trades Hall on Glassford Street are festooned with the bequests – recorded in gold lettering – made by the city’s richest businessmen to deserving causes.

Before the birth of democracy and the concept of fair wages the selective philanthropy of these old traders was the beginning and end of state welfare. On Wednesday night the Trades Hall rang to the cheers of 500 trade unionists angered by a government – the spiritual heirs of the old merchant class – seeking to re-model Britain on pre-Victorian values.

The Scottish TUC had called this rally as the culmination of a day of strike action across the UK unprecedented in modern industrial history. Around 500,000 workers representing every sinew of Britain’s public sector had come out. Unless they had been represented at the Trades Hall the British Government might yet be unaware how visceral the workers’ fury has become.

Just over a century ago – almost to the day – around the corner from the Trades Hall, the Battle of George Square occurred: a violent engagement between the police and striking workers. Troops, supported by tanks, had been stationed around Glasgow. No-one on Wednesday night was urging violent confrontation, but the background to the tumult in 1919 is startlingly similar to the waves of unrest breaking across Britain today.

HeraldScotland: The Battle of George Square occurred in 1919 when violence erupted between police and striking workersThe Battle of George Square occurred in 1919 when violence erupted between police and striking workers (Image: Newsquest)

In 1919 Britain’s working classes were facing mass unemployment as the country wound down its military and heavy industry production. The cost of the war had also taken a toll on the UK’s finances. Men who had fought in the trenches for four years and witnessed the slaughter of their friends were expected to take another hit.

The trade unions had proposed a reduced working week to ease unemployment numbers, but this was rebuffed. The armaments industry and Britain’s titans of trade and commerce had all become rich on the war, but there was nothing for the men who actually fought it. The violence on George Square was swiftly dealt with and the strike leaders were arrested for incitement.

At this rally, ten speakers representing eight trade unions, outlined their motives for calling their members out. A century after strikers decided they would no longer tolerate workplace inequality their 21st century brothers and sisters painted a picture that the George Square fighters would have recognised.

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And looming over it all was the memory of Barry Martin, the firefighter who lost his life while trying to ensure that no one else lost theirs during the fire that engulfed the old Jenners department store in Edinburgh last month.

Before we stood for a minute’s silence in his memory Pauline Rourke, STUC president, said: “Barry was a much-loved worker who left his home one morning and never returned. He put his life on the line, just as so many others did during the Covid pandemic.”

In a few sentences she had encapsulated one of the main reasons why so many of these people were here. There are several others, all of which were present in 1919. While Covid had increased the wealth of Britain’s billionaires and the profits of its top 100 companies, the men and women who had, literally, endangered their own health by serving their communities, had been given a Thursday night clap and a pat on the head.

Inflation caused by the profiteering and huge dividends of corporate shareholders was being used to justify paltry wage increases that were being wiped out by the accompanying cost of living. The revelation that Tory government ministers had exploited the pandemic to enrich their friends and supporters has merely sharpened the sense of economic betrayal.

And then, of course, there’s the Mick Lynch effect. You could see it here tonight. The spirit of the loquacious leader of the RMT union was present in the Trades Hall. Once, the Tories, the BBC and the right-wing press could patronise and disparage a previous generation of union leaders like Joe Gormley, Arthur Scargill, Mick McGahey and Len Murray. Not now. The men and women representing their members on stage tonight are cut from the same cloth as Mr Lynch: eloquent, concise, confident and utterly committed.

HeraldScotland: The spirit of the RMT union leader Mick Lynch was in the hall, with the representatives cut from the same confident and committed clothThe spirit of the RMT union leader Mick Lynch was in the hall, with the representatives cut from the same confident and committed cloth (Image: Newsquest)

There was a sense tonight that you were witnessing one of those watershed moments in history; the birth of something genuinely radical. A genie was emerging.

Nor was this a gathering of leftie tub-thumpers preaching revolution and barricades. Present here were teachers, health workers, civil servants, fire fighters, rail workers. None of this felt orchestrated, unless you were cynical enough to think that a flailing government nearing its end is seeking to bring about confrontation by imposing what would be Europe’s most draconian anti-strike legislation.

The imagery and oratory reflected the passion in this room: vivid, vibrant and brooking absolutely no compromise. And all of it reinforced by almost universal support of the members. “If the Government fail to meet their own minimum standards, then we’ll sue them under their own legislation,” said Ms Rourke. “The difference between a worker and a slave is that workers can withdraw their labour,” she added.

“Collective bargaining without the right to strike is collective begging,” said Stephen Flynn’ leader of the SNP’s Westminster group and one of three SNP MPs present.

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One speaker after another spoke of the pain of having to strike. Andrea Bradley, of the EIS, said: “The proposed strike legislation is a spiteful, unworkable and undemocratic attack on working people. This is our first strike action in four decades; this goes against the grain. Our pay, though, has been eroded by 25% since 2008.”

She spoke of the minimum standards of caring for and teaching pupils with additional needs, many of them requiring more help after the traumas of lockdown. She talked about teaching pupils to play by the rules, even as the UK Government was ripping them up and acting illegally under international law. “We’re not doing it for the money; we’re doing it because we want to put something back into society. We’re not anti-government rebels.”

Liz McGachey, of the PCS, the civil servants' union, said that 40,000 members were using food banks and 47,000 were on Universal Credit. There had been no pay rises for a decade, she claimed.

Anas Sarwar, leader of the Labour Party in Scotland was also here and spoke with his customary polish. He re-stated his party’s commitment to unstitching the Tories anti-strike legislation. Few here doubted his personal integrity. While his London boss, Sir Keir Starmer was warning his MPs not to visit picket lines last year, Sarwar and his MSPs defiantly joined them.

Yet this couldn’t have been a comfortable night for the Scottish Labour leader, or for any of the professional parliamentarians present. Next up was Gordon Martin of RMT Scotland and he wasn’t messing about or sparing anyone’s feelings. “I remember when Tony Blair made similar promises, but then failed to deliver on them,” he said. “And Keir Starmer is more right wing than Tony Blair.

“This is a class war.” (Applause).

“Politicians won’t help us; we’re the ones who’ll have to do it.” (Applause. And cheers).

“This is about direct action, civil disobedience and a general strike. It needs to be from the bottom up. (The loudest cheer of the night).

“I’m always being asked to sign petitions. But signing petitions has become an industry. We’re going to need to break the law. The other side break it with impunity. Now it’s time to repay the compliment. And, if your [union] executive committees don’t have the balls to do this, then replace them.”

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Gordon Martin was preaching revolution. I glanced around this hall filled to capacity with young and old; manual and professional, activists and strike virgins. No one was disagreeing with him.

There was a spirit in that upper room of the old Trades Hall that I’d never before witnessed or encountered in politics or social action. Not even in the thrilling, desperate days of 1984 and 1985 when the miners were beaten down by the government and the police and then betrayed by the Labour Party.

This looked like and sounded like mass, popular resistance. It felt like the start of Britain’s most important and profound social struggle in more than a century. And soon, we’ll all be compelled to pick a side.