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13 February 2017
Anti-trade union laws used against 'Sheffield Trees Action' protesters
Alistair Tice, Yorkshire Socialist Party
What happens when a Labour council signs a £2 billion Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract with a multinational corporation to manage its streets for the next 25 years? It ends up with local residents being arrested by South Yorkshire Police for peacefully protesting to save mature roadside trees being felled by Amey plc.
This is what has been happening in Sheffield over the last few months. It's cheaper for Amey to cut trees down than it is to maintain them and the pavements. Amey has a clear profit motive - if it blitzes the city's trees in the first five years of its 25-year contract, it can spend the next 20 years with much lower maintenance costs.
Because of the furore caused by this, the council set up an 'Independent Trees Panel' to assess whether trees were "dying, diseased, decaying or dangerous" but then ignored its advice and cut the trees down anyway!
Dawn raid on trees
In November the Labour council colluded with Amey and South Yorkshire Police in a dawn raid to cut trees down on Rustlings Road. This resulted in two pensioners and a passer-by being arrested on charges subsequently thrown out at court.
After that public relations disaster the council said that there wouldn't be any more 5am operations. But the tree felling has continued with over 4,000 axed so far and another 14,000 planned.
This has led to huge and well organised opposition of local campaign groups coordinated by Sheffield Trees Action Group (STAG). Sheffield's Labour council leaders have dismissed this as being "a middle-class issue". While it's true that most protests have been in 'leafier' areas, the future of the environment is not just a 'middle class issue', as nature and pollution affect us all. In any case, many of the tree protesters are being politicised as they connect together austerity cuts and privatisation with the role of the council, Amey and the police.
Divisions in Labour
The issue has split the local Labour Party and Momentum. One Labour councillor was suspended from the Labour group for abstaining on a motion critical of the council's handling of Rustlings Road. Resolutions critical of the council leaders have been discussed at Labour ward meetings. And a "Labour Against PFI" banner is now often seen on protests.
Last week, nine more protesters, including a Green Party councillor, were arrested under 1992 anti-trade union laws for "preventing lawful work". Police appear in big numbers before every felling to facilitate Amey contractors. Two residents were even arrested who were standing under a tree with the property owner's consent. South Yorkshire Police are acting as Amey's private security firm!
This is what happens when Labour councils refuse to fight the Tory government cuts; they end up down the privatisation road, backing corporations against local residents and sending police to use Thatcher's anti-union laws to arrest people.
The first two protesters arrested under anti-union legislation back in November go to trial on 9th March in what will be a big test case given the increasing number of arrests.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 13 February 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.