Union leader Mick Lynch urged Sir Keir Starmer not to be a “vanilla politician” and to back workers’ rights as thousands of demonstrators gathered outside Downing Street to protest against the controversial strikes Bill.
The general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union said the shadow cabinet should be promising to resolve pay disputes and rip up anti-union legislation if they win the next election.
He was joined Labour backbenchers Zara Sultana and Bell Ribeiro-Addy, SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn and former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as he made a speech to crowds braving subzero temperatures on Whitehall on Monday evening.
The protest was held to mark the second reading of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill in Parliament.
The proposed legislation would see the right to take industrial action restricted by imposing minimum service levels.
Bosses would be legally able to fire employees who ignore a notice requiring them to work on strike days.
The Bill is in response to the wave of strikes which has been sweeping across the country for months, in bitter disputes over pay, jobs, staffing and conditions.
Addressing demonstrators from a podium, Mr Lynch said: “There are some people missing tonight. You get this every time you hear me.
“We’ve got Jeremy (Corbyn), he’s with us, we’ve got SNP MPs, we’ve got Caroline Lucas from the Green Party.
“But there’s a big question – where’s the Labour front bench tonight?”
The union boss said the Labour leader should not try to be a “vanilla politician in a vanilla suit”, adding: “Come and stand with us … stand up for socialism, stand up for workers and let’s change this going forward.”
Members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union and Unison were also present at the demonstration.
Protesters chanted “f*** the Tories” and “the people united will never be divided” and others banged drums as they gathered in Westminster.
Addressing protesters, Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said she was “keeping warm” by thinking about how National Education Union (NEU) teachers had earlier voted to strike.
“It’s absolutely freezing but you know what’s keeping me warm? The NEU just smashed their ballot,” she told the crowd.
“Picket lines, democracy, we are the champions of them and we are not going to accept any extra conditions on our ability to do that.”
Mr Corbyn condemned “disgusting levels of inequality” in Britain under the Tory Government, while Ms Ribeiro-Addy, having come straight from Parliament, said the Bill’s introduction in the Commons had been “absolutely disgraceful”.
“All we heard from the minister was lies, deceit and utter contempt for our public service workers,” she told protesters.
Clare Keenan, from the PCS, described the Bill as an “attack on my human rights and those of my fellow workers”.
She said: “You can’t make people go to work five days a week and having to use food banks and removing their ability to protest.
“It’s just a hurdle that they’re putting in the way to stop workers from taking industrial action.”
Retired George Hallam, who attended to show solidarity with workers, likened the Bill to anti-strike action under Margaret Thatcher’s government.
He said: “I think the Government is chancing its arm because the last time it tried something like this was the 1970s.
“It’s worse than a sin, it’s a mistake, because they’re likely to get a bloody nose like they did back then.”
Commenting on the protest earlier, Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack said: “The protest at Downing Street is the start of a mass movement of resistance to this pernicious attack on the rights of working people to defend their jobs, wages and conditions against attacks from their bosses or cutbacks from the Government.
“The Prime Minister is seeking to steamroller extremely severe restrictions on the right to strike through Parliament today, without any meaningful scrutiny.
“Firefighters and other key workers, who kept our public services going during Covid, are at Downing Street, to tell Rishi Sunak that they will not accept this dictatorial assault on their democratic rights
“Instead of launching draconian attacks on the rights of working people, the Prime Minister must provide the resources to resolve this dispute by paying firefighters and other workers a decent wage, to alleviate in-work poverty.”