Barnsley pensioners behaving badly

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The sight of militant pensioners and disabled people wearing Freedom Rider T-shirts while noisily protesting is now commonplace across South Yorkshire.

For the last nine months the South Yorkshire Freedom Riders have been fighting to get free train travel reinstated for older and disabled people.

The Labour-dominated South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive’s (SYPTE) decision to axe free travel from 31 March 2014 because of Tory spending cuts, and to do so with extremely limited public consultation, provoked a storm of outrage.

Over 300 people came to the first Barnsley protest meeting.

That led to what became the South Yorkshire Freedom Riders, uniting older and disabled people, starting a campaign of demonstrations on the streets and inside Barnsley Transport Interchange, and of going on Freedom Rides — travelling by train and refusing to pay.

From the beginning the campaign sought trade union support. On the second Freedom Ride the train driver put campaigners in touch with Aslef who have been a mainstay of support ever since.

The bakers’ union produced the campaign banner, while the South Yorkshire Unite Community branch has given tremendous backing throughout. Union donations keep flowing in.

This connection has been a two-way process with Freedom Riders joining an RMT demonstration and supporting their campaign to keep guards on trains, and joining the March for the NHS when it came through Barnsley.

Labour reacted in two ways: by looking to make concessions which they hoped would divide the protest movement and by attacking the very idea of protest.

The Barnsley Central MP, Dan Jarvis, shadow justice minister, denounced the protesters as lawbreakers whose actions were making a settlement harder. Yet on the streets campaigners got strong public backing for the protests.

Meanwhile from early June Labour reinstated full rights to free train travel for disabled people, with older people getting half fares on some journeys. This divisive proposal was unanimously rejected by the Freedom Riders at a mass campaign rally in Barnsley’s main square. Both older and disabled protesters resolved to fight on together.

From that point on the Freedom Rides were met much more aggressively by Northern Rail and the Transport Police. The crunch came on 23 June when about 60 Freedom Riders were kettled by transport police at Sheffield station, with two pensioners arrested and charged with obstructing the police and not having a valid ticket for travel. Their trial, scheduled to last five days, starts at Sheffield Magistrates Court on Monday 8 December.

Campaigners hope that the trial and demonstration will mark the beginning of a new phase of mass militant protest.

The South Yorkshire experience, whatever the outcome, shows what pensioners can achieve by militant collective action. That lesson is likely to be invaluable in the struggles to come.

Update: The case against the Barnsley Freedom Riders was dropped by the Crown Prosecution Services on Friday 28 November.