Britain: National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN)

Rebuilding trade union strength

The second conference of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) on Saturday 28 June was opened by chair Dave Chapple, explaining how his CWU postal workers’ union branch was balloting its 3,000 members for strike action. The strike, in support of three sacked union activists, should mean no mail moving in the west country. He used this as an example of the rebuilding of the strength of the trade union movement, in which the NSSN is playing a vital part.

Around 300 delegates and visitors heard rail union RMT general secretary Bob Crow underline the main function of trade unions, which was to represent people on the shop floor. But he added that there has to be a change in society as well, otherwise trade unionists will be fighting for the same things they have been for the last 150 years. A strong trade union movement needs to be backed by a political party that represents working people.

He explained that we’ve had 17 years of a Tory government and now eleven years of a Labour government with Tory policies. We might get a Tory government next. “All we’ve got are three political parties which are all Tory. It really is time for a change.”

He went on to ask for support for the RMT’s resolution to the TUC, calling for the right of trades councils to send delegations directly to the Congress.

He finished by condemning the European Court judgements which attack trade union rights and called for a redoubling of the efforts to rebuild the strength of the trade union movement and the NSSN.

Onay Kasab from Greenwich Unison gave the background to the witch-hunt by the Unison leadership on four respected Unison activists. “We won’t go quietly” he said. “It is precisely because we are socialists that we are being witch-hunted. It is precisely because we are socialists that we have built militant trade union branches, and it is precisely because we are socialists that we are going to fight and win.”

Prison Officers Association (POA) general secretary Brian Caton spoke about union democracy and the importance of union leaders listening to their members. He called for the TUC to have the same attitude. He complained that all the TUC seem to do is produce reports about issues like privatisation but they never launch a campaign to fight it.

He said he had been a Labour Party member all his adult life but he was fed up with people saying: “Keep quiet, don’t criticise Labour, you might let the Tories in.” But, he said: “We’ve already got Tory policies.”

That’s why the POA is putting a resolution to the TUC calling for a general strike against the attacks on trade union rights. His final words: “Choose freedom, break bad laws”, were enthusiastically applauded.

Speakers from the floor included Socialist Party member Robbie Segal, who is standing for election as general secretary of the shopworkers’ union Usdaw. She called for an end to ‘partnership’ deals and for the building of democratic trade unions which fight for their members.

Andrew Price for the college lecturers’ union UCU explained how the union’s left leadership in Wales had won important gains for the membership. Decisive strike action has fought off management attacks and forced agreements on pay awards and parity with schoolteachers’ pay.

“We need a political party which represents rank and file trade unionists, rejects neo-liberalism and talks about socialism”, he declared to strong applause.

Roger Bannister gave a report from Unison’s Industrial Action Committee which had just endorsed unanimously his motion to call for local government workers to strike on 16 and 17 July.

They will be joined by local government workers in Nipsa in Northern Ireland and Unite. The strike will “rock the country” he said, calling on everybody present to show support on the picket lines.

Many speakers mentioned a change in the mood amongst workers and an increasing anger at the trade union leaders who spend their time repudiating strike action rather than organising it. Delegates split up to attend the workshops in a buoyant mood.

Developing the network

NSSN secretary Linda Taaffe listed some of the events that the network had intervened in during the past year, which included the TUC congress, all major trade union conferences, May Day marches around the country, the 24 April strike action involving three public-sector unions, and the council workers’ strikes in Birmingham.

by Judy Beishon

She reported that area network meetings have taken place in: Wales, South West, Midlands, Scotland, North West, North East and London. Delegates and visitors were urged to attend future meetings in their area, and to take a workmate with them. They were also asked to put motions to their union branches to donate to the NSSN, as funds are urgently needed to produce more leaflets and to pay for meeting halls.

A number of delegates contributed to the discussion that followed Linda’s introduction. Some gave brief reports from the workshops that they had attended (see list on right), while others made suggestions on how the network can be built further. One delegate asked if motions should be put to trade unions asking them to affiliate to the NSSN (to add to those already affiliated), and the conference chairperson, Dave Chapple, replied that this should definitely be done.

The closing rally of the day was opened by Rob Williams of the NSSN steering committee, who gave a rousing speech, pointing out the “seething discontent” that exists among private-sector workers as well as those in the public sector. He said that visits by NSSN supporters to strike picket lines sends a message that those workers are not alone, but are part of a movement of millions of people struggling against attacks on pay, pensions and on other issues.

He was followed by Caroline Johnson, of Birmingham Unison, who outlined some of the detail of the magnificent 20,000 strong strikes of Birmingham council workers earlier this year.

On the strike days they organised street protests on all the arterial roads into the city and had ‘electric’ rallies. 3,000 workers had attended the first mass meeting, and 2,000 new members had been recruited to Birmingham council Unison as a result of the action and concessions gained.

Next up was guest speaker Jack Heyman from America, a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. He spoke to the conference about strike action taken on May Day this year by dockers in his union, on the US west coast, to demand the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. He appealed for letters of solidarity to be sent to his union, and letters of protest to the US government, because the strikers have come under attack from their employers for taking ‘secondary action’.

The closing speech of the day was made by president of the PCS union, Janice Godrich, who began by paying tribute to the excellent turnout to the conference. In illustrating the return of one of the worst employers’ practises of the past, she described meeting agency workers who are phoned at 7am each day to go to a clerical ‘factory’, for some to then be selected by the boss for work that day and some to be rejected.

Janice explained how the left-wing PCS leaders “trust our members and activists” and have “democratic conferences” and so take a very different approach to that of the right-wing trade union leaders. She said that PCS members are often now asking ‘who can we vote for’ in council and government elections, as all the main parties support cuts and privatisation, so it is increasingly necessary for new election candidates to stand in support of public services. Leading figures in the PCS, with other left trade unionists, are considering organising a conference of trade unionists in the autumn to advance such steps.

There were workshops on the following topics during the conference. Future issues of The Socialist will carry reports from these discussions.

  • Organising in the workplace and young workers
  • Pay struggles
  • Trade unions and the war
  • Privatisation and the voluntary sector
  • Pension rights
  • Abortion rights and women in the workplace
  • History of the shop stewards’ movement
  • Organising migrant workers
  • Debate on political representation