As the standing ovation for sacked Greek Vodafone worker, Harris Sedaris, died away, the audience at the ninth annual National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) conference broke into an impromptu rendition of traditional socialist song ’the Internationale’, reports Dave Gorton, from Unite union branch LE/372 branch.
It was a fitting end to a day full of hope and confidence - one that laid the foundations for the next few months of crucial struggle.
This was the first NSSN conference since the Tories’ shock election victory and no delegate was in any doubt as to the challenges we face. But they also recognised there is no time for mourning.
Activists spoke of the necessity of moving swiftly into action and displayed a confidence that a government supported by just 24% of the population could be defeated if the unions adopted a bold, radical and fighting agenda.
The morning session - Stop the Tory Union-Busters - was addressed by five union general secretaries or presidents, as well as leading activists from the floor. The common thread between almost all speakers was that the left trade unions - those affiliated to the NSSN - have to make the running in the coming months.
Matt Wrack, general secretary of firefighters’ union FBU (the NSSN’s newest affiliate), said: "Imagine if the TUC leaders began to go out city by city and town by town making the case against austerity and the case for organising and then called for a general strike - then I think that could receive a huge echo."
Civil servants union PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka paid tribute to the NSSN for being first on the scene whenever there is a dispute. The NSSN’s ability to mobilise was echoed by other speakers involved in disputes. Candy Udwin, sacked PCS National Gallery activist thanked the NSSN for its consistant support.
Mick Joyce from the Kone dispute in the north east said they would have lost if they’d been left to stand alone, but thanks to the Socialist Party "we beat them". Mick recently joined the Socialist Party.
Mark was adamant "we could stop austerity in its tracks" if the TUC united against our class enemies. It was a message echoed by the bakers’ union’s Ronnie Draper, the RMT’s Peter Pinkney and the prison officers’ Steve Gillan. Ronnie went back to the tremendous Hovis dispute in 2013 that achieved victory supported by the NSSN and others.
Martin Powell-Davies, NUT national executive member, detailed the action taken this year by teachers, school students and community activists which has seen the attempts to convert five Lewisham schools to academies all fail.
Conference gave a rousing welcome to Marie and Christine from the Glasgow homelessness workers’ dispute who reported on the Labour city council’s attempts to organise a scab workforce to break their 15 week dispute. They brought news of the success of the Dundee hospital porters’ strike, and the determination it had given them: "We’re not going back until we get what we came out for."
The author of ’Blacklisted - The Secret War between Big Business and Union Activists’, Dave Smith, was well received by conference as he was able to give a very serious subject the attention it deserved while making everyone laugh. 18 copies of the book were sold during the day.
The loudest response of the morning was reserved for the RMT’s Jared Wood, speaking from the floor on the London Underground strikes planned for 8 and 9 July - a historic dispute with all four tube unions involved in closing down the complete network.
There are also other strikes (for example in Bromley council and the National Gallery) being coordinated on 8 July - the day Osborne announces his latest austerity budget - showing what could be possible if the TUC grasped the historic role it should be playing.
Newly elected Unite national executive member, Suzanne Muna, asked what we would do if the TUC fails to act. She was in no doubt that the left unions needed to be bold and, if necessary, go it alone.
This was reflected in the statement carried unanimously which called for the left unions, if the TUC refuses, to organise a mass demonstration in London on the day the Trade Union Bill is debated in parliament.
The afternoon session on fighting austerity featured some excellent reports including from Isai Priya of Tamil Solidarity, Helen Pattison of Youth Fight for Jobs and Oktay Sahbaz from the Turkish and Kurdish community organisation Day-Mer.
The NSSN has demonstrated for a number of years that it is a key component in the workers’ movement. It has supporters who hold key positions in many unions and who consistently call for support for all workers’ struggles and for coordinated action.
This conference saw the NSSN beginning to take the next steps - putting itself centre stage and taking the movement forward whether or not the official bodies fail to respond.
Sacked Greek worker brings solidarity
A highlight of the conference was hearing from sacked Greek worker Harris Sideris, a member of Xekinima (sister party of the Socialist Party in Greece).
He said he did not want to talk about the difficulties facing Greek workers, but rather their determination. Up until recently an employee of Vodafone, Harris was dismissed on 2 June along with fellow organiser Vicky, for their activities trying to gain union recognition for call centre staff in Athens.
The Vodafone bosses have been trying to divide workers, splitting them along the lines of permanent, contracted and outsourced staff. They imposed unattainable personal targets and placed under-25s on lower wages of a shocking €490 a month (less than £350).
In February Harris and others began signing their colleagues up to the National Union of Vodafone Workers. Despite this being deemed illegal, their success led to the setting up of workplace committees.
After being sacked on spurious grounds, public meetings of almost 200 workers voted to take strike action over the sackings, which they did twice.
The union is now in legal discussions with Vodafone, and Vicky and Harris expect to be taking their case to court in the near future.
Harris welcomed the exposing of the Vodafone brand internationally, which has piled on the pressure back home in Greece. He made the point that the bosses are organised internationally so workers must be too, linking up struggles across Europe.
On the looming referendum (speaking the day before it took place), Harris paraphrased the famous opening of the Communist Manifesto, saying "A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of ’No’! OXI!"
He addressed the Troika, saying: "We are not just unwilling to pay back the debt, we want paying for the debt! They are not your banks, they are our banks, and we should take them back under workers’ control, that is to say, we should take our lives into our own hands."
Rushing to catch his return flight to Greece in time to vote, I asked Harris what he would say to UK workers soon to be facing an EU referendum of their own. He said that the EU represents the internationalism of the bosses, of capitalism. It is no friend to European workers.
But the campaign for a ’no’ vote must be drawn along clearly socialist lines, of opposition to austerity and control of the rich, for true internationalism of the European working class.
Otherwise the debate is open to those on the right, like Ukip, whose only basis for leaving the EU is the financial gain of their own rich chums, while sowing division and racism between workers in Britain.