Britain: National Shop Stewards Network conference

An urgent call for united working class action

The enormous onslaught of this Con-Dem government necessitates an urgent response from the organisations of the working class – in particular the trade unions. Unfortunately most of the trade union leaders have so far failed to give a lead on a fighting programme of action to stop the cuts in jobs, services and conditions.

The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) was initiated in 2007 to build solidarity and support among rank and file trade union activists. On Saturday 26 June 2010, days after chancellor George Osborne’s ‘bloodbath budget’, the fourth national conference of the NSSN took place in London.

The 300-strong conference agreed a statement of action (see below right) and the focus was on preparing, initially, for a massive, national trade union led demonstration. As well as plenary and workshop sessions, delegates were encouraged to meet up in their regional groups in the lunch break to set dates for regional meetings. A new 60-member steering committee, with representatives from eleven unions from Scotland, Wales and all regions in England, was formed to organise the work. Here we report on the main rallies.

The morning rally of the NSSN conference was opened by the chair Dave Chapple condemning an invitation issued by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to Tory prime minister David Cameron to address the TUC in September. Dave commented that we can’t wait for the TUC to organise workers’ solidarity, so the NSSN has responsibility to start rebuilding the working class movement to prepare for the battles ahead.

Judy Beishon

The first platform speaker was Steve Hedley, London regional secretary of the RMT transport union. Steve drew attention to the new government’s aim of cutting 25% from the transport budget, and went on to inform the audience on the current disputes in London Underground. He strongly condemned the anti-trade union laws and gave examples of the way employers have turned to the courts in recent disputes of rail signallers and maintenance workers.

The next speaker was Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. Inviting David Cameron to the TUC “is like talking to the hangman before he puts the noose round your neck”, which was why Matt opposed the invitation. He referred to all the attacks being made on health, education, pensions etc, and said: “Our people did not cause this crisis and our people should not have to pay the price of this crisis”.

In the fire service, the number of firefighters has been reduced, while chief fire officers have had pay increases at twice the percentage rate of rank and file workers. Attacks are ongoing, with the example given by Matt of plans to reduce the night time fire cover in London. Backdoor privatisation was also mentioned; AssetCo now owns all the fire engines in London and has a contract to provide an ‘emergency fire service’ – which fire service managers may try to use in the event of a FBU strike.

Matt ended by saying: “The crisis isn’t one of a few bad apples in the City of London, it’s one of the system”, and if it can’t deliver decent welfare and services, then “we’ll find an alternative system”. He said that the TUC should call a major national demonstration, “I don’t mean one where we get the leaflet at the last minute, but one that is prepared for and built properly”.

British Airways

The conference then particularly applauded the next speaker, a British Airways cabin crew trade union rep, who reported on the 22 days of industrial action taken by the crew so far. He said that BA boss Willie Walsh has an agenda of breaking the union and removing it from BA. But, “he doesn’t have the choice” pointed out this Unite trade unionist, “our members have the choice of who they want to represent them”. He described some of the dirty tactics of Walsh, but went on to say that the cabin crew have been highly organised and politicised by their struggle and that he has never been prouder to represent his members.

Linda Taaffe, on behalf of the NSSN officers, presented a NSSN written statement (see right). She stressed that the NSSN has to react to the most vicious ever government budget, “a budget by the rich and for the rich, and against the working class”. We need a national fightback to stop the proposals becoming a reality, urged Linda. To start with, a union-led national demonstration would be a beacon to workers who are unsure of what to do in the face of the attacks, including those approaching pension age, and also to youth and students.

The rally was then opened up for contributions from the floor, with no shortage of trade union activists stepping forward to relate experiences of disputes and campaigns. Two PCS activists condemned the plan to close 158 courts around the country, a CWU rep reminded everyone about the latest privatisation attack on Royal Mail and there were many other informative contributions, including from workers in the RMT and Unison.

The final speaker from the floor, Nancy Taaffe, said that the NSSN must have a dual strategy of both organising at workplace level and of mobilising the unions and TUC at national level. We need to unite the whole working class, and not allow young workers to be used against older workers, migrants against local workers, and so on, she declared.

All workers of Europe – unite!

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge

Every government in Europe is attempting to viciously gouge the cost of the recession and bank bailouts out of the living conditions of the working class. While there is variation in the speed of the responses, growing anger and opposition are also universal.

In response to the call by Joe Higgins, Socialist Party MEP for Dublin and other left MEPs for a week of coordinated protest and solidarity from 21 to 27 June the final session was a European rally.

Rob Williams, Unite convenor at the Linamar plant in Swansea, listed the actions that have taken place, including strikes in Italy and France and protests in Sweden, Denmark, Austria and many more countries.

Terry Kelleher, CPSU Executive, Ireland

Marianthi Kypridou from the POE/YPPOT public sector union in Greece summed up the united call for further cooperation when she said: "this is a common struggle against a common enemy and therefore we need to develop links between us, we need to coordinate our struggles, we need to fight together".

Graphic descriptions of the rapid deteriorations in living standards were provided. Pedro Higuera from the Workers’ Commissions and the Izquierda Unida (United Left) in Spain described the horrific situation for the working class in Spain. Unemployment is at 20% and there are one million people who receive no benefits whatsoever! Simultaneous with this growth in desperate poverty was an increase in bank profits of over €12 billion in 2009.

Pedro described the opposition to the latest raft of attacks, in particular the so-called labour reform legislation. The government argues this will aid recovery by making it easier for bosses to fire workers. A two-fold response is needed – distributing information to answer the lies of the bosses and their media and government – and mobilisations such as the tremendous public sector strike on 8 June.

Pedro Higuera, Workers Commissions and Izquierda Unida, Spain

Terry Kelleher, from the NEC of the Civil Public and Services Union (CPSU) in Ireland, brought fraternal greetings from the newly formed rank and file association in his union. He explained that this organisation was needed because, after the years of ’partnership’ between the government and the unions, and the Celtic Tiger economic boom, the trade union leaderships were incapable of leading struggle.

Public sector workers in Ireland have seen a 13% pay cut while 217,000 private sector jobs have simply disappeared. €84 billion has been found to bail out the banks and the crooked property developers while schools, hospitals and vital services are left to rot.

Following a successful day of public sector strike action the trade union leaders chose to ’negotiate’ with the bosses rather than to step up the pressure. Unbelievably, with no alternatives to the so-called demands of the ’markets’ for cuts, the trade union leaders have offered a no-strike deal to the employers!

The leadership is now losing its authority and workers are drawing the conclusion that "there is only one alternative and that is a return to the idea of struggle". CPSU membership is up 11% with new forces joining and demanding action. The new rank and file body already has 13,000 members and is preparing to challenge for seats on the national executive.

Chris Baugh, assistant general secretary of one of the most militant unions in Britain, the PCS, was the final speaker. He made it clear that the budget is a declaration of class war by the government which must be answered decisively.

Chris outlined the need for a programme of taxing the rich to pay for the deficit, of nationalising the banks and utilities under democratic public control and of planning production to meet the needs of both people and the environment.

Although in Britain we have not yet seen movements like those in Greece and Spain, or even Ireland, Chris explained that the budget cuts will not be tolerated. A Mori poll found that almost half of those polled wanted to see more spent on public services, not less. He described how the PCS saw "an upsurge in membership every time it launches action".

Chris underlined the calls in the NSSN statement for the building of trade union alliances at every level, of building solidarity, of building links between the public and private sectors and of building confidence in the idea that trade unions can make a difference. He reiterated the call to put pressure on the TUC for a national demo as a show of support for a 24-hour public sector strike.

Chris finished by calling on trade union activists at the conference to "show in practice that the slogan: ’workers of the world, unite’ is more relevant than any other time in history".

An extract from the speech of Marianthi Kypridou, from the POE/YPPOT public sector union in Greece

Good afternoon from fighting Greece! I know that in Britain your government has announced huge cuts. Just like Greece. This happened to us and at the beginning it was very quiet. But, believe me, this was the quiet before the storm.

Why do they launch this vicious attack against us? Because, supposedly, we have been living "beyond our means", this is what they say. We have created, they say, a huge national debt and great deficits.

But we, the workers, have never seen any of this money which we have supposedly spent. On the contrary, for the past 25 years we have received one austerity pack after another. In the mid-80s an austerity plan was applied in order for Greece to enter the EU. In the 90s another austerity plan was applied to enter the euro zone. After 2000 another austerity plan was applied to pay for the Olympic Games. After 2004 another austerity plan was applied to pay for the deficits of the Olympics. For 25 years, the Greek working class was attacked, attacked, and attacked in order, supposedly, to put the economy on the right course, to make it efficient, to increase its competitiveness and its productivity.

After 25 years of austerity policies comes the worst attack experienced by three generations – savage, brutal, inhuman, barbaric.

The representatives of big capital in Europe, the rich European states, the EU commission and the European Central Bank say that the Greeks "live beyond their means" and that therefore, now, they have to pay.

Marianthi Kypridou, of the Greek public sector union POE/YPPOT addresses conference

Why don’t they come and check? Why don’t they visit a Greek supermarket to have a look at the prices which are more expensive than here in London? Why don’t they have a look at the electricity bills in Athens to find out that they are more expensive than in most German cities? And then, why don’t they go to the Greek young workers, the new working class who live on €400-€500 every month and tell them that "they live beyond their means"?

Therefore we say no, we refuse to pay. We refuse to pay for their corruption, for their scandals, for their profits, for their deficits and for their debts. We demand that the banks should be owned by society! Nationalise the banks!

One third of the debt is owed to Greek bankers. These are the same people who would have collapsed had they not had the assistance of the Greek state!

These Greek banks borrowed money from the European Central Bank at 1% interest rate and they lent it over to the Greek government at 7%, just like the French banks did, the German banks did, and all of the other European and international banks.

Their role is that of parasites, their role is an absolute scandal, because not only have they been at the root of the crisis globally but they continued to make profits while the crises developed, and still continue to make profits.

Our government and your government have spent fortunes to save the banks and to save bankrupt industry and the big corporations. They made us pay in order to bail them out.

We say these corporations should be taken over by society, be nationalised, under the control, management and direction of the workers’ movement and society.

Then, production can be planned for the benefit of society, massive investments can be made, in infrastructure, in housing, education and health, productive investments and not speculation.

We must struggle to overthrow the profit system, to overthrow capitalism. We have no other choice. We must build a socialist society in the service of the people. There is no other way forward. If we don’t do that, we will pay a very expensive price. The next generation would be the only generation for decades who will be living in worse conditions than their parents.

Comrades, this is not a Greek drama. It’s also an Irish drama, and a Portuguese drama and a Spanish and a British one. We must fight together.

Statement adopted by NSSN Conference 2010: Guide to action for delegates and visitors

This Conference takes place just a few days after the millionaire Tory/Liberal Democrat government has announced in a special budget the biggest cuts in public expenditure since the 1930s.

800,000 public sector jobs to go; Child benefits frozen and housing benefit cut; Pay frozen for three years; Increase in VAT to 20%.

No matter how they try to dress it up as "fair" and "progressive" this is a massive attack on the working class by the rich.

These cuts will axe jobs and reduce services. Cuts will impact upon the lives of millions of ordinary people in every community and workplace up and down the country.

We say the working class should not accept these cuts, and we the NSSN will organise to assist in the fightback.

The working class should not and will not pay for a crisis caused by the bankers and the capitalist system.

We appeal for the maximum unity of the trade union movement in defence of the public sector and the welfare state, and support the call by the PCS and others for the TUC to name the day for a national demonstration, preferably before the TUC conference in September 2010.

As soon as a date for a demonstration is announced our central priority will be to build for the maximum possible turnout.

If a demo is not called the NSSN will call a lobby of the TUC Conference in Manchester (day, date and time to be decided) urging the TUC to call a united national demonstration with a view to further organising a one-day public sector strike, as the beginning of a serious fightback against these vicious cuts.

We call on NSSN in the regions to:

1. Support all action by unions in defence of public services, including individual strikes at local or national level.

2. Take the campaign to the wider trade union movement and the community at large at local level. 3. Organise meetings and activities in conjunction with trades councils, local trade union branches and other anti-cuts campaigns.

4. Lobby councils, health boards and other employer organisations responsible for carrying through government cuts.

5. Get the biggest possible turnout and organise transport to the TUC lobby, or demo, by working with other anti-cuts campaigns and asking the local trade unions to sponsor coaches.

6. Support the call for a European-wide day of action on Wednesday 29 September.

Officers of the NSSN National Steering Committee


All trade unionists quoted in these reports spoke in a personal capacity

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