Britain: National Shop Stewards Network conference

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Serious and inspiring preparation for the battles to come

As seven workers from Honda Swindon were leaving the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) conference on Saturday 11 June, one car worker remarked: "I wish we could have brought a coachload!".

This was a typical reaction amongst the 350 workers attending the best conference NSSN has held so far, a regular event that is rapidly becoming a feature in the calendar of the labour movement.

It was a solid working-class trade union conference getting ready for the huge struggles ahead, aware of the difficulties but ready for the fight. Opening the conference, NSSN chair Rob Williams pointed out that we were meeting just 19 days before a real milestone – the 30 June joint strike of teachers and civil servants against the pensions robbery.

Martin Powell Davies from the National Union of Teachers national executive remarked: "The school hall we are meeting in is packed full today; on 30th June it will be totally empty."

Janice Godrich, president of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) declared that 30 June should not just be a protest strike but a day to light a spark that will give confidence to all other public sector unions to join in and swell the force to four million workers for more strikes in the autumn.

Mark Palfrey, London Communication Workers Union (CWU), said that although his union was not yet joining the action it would respect all picket lines and he and others would be doing what they can to get the union on board, especially now that mail privatisation and closures are on the cards again.

Alex Gordon, Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) president, reminded delegates about the biggest ever trade union demonstration that was held on 26th March, showing what the TUC can do when it lifts its little finger.

But he urged that this event should not be squandered. The correct conclusions about the way forward must be drawn.

A general strike is needed. The £81 million of cuts so far are only year one of the Tory programme.

The NSSN will work with unions and anti-cuts campaigns everywhere to demand that councillors refuse to implement cuts.

He noted that NSSN also provides a valuable space to discuss serious arguments on strategy, which are bound to become sharper. Those who walked out of the NSSN in January after a democratic and open discussion on exactly this issue of strategy, have in fact left NSSN stronger and more active. (We understand a couple of those detractors snooped into the conference hall simply to do a headcount!)

Conference gave a very warm reception to Les Woodward from GMB Remploy. In very colourful and bold language he described how the disabled are getting a kicking from the "Tory Taliban" with closures and cutbacks in Remploy factories and are in line for even more rubbish to be heaped on them.

But the thousands of disabled are ready to fight factory by factory, and he appealed to the "temporarily-abled" for solidarity. Conference agreed to support a motion to oppose closures of Remploy factories and to send protest postcards to Iain Duncan Smith MP.

Wide range of contributions

But the conference was not all ’top table’. There was a whole range of marvellous contributions, both from trade unionists in leading positions and from rank and file workers struggling in the workplaces.

Every contribution was interesting and informative. 51% of workers in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are on wages too low to be covered by the wage freeze.

Pensioners are gearing up for a fight to defend the welfare state. And Tony Mulhearn one of the ’Liverpool 47’ councillors who led a magnificent anti-cuts struggle in the 1980s, lambasted New Labour councillors today who use their re-election, not to fight cuts but to vote through cuts; who organise celebrations for dead working class heroes while denouncing living fighters who want to make a stand now.

He praised NSSN for putting these councillors on the spot.

The conference was practical too. At the six working-lunch regional get-togethers, delegates planned how NSSN in their areas could assist and build for 30 June and start planning for the NSSN lobby of the TUC in September, as a way of implementing the NSSN statement agreed in the morning session.

’The Right to Strike’ theme of the afternoon session was recognition that whilst we are preparing for mass action, the bosses are too. The representatives of the rich and powerful are ready to introduce even more draconian laws to restrict strikes. Boris Johnson and Vince Cable have made that absolutely clear.

But on the ground even now a raw battle is being waged. Individuals who stand up, get sacked.

Frank Morris described his blacklisting from the Olympics site. Tube drivers Arwyn Thomas and Eamon Lynch outlined how they were sacked for participating in legal industrial action.

The RMT has backed them to the hilt, balloting every London Underground member for four days of strike action, due soon. John Hancock from the Prison Officers Association (POA) national executive explained in a speech very complimentary of the NSSN, that POA is banned from striking, but that pressure is building up to break those restrictions, especially because of the drive for privatisation.

Paul Callanan of Youth Fight for Jobs (YFJ) described how youth and students suffered police kettling tactics during the student protests, but that with youth unemployment getting worse and university fees skyrocketing, the best form of defence is attack.

They aim to bring together youth, students and trade unionists on a new Jarrow march in October. And Keith Gibson, who spoke at the NSSN conference two years ago about the victory of construction workers at Lindsay Oil Refinery against all odds, gave us, in his bold inimitable style, a vivid account of a recent battle at Saltend, near Hull, where 400 construction workers were locked out.

Despite a willingness of the workforce to fight, the battle was eventually lost, unfortunately leaving many questions being asked of some trade union officials.

This theme was taken up in the many contributions from the floor, including by Unite convenor Paddy Brennan, who appealed to NSSN for assistance with current problems at Honda, where some time ago a no-strike deal was struck between Unite union officials and management.

Kathy from Bromley Unison also took up the issue of victimisation by a trade union leadership, but this time, she said it was not all bad news. She had stood for the Unison NEC in the seat of her union colleague Glenn Kelly who has been suspended from holding office by the right-wing union leadership … and won! You can’t keep down ideas whose time has come.

International solidarity

The problems we are all facing, ie the bosses and some labour leaders, are international. NSSN conference was asked to support a campaign by a group of stewards in the Lonmin Karee mine in South Africa.

9,000 were sacked but only 8,000 reinstated after stewards had challenged corruption between management and the leadership of NUM.

Towards the end of the conference we were very happy to hear from our Greek brothers and sisters once again. Apostolis Kasimeris of the Union of Public Transport Workers in Attica, Greece, gave a great account of the effects of the terrible IMF austerity measures on workers’ living standards.

He described how the Greek workers are fighting back with actions like bus fare boycotts, but are being hamstrung by the cowardice of the union leadership who are hated by workers, and by the difficulties workers on the ground face in getting together to work out what to do after ten general strikes! Both he and his very able translator, Eleni, were given a well deserved standing ovation.

Chris Baugh, PCS Assistant Secretary, gave a rousing speech to close the conference, calling on all workers to make the 30 June action a resounding success.

The NSSN, as pointed out in the officers’ report to the conference, has gone from strength to strength over the last year. The newly-elected Steering Committee of 24 trade unionists with positions in all the major unions will develop the work in conjunction with those in the regions.

The last year has seen the pace of events step up as the financial crisis deepens and the outline of the huge industrial struggles to come begins to take shape.

NSSN has increased its presence and will continue to develop a respected role in the labour movement. In the course of the conference John Hancock articulated similar ideas in his contribution: "Shop steward!" he said, "what wonderful words those are!" They conjure up days when the trade unions had real power.

We bear those words on our banner – and we intend to help our mighty unions realise that power again.

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