Rank-and-file union activists assemble for sixth annual National Shop Stewards Network conference
Around 500 workplace reps assembled in Friends Meeting House in London Euston today for an excellent sixth annual National Shop Stewards Network conference.
After watching a moving film commemorating the many struggles and anti-cuts events over the last year, NSSN chair Rob Williams kicked off the day’s discussions, reminding the audience that it was their conference, to discuss and debate building workplace struggles, solidarity, and action across the whole trade union movement.
To introduce the first discussion, entitled The Fightback against Austerity, the conference was addressed by PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney, BMA member Dr Jackie Grunskill, and from Northern Ireland the newly elected NIPSA president Padraig Mulholland.
Mark Serwotka at NSSN conference, photo by Socialist Party
Mark Serwotka emphasised the unprecedented nature of the attacks in this period, concluding that "normal rules of engagement do not apply".
With 85% of the cuts still to come, unions need a response that is up to the scale of the battle; "a radical opposition is required now more than ever…
"We need people bold enough to say that there should not be a single cut". He supported the NSSN’s intention of lobbying the TUC in September to call for more strikeaction on the scale of 30 November 2011 and greater.
Padraig Mulholland deplored the hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs that are being lost and the fact that with wages being held down and working hours cut, "poverty levels are going through the roof".
NSSN conference 2012, photo Socialist Party
He called for unified, non-sectarian workers’ struggle against the coalition government and said that his union is preparing for the autumn, when he believes there needs to be a one-day strike as part of a unified fight across Britain and Northern Ireland.
Kevin Courtney emphasised the need for trade unionists to build strong networks on the ground and recognised the NSSN as a serious organisation in this process.
He declared that defending pensions is still a crucial demand, and that it is possible for governments to make changes.
For instance President Hollande in France has just reduced the pension age from 62 down to 60! To strengthen the fight on pensions and wider issues, the NUT is aiming to build unity amongst teachers by working with the NAS/UWT following an agreement of "historic significance".
After these first platform speeches, NSSN communications officer Suzanne Muna moved a NSSN Guide to Action, which welcomed the TUC national demo being organised in October and called for it to be a "start to the next phase of an action-based campaign against austerity.
"We advocate that the next step should be for the TUC to organise a one-day general strike, which includes both public and private sectors" (for the full text see below).
Then came a wide-ranging discussion from the floor in which trade unionists from a number of different unions took part, including Unison, PCS, NUT and Unite.
NSSN conference 9th June 2012, photo Suzanne Beishon
Later in the day, a session entitled Workers in Struggle was addressed by RMT president Alex Gordon, POA chair PJ McParlin, Youth Fight for Jobs activist Jacqui Berry, Remploy trade unionist Ray Ludford and by a rank and file construction worker.
Speakers from the floor gave valuable elaboration on recent workplace disputes, including on MMP in Bootle, Coryton refinery, Honda, Ratcliffe-on-Soar and Sheffield recycling centres.
PCS member Tony Mulhearn from the Liverpool 47, who was a Liverpool mayoral candidate for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) last month, spoke of the importance of TUSC in encouraging workers to stand as anti-cuts candidates in elections.
A business section of the conference was introduced by NSSN secretary Linda Taaffe, who referred to a written report that had been circulated (text below).
Linda appealed for finance donations to be sought widely from supporting trade unionists and trade unions; and a new steering committee was elected for 2012-13.
Finally, in an inspiring end to the day, international solidarity was expressed, via a filmed address from Greece, and by Esenbek Ukteshbayev from the trade union federation Zhanartu in Kazakhstan who graphically explained the plight of socialists and trade unionists in Kazakhstan who are being harassed, jailed and even killed by the Nazarbayev regime (see article Exiled Kazakhstan leader comes to London).
In a rousing closing speech, PCS assistant general secretary Chris Baugh summed up the conference, paying tribute to the many excellent contributions during the day when he commented: "To try to do justice to all of the speakers is virtually impossible".
He spoke of the need to prepare for an autumn offensive against the government’s attacks that will be on a bigger scale than last year and "this time it must involve workers across the public and private sectors".
Few of the hundreds present in the hall will have left without feeling that the NSSN has already made a tremendous mark on events, and with the authority and allegiances it is building up, can go on to become an even more decisive force in making sure we have a trade union movement that is up to the tasks ahead.
Terry Pearce from Bracknell commented:
Excellent NSSN conference, inspiring speeches from trade union activists fighting victimisation, redundancy and attacks on their wages and conditions.
These are rank and file workers at the coalface of the struggle against this vicious government and the bosses.
Great platform speeches from some of our best trade union leaders. Inspirational videos and speeches from trade unionists from around the world, many facing state violence on a day to day basis.
These were not merely nice, articulate speeches, they are a reflection of the day to day struggle of workers in austerity Britain. This conference was however more than just about speeches, this was a call to action.
We call for full support for the TUC national demonstration on 20 October, but more than that we call on the TUC to announce a one day General Strike of both public and private sectors.
This is now the only way to combat the Coalition’s pensions cuts and cuts to wages, jobs, services, privatisation of the NHS etc.
We call on all NSSN supporters to redouble their efforts over the coming months to build support for this strike around the country, at the same time this will build the NSSN and increase the effectiveness of rank and file trade unionism throughout the country.
NSSN Guide to Action
Since last year’s conference NSSN has been involved in an increasing number of workers’ struggles, and, as the austerity cuts bite, we expect these struggles to intensify.
- We encourage supporters to concentrate on organising local and regional NSSN Networks with events and meetings to help rank and file activists to build up reliable support networks.
- We welcome the TUC national demonstration on October 20th and we will do everything we can to make this day a successful start to the next phase of an action-based campaign against austerity.
- We advocate that the next step should be for the TUC to organise a one-day general strike, which includes both public and private sectors, against all cuts to pensions and wages, jobs, services, and housing; to stop privatisations of NHS, education and public services; and to stop the slavery of workfare.
- To this end we call on trade unionists, campaigners, youth and pensioners to come to Brighton for TUC week
- to lobby delegates to press for a national strike
- to hold an NSSN fringe meeting to highlight this demand
NSSN secretary’s report 2011 -2012
Linda Taaffe, NSSN secretary, on behalf of the Steering Committee
The work of NSSN this year has been characterised on the one hand by the actions of workers desperate to stop this juggernaut millionaire government from savaging pensions, and slashing jobs, wages and services; and on the other, a certain sluggishness coming from layers in some trade unions, that has unfortunately resulted in doubts, lack of confidence and undermined a belief that we can win.
The struggle has therefore encompassed much necessary discussion and debate about the best strategy to win.
NSSN Conference 2011 set itself a challenging target with the decision to organise a lobby of the TUC in London in early September to demand that they take the lead and organise without delay a national one-day public sector strike against pension cuts.
Despite the summer break, the day of the lobby brought over 700 trade unionists and campaigners from across the country.
The rally in Friends’ House heard union leaders and rank-and-file activists call forcefully for a much needed national demo, before leading out behind Rhythms of the City drum band.
A lively, noisy march wound its way through the streets of London to Congress House. Frances O’Grady, Assistant General Secretary TUC, came out to speak to the crowd. (Others allegedly peeked out of upstairs windows!) In the end, the lobby proved effective in helping the TUC delegates to make up their minds, for soon enough November 30th was announced!
What a day N30 was! 27 unions struck together. NSSN placards were visible on the massive marches all over the country e.g.
Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, Stoke, London and other towns and cities. We gave out stickers and many thousands of leaflets.
NSSN speakers called for swift follow-up action to deal a blow to this arrogant Coalition. After the demo in London, trade unionists, tired but enthusiastic, crammed into a West End pub for an NSSN meeting where Rob Williams, Alex Gordon, Glenn Kelly and many more ably expressed the confidence of workers once on the move. Similar meetings took place in many areas.
However, high spirits were not destined to last too long. Some trade union leaders allowed the movement to become divided by signing up to the government’s Heads of Agreement.
But PCS Left Unity, always in the forefront, led the fight-back, with NSSN giving full support to their emergency rally in early January.
In both the following pensions’ demos on the strike days in March and May, which were now unfortunately depleted of their maximum force, NSSN had a presence.
We made our position clear that only united action can win against these hard-nosed Tories and Liberal Democrats, whilst at the same time encouraging rank-and-file members of the so-called "signed-up" unions to bring their leadership into line and reflect the dissatisfaction of workers at their leaders’ cowardly decision.
Our confidence was vindicated when workers in Unison and GMB joined their colleagues in Unite in rejecting the proposed agreement in the NHS!
Fightback against cuts
The NSSN banner has been very visible on nearly all major campaigns – too many to enumerate here. Perhaps the Sparks’ dogged and determined fight against the big building company giants like Balfour Beatty stands out.
The ’BESNA 7’ bosses were aiming to carry out Tory policy before it became policy! They tried to break the unions’ national agreement, which in effect would reduce electricians pay by a third! In the end, the big seven companies retreated – highlighting exactly what workers need to do to win.
This victory has raised the confidence of construction workers, which was shown in the magnificent walkout of up to 1,000 workers at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station.
This forced the reinstatement of the Unite health & safety steward Jason Poulter. The NSSN has played a consistent role in supporting the rank and file ’Sparks’ in a campaign that has now lasted 10 months.
The NSSN assisted Paddy Brennan, the Unite convenor at Honda Swindon and a regular contributor at our conference, in the campaign to get the charges against him dropped.
He was suspended by management on spurious grounds in an apparent attempt to break the union; similarly with Arwyn Thomas and Eamonn Lynch, suspended by London Underground following an RMT strike last year.
We must fight to protect our own. Likewise we gave full support to the Defend the Four Campaign in Unison.
More recently, the NSSN has supported the locked-out workers at MMP in Bootle, who won an enhanced pay-off after months of action.
We also opposed the threatened shut-down of Remploy factories where Les Woodward of GMB is playing a key role.
In NHS campaigns and activities, NSSN has participated enthusiastically calling on the TUC for action, or at least a national demo, to stop the Health and Social Care Act.
We supported the Youth Fight for Jobs’ Jarrow to London march as well as the Justice for Shrewsbury Pickets campaign.
NSSN regional meetings, meeting the TUC and union conferences
Very good NSSN meetings have been held throughout the year in some parts of the country, such as the North West, South East, London and the West Midlands.
A successful Anti-Cuts conference was organised in Wales. However, more needs to be done to develop this local aspect of our work.
We have participated in union conferences so far by having an official stall at NUT and PCS conferences and we held official fringe meetings at PCS and CWU conferences.
Other conferences will be covered in the next period. We have participated in meetings with the TUC along with other anti-cuts organisations such as UK Uncut, Coalition of Resistance, Right to Work and People’s Charter and there is another scheduled soon.
NSSN officers were invited to founding meetings of fighting trade union organisations in both the North and South of Ireland.
We were also invited to send a representative to the conference of the militant trade union federation in Brazil, CONLUTAS.
Unfortunately, on finance grounds, we were unable to attend but we did send filmed greetings to the conference.
The 23 members of the Steering Committee and the 12 members of the Anti-Cuts Committee have met together 4 times over the last year, with the 7 Officers meeting in between.
We are justifiably proud that the NSSN has had an annual conference every year of its 6 year existence and that its democratically elected steering committee has met at least quarterly throughout that period.
We have an established bank account. However, donations received have almost immediately been spent especially on leaflets e.g. thousands of leaflets were produced for the N30, M28 and M10 strikes and demos. So finance is still a key issue.
The new Post Office Box address is working well and the website has been updated, although more needs to be done on this aspect.
We also acquired Facebook and Twitter accounts. A regular e-bulletin goes out every Friday to thousands of supporters, which provides invaluable information on many local struggles.
Over the last year NSSN and its activists have proved to be a useful support in the struggle of groups of workers, both locally and nationally, in their attempts to have a go at stopping bosses from trampling all over them.
We look forward to a year of intensification of the struggle, and to developing our work to assist in revitalising the unions from the bottom up – a remit that was given to us by the RMT over six years ago when this union set up the NSSN.
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