On 14 February, the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) hosted its fifth online meeting of workplace trade union reps and workers during the pandemic.
NSSN chair Rob Williams introduced the meeting explaining: “This is a meeting deliberately called so that union reps and activists like yourselves, can come together and discuss. Workers organised in the union movement can take on the bosses and their Tory government’s offensive.”
He set the scene saying: “For a period at the leadership level, at least, too many in the union movement called off disputes, suspended action and, for a time, the basic ability of the unions to organise as independent organisations were in question.
“This reached its lowest level last autumn when the government announced a watered-down version of furlough. The general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, stood practically hand in hand with Tory Chancellor Sunak and the head of the bosses organisation CBI.
“Ironically, they were forced to retreat. One of the 20-plus U-turns forced on the Johnson administration. The latest U-turn has been over their proposed review of employment rights and regulations post-Brexit. The fact that the Tories have retreated so quickly on these initial proposals, without a big mobilisation, is a sign of their weakness. And we are saying that that should now be built upon to face down the offensive that the Tories and bosses are raining down on workers.” This is the role of the NSSN.
Transport workers prepare for battles ahead
Jared Wood, a member of the RMT transport union’s national executive, spoke to the meeting in a personal capacity. The RMT was one of the founders of the NSSN. Jared explained the challenges the union is facing at present and the battles to come.
He said: “The government is going to publish a roadmap out of lockdown but the issues of maintaining a safe workplace haven’t gone away, and will continue to be issues for some time yet. We have to remain vigilant as shop stewards and union reps and make sure that our members are not put in vulnerable positions.
“The government has also got a roadmap out of the consequent economic crisis. But their roadmap is one of job losses, redundancies and attacks on terms and conditions. In trying to recover from this crisis they will attempt to put the bill onto the shoulders of working people to make sure that the rich and powerful and the bosses don’t suffer.”
Jared outlined the government’s plan to reorganise the rail industry and franchise system and how the RMT is going to fight it. The reorganisation is just one of the fronts the RMT is fighting on: “In the RMT we are going to be facing a wholesale reorganisation of the national rail industry. We’re going to be facing cutbacks on suburban and metro systems that are generally funded by local authorities such as TfL.
But also Merseyrail and others will be facing similar problems. And that’s not even to start on the crisis that we’re facing in the maritime industry, and also the bus workers that RMT represents, who are predominantly outside of London. In our engineering sectors, we’ve got the historic Doncaster railworks, under threat of closing down altogether.”
He ended by urging: “It’s absolutely critical, in my view, that we do everything we can to build a fight back across trade unions and also take the companies completely out of private hands and renationalise them.”
Determined British Gas workers’ strike
Liz Robinson, a British Gas worker and a GMB union rep, told the meeting: “Management have gone from shedding tears in meetings at the way we helped foodbanks during the pandemic, to laughing at us for not getting national publicity for our strike.”
Liz summed up the attitude of British Gas bosses who are attempting to fire and rehire engineers, a disgraceful tactic to force through changes that will results in worse pay, hours and terms and conditions. While bosses “have lied, while earning absolutely fantastic wages and none of them are suffering, the company has made £900 million profit.”
Workers have taken many days of strike action, picketing British Gas offices and organising protests in all weathers. The strike is currently on hold to allow talks, but Liz told the meeting that more strikes are planned and workers will walk out if bosses don’t back down: “If it’s not acceptable we will be back on the picket line.”
She also warned other workers: “If British Gas get away with this, other workers will face the same tactic used against them.”
Hospital porters action against rota changes
Lee Williams, Unison branch secretary representing striking Heartlands Hospital porters, detailed why workers have been on strike at Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham over bosses’ plans to impose a new rota that will force workers onto rotating shifts which will hugely disrupt porters’ lives.
Lee explained: “The porters at Heartlands were among the first workers in the NHS to be farmed out to the private sector at the turn of the century. It took 17 years and a merger to get us back in-house and two years down the line this attack has come. Workers have built their lives around a particular pattern of working, including the enhanced rates that workers get for evening work, but are now expected to change to a significantly different pattern.”
The workers have been taking blocks of multiple days of strike action throughout the dispute which has run for 12 months. The porters are battling to not be picked off one-by-one but to ensure nobody is left worse off. The workers are proud NHS workers but are appalled that the NHS tried to use that fact against them in trying to stop them taking strike action at all. But they were determined to take on the NHS trust which “applauded the NHS like everyone else, except for their own workers.”
The workers are holding an online rally on 25 February.
Rolls-Royce workers strike action wins victory
The future of the Rolls-Royce factory in Barnoldswick, Lancashire, and its 350 jobs has been secured after a deal was agreed between the workers’ union Unite and the company. It was supported overwhelmingly by the workers and followed nine weeks of determined strike action.
The deal struck by Unite included: a ten-year manufacturing guarantee for the site, a guaranteed minimum headcount of 350 workers and the creation of a ‘centre of excellence’ training school supporting the development and manufacture of zero-carbon technologies and advanced manufacturing excellence
Ross Quinn, the Unite regional officer with responsibility for Barnoldswick, said: “When many could be forgiven for thinking there was nothing that could be done, our Unite reps led these workers and the town of Barnoldswick and collectively they stood as one to say ‘no way’.”
He explained the process by which workers and the union, together with the community, organised, steeled themselves for a fight and embarked on their strike action and campaign which won their demands. They took inspiration from workers fighting at Cammell Laird’s shipbuilders on Merseyside, and in turn have inspired workers fighting elsewhere.
Ross concluded: “The message is that the vital importance of being organised of understanding our history. They have achieved a massive victory from where we were at the beginning.”
Workers speak ‘from the floor’ about their battles and victories
Many more trade unionists and reps spoke ‘from the floor’ about the fight in their workplaces and unions.
Martin Powell-Davies, a teacher and National Education Union rep, told the meeting: “The action that NEU members took in January, forcing the government to close schools, lifted a lot of people’s spirits. Trade union members acting together to force the government into making a U-turn is something that is definitely worth celebrating. Section 44, which is legally an individual right, was used by us as a group of individuals acting collectively, showing how it can be done.”
Mark Evans, Carmarthenshire Unison union secretar,y spoke in a personal capacity. He has recently been involved in pay negotiations with employers and commented: “If you needed any evidence that the Tories intend to make us pay for the Covid crisis it’s the pay freeze.”
Dave Warren, a retired DVLA worker and PCS union member talked about the situation at his old workplace that has made the news due to the amount of Covid cases: “535 Covid cases have been reported at the DVLA in Swansea, including one death. But the vast bulk of the Covid-19 cases have happened more recently in the second wave as staff are made to attend work in person. The PCS union leadership has sadly left the branch to fight on its own, but a real fight is needed to stop workers’ health and lives being in danger.” A strike ballot has now correctly been called, which the union should go all out to win.
Kris, a young worker in Birmingham, spoke from Youth Fight for Jobs which is relaunching to fight the coming tide of youth unemployment, as well as the low-pay, zero-hour contracts and exploitation young workers face.
Onay Kasab, a Unite officer in London, gave the meeting an example of workers prepared to fight: “There were three days of strike action by school workers in Hackney demanding Covid safety, no job losses and attacks on terms and conditions. There are workers out there prepared to take action. The workers are also aware that there are school closures on the horizon in the borough and are planting a flag now to say that we are going to fight them when they come.”
Gary Clark, a Communication Workers’ Union branch secretary who has written for the Socialist about the battles in Royal Mail, told the meeting of the victory that kicking out boss Rico Back represented and also of the struggles that continue.
Moe, a London bus driver in Unite has been attacked by his employer for fighting for safety for bus drivers – 47 London bus drivers have died after catching Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. He spoke about strike action and strike ballots that are taking place in London over pay and ‘remote signing on’.
Nearly 2,000 bus drivers are due to go on strike later this month over wage cuts – the 24-hour strikes will take place over three days from February 22-24.
Others are balloting over changes to how they work. He explained: “By introducing remote signing on, drivers would not report to a depot but would meet their bus and begin work at a location such as a bus stop. There will be no checks to ensure the driver is fit and well to drive a bus, and a lack of access to toilet facilities, rest and canteen facilities. Drivers will be forced to wait for their bus to arrive in all weathers and there will be a greater risk of exposure to Covid-19 in travelling to a location which has not been subject to the risk assessment and health measures.”
GKN workers prepare to fight to save plant
Frank Duffy, a worker and Unite trade union convenor at the GKN car parts plant in Birmingham spoke to the meeting about the closure threat at the plant putting up to 519 jobs at risk.
“The owners have not given us the rationale for closing the plant, they only claim that it isn’t viable whatever that means,” Frank said. The trade union and workers are preparing for action when the time is right and are taking inspiration from workers at Rolls-Royce, who Frank has been in touch with.
Unite national officer Des Quinn also spoke about the campaign at the plant and what they are doing so far. He praised the workers saying: “The confidence they have given me, through their determination not to allow the bosses who have lied, cheated and been dishonourable all the way through their ownership to get away with it, is really a breath of fresh air.”
Couriers fight against destitution
Key-working couriers currently locked in a battle against York city council in a bid to protect income and jobs were represented at the meeting by their union IWGB chair Christian Santabarbara. Christian said that he had been invited by York Socialist Party to speak at the meeting. He explained that the gig economy riders, who have worked throughout the pandemic delivering meals, groceries and medicines, have seen incomes plunge rapidly due to restrictions on their ability to use York’s pedestrian zone. They are facing fines and termination of contracts due to “untimely deliveries.”
Christian said: “Key workers’ voices have been kicked into the long grass and we don’t currently have collective bargaining to change the app’s algorithm to take into account these pedestrianised zones. We need companies and the council to listen to us to change it, to stop riders being made destitute every single day.”