National Shop Stewards Network conference 2021: When given a lead, workers will fight!

For the right to strike! RMT & NSSN lobby parliament in 2019

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Up to 200 striking workers, trade union reps, campaigners and socialists met virtually on 20 June as the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) held its 2021 summer conference.

The NSSN conference is the biggest annual event that brings together fighting rank-and-file union members with campaigners. This year it included many workers in dispute, education workers, health staff and more.

NSSN national chair Rob Williams kicked off the conference, pointing out that if workers are given a lead then they will fight, as they have shown throughout the pandemic, forcing their union into action in some cases and leading action of their own.

Those workers who have fought, and are still fighting, made up most of the contributions to the meeting.

Tony, Unite rep and bin worker in Thurrock, talked about their victory over the Tory council. 90 workers in the waste and recycling department walked out throughout April and May fighting pay cuts of between £1,200 and £3,800 a year. But the council has now agreed on changes to the original proposal, which means members will not have a reduction in their pay.

Kathy Smith, another local government worker and member of Unite, whose members have taken multiple rounds of strike action in Bromley, told the conference how just the threat of strike action forced bosses back in the libraries, following the action taken previously.

Jared Wood, the RMT national executive council member for London, laid out the coming battles in transport, in particular the fight with Transport for London, which is planning a tsunami of cuts and attacks on workers and the transport system.

Transport workers

Another London transport worker, Mark at Woolwich Ferry, reiterated the points Jared made and told conference of the disputes that have taken place on the ferry. Workers there have recently walked out over a victimised rep taking seven days of action in May and June. The ferry has seen a number of disputes in the last few years, provoked by “poor employment relations”. The current action has forced bosses into talks.

Mike Hirst, speaking from Unite NE/Sec 2 branch and Hull Trades Council, talked about the looming threat of freeports and what they will mean for workers pay, terms and conditions.

At previous NSSN meetings, workers at the GKN Automotive plant in Birmingham have spoken about the looming threat of closure and redundancies. This time Rich gave an update on the campaign, saying loud and clear: “We have not accepted the closure of GKN in Birmingham and the fight continues to keep the site open.”

Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, fighting blacklisting particularly in the construction industry, spoke about the recent victory electricians won against deskilling. The ‘sparks’, as they are known, were supported all the way by the NSSN and the Socialist Party, including blockading the Atomic Weapons Establishment near Reading.

Sparks’ victory

Elaine Brunskill from the North East reported that following the sparks victory, there was a walkout in Gateshead, and the workers have now scandalously been sacked for this. The site is being built for Amazon and Elaine explained: “The sparks downed tools over dangerous working practices by the electrical contractors SIS systems. The sparks are absolutely resolute.” (See more on page 6)

Workers asked the meeting for support and solidarity – one of the key roles of the NSSN, in disputes. Mark Evans, Unison branch secretary in Carmarthenshire, speaking in a personal capacity, reported on the campaign for union recognition at an ‘arms-length’ waste disposal company, “100% owned by the council”.

Mark also talked about the reality of ‘social partnership’ between the Welsh Labour government and the tops of the trade unions, despite the record of cuts by the government. The unions need to fight: “The unions don’t win anything just through negotiation.”

Ozzy, a Unite member from the Midlands, wished solidarity to his fellow union members at Brush Electrical Machines in Leicestershire, who are now in the fifth week of a 12-week strike against huge attacks on pay, terms and conditions by yet another vicious management using ‘fire and rehire’.

This is an attack being used by many employers against workers and was a regular theme of the conference. James from the Socialist Party in Oxford asked for solidarity for journalists fighting ‘fire and rehire’ at a local newspaper there.

Joanne McNeill is a member of the national executive of the University and College Union (UCU). Her branch members have just finished 14 days of strike action at the University of Liverpool. Speaking in a personal capacity, Joanne appealed for support for the dispute. The university is trying to sack 47 academics, who during the pandemic worked in the NHS, for allegedly “dropping research standards, basically not bringing in enough grant money during the pandemic”. Now the workers, supported by students, are taking part in action short of a strike by refusing to mark work.

Socialist Party member Bea Gardner, a UCU member and branch officer at Southampton University, also spoke about the dozens of branches in higher and further education which are also currently in dispute, “successfully smashing the Tory anti-union laws and thresholds which is a sign of determination to resist these attacks.” Bea reiterated that when a lead is given workers will fight.

St Mungo’s workers’ battle

A St Mungo’s housing worker in London asked for support against the battle against bullying bosses and management who are also using the pandemic to “carry out attacks on employees.” The workers are now in the ninth week of action.

Len Hockey, chair of Unite Barts Health workers branch in east London, talked about his members, low-paid Serco caterers, who are striking at the Royal London Hospital, fighting for better pay and parity with directly employed NHS cleaners (see page 5). His branch is holding a protest on 3 July as part of a day of action, with actions taking place right across the UK.

Martin Powell-Davies, a teacher and National Education Union rep, reminded the conference of the huge fight and victory by teachers at the start of the year to delay the unsafe reopening of schools, using Section 44 legislation collectively, and warned that “those issues have not gone away, and people’s minds are also returning to the issues that were always there before the pandemic, which will come back with a vengeance: excessive workload, job losses, lack of funding and so on.”

Another of the many disputes taking place in the private sector is a strike against inadequate redundancy pay at DHL in Long Eaton in Derbyshire, which supplies M&S with goods and products. Ken spoke about the dispute and how they have organised action through their union Usdaw. The site is due to close in July 2021. But as well as the bosses refusing to pay furlough and making the workers redundant, the companies are now offering only half the redundancy pay anticipated.

Youth Fight for Jobs

Alex Smith, assistant secretary of Liverpool Trades Council and a Unite member, appealed for support for Youth Fight for Jobs. The organisation was founded in 2009 to fight youth unemployment, made worse by Tory austerity. Youth Fight for Jobs is back in action to fight the coming post-Covid onslaught: “We want to do everything we possibly can to get young people involved in the trade union movement and are planning rallies for when the furlough scheme ends.”

NSSN national secretary Linda Taaffe spoke about the need for political representation for working-class people and for workers to have their own party. She ended by saying: “The contributions of all those conducting battles show that the spirit of resistance is alive and kicking and it reflects the class battles against the bosses who want to grind everyone into the ground.” The NSSN will be there helping to coordinate the fightback.

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TUSC calls for local ‘People’s Budget’ campaigns

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) All-Britain Steering Committee is calling on all local TUSC groups, individual members, supporters and affiliated groups in areas where they are active, to begin to lay plans for the year ahead – focusing on local ‘People’s Budget’ campaigns.

The June meeting of the steering committee agreed that developing and promoting a local people’s budget could form the basis of a vibrant electoral challenge in the council elections scheduled for May 2022. There are over 200 councils with elections then.

The committee also agreed that other areas where there are no elections in May 2022 should not wait either. As society prepares to move on from the Covid pandemic a People’s Budget campaign could play a central role in bringing trade union branches, campaigns and community groups together to fight at a local level for what communities will need, not what Tory austerity will demand.

The role councils could play

Contrary to the impression given by the establishment mainstream media – which reduces ‘politics’ to games at Westminster (and, sometimes, the devolved parliaments) – the decisions taken by locally elected councils are central to the provision of many services that directly affect the daily lives of millions.

The Tories have made deep cuts to councils’ funding in the past decade, but local authorities still account for over one-fifth of all public spending, with powers over housing, education support, adult social care, sports and leisure facilities, youth provision, transport, recycling and rubbish collection, libraries, children’s centres, community grants, environmental planning, and many other services.

Most current councillors, including, unfortunately, the majority of Labour’s 6,300 or so local councillors, see their role as administrators of austerity, not as campaigners for more and better services. A local People’s Budget, however, could set a different agenda, based on what the community needs, and illustrate the need for a different type of councillor too.

That applies to all councils, but particularly to the 120 or so Labour-led councils which could make such a difference if they chose too. Their combined spending power is actually greater than the state budgets of 16 EU countries!

A glimpse of what is possible

Earlier this year the TUSC steering committee published a report examining the policy pledges made in Labour’s 2019 general election manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which councils have the legal powers to implement today if they had the political will to do so. The report identifies 46 separate policies which councils could carry out, immediately, transforming peoples’ lives.

These range from breakfast clubs and free school meals for all primary school pupils; local replacements for the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for 16-18 year-olds in education; free bus travel for under-25s; a council house building programme; rent controls for licensed landlords; the end of ‘15-minute maximum’ home care visits; to a mass home insulation energy efficiency programme to fight climate change.

Even just a selection of these policies could form the basis of a People’s Budget to present to the local council. But inviting local trade union branches, campaign groups, community organisations, student groups and others to contribute would undoubtedly come up with more ideas, and lay the basis for a campaign for the local council to implement them now, using their reserves and borrowing powers to temporarily finance them while launching a mass campaign locally and nationally for permanent funding from central government.

How councils could use their powers to temporarily maintain a ‘balanced budget’ while fighting for proper resources from the government, has been explained in previous TUSC documents (see tusc.org.uk).

But what is most needed is a will to fight – or to stand aside for those who have got the determination to do so.

What steps can groups take?

TUSC groups should look to meet and begin to lay out plans to host a People’s Budget conference before the end of 2021, to draw together the local set of demands and campaign issues to take to the council ahead of their 2022-23 budget-setting meeting, which will take place in January or February 2022.

After deciding on a date for the People’s Budget conference, a plan of action should be discussed and drawn up to build for it, by contacting trade union branches, campaign groups, community groups, residents associations and so on, to take part – co-hosting if they wish, but certainly inviting them to contribute with their ideas and proposals for what is needed in the local area.

The council unions will themselves be examining the council’s initial proposals for the 2022-23 budget, while many community groups with full or part-funding from the local council – or users of council-funded facilities or services – will be discussing their own finances and plans in the autumn period as councils start their budget consultations.

People’s Budget campaigns can play an important role everywhere in organising a local fightback to the efforts the pro-capitalist politicians will make to pass the costs of the Covid pandemic onto the shoulders of working-class people. But in areas with local council elections next year – covering a bigger range of councils than in 2021 – they could be central in pulling together the broadest possible anti-austerity electoral challenge.

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