This year’s National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) conference takes place at a crucial stage, as Boris Johnson’s Tory government reels from one crisis to another. The RMT rail strike has acted as a lightning rod, for the striking rail workers but also wide layers of the working class. They are being seen as the union movement’s ‘praetorian guard’, in the same way that the miners were regarded in the past.
In the space of a few days, the RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has achieved folk-hero status for his defiant, unapologetic approach to the Tory media. Workers are left politically leaderless by Sir Keir Starmer’s new Labour Party, threatening his shadow cabinet with dire consequences if they should commit the crime of supporting striking workers. He was dutifully backed up by David Lammy refusing to support British Airways workers. The RMT, and the other unions taking action, have stepped into the vacuum.
But it would be a fatal mistake to draw the conclusion that workers need non-political trade unionism. Workers realised over 120 years ago that it was necessary to build a political vehicle with pro-worker, socialist policies, to stand side-by-side with the struggle in the workplaces.
Such a political alternative is needed now, that would support workers taking action, but also fight for the repeal of all the anti-union laws and the socialist re-nationalisation of the railways and transport network, Royal Mail, BT and the energy companies.
Increasingly, it is the trade union movement, moving on to the front foot through a growing strike wave against the cost-of-living crisis, that is providing leadership and winning support from workers and sections of the middle class.
Striking barristers outside the Old Bailey applauded the RMT banner when solidarity was given to their action on Monday. No wonder that it has been reported that Google searches for ‘join a union’ have increased by up to 200% in the last week, while the TUC’s ‘join a union’ website has seen visits up 800%.
The NSSN conference will hear from the RMT, along with other key unions, such as the CWU who are fighting on three fronts: Post Office, Royal Mail and BT.
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham will speak about the hundreds of disputes that her union is currently engaged in. In addition, one of the key public sector unions, the NEU is also on the platform.
The key task facing union activists is to bring together the growing number of disputes in both the private and public sector. The NSSN Conference is an opportunity to debate this vital necessity.
It is essential that the unions ‘get in the room together’ as they did at the TUC Congress in 2011, when 29 public sector unions co-ordinated strike ballots, leading to what was effectively a public sector general strike that November against the Tory attacks on pensions.
There is even more potential for mass joint action now, as workers across all sectors are struggling against spiralling price rises while real wages fall.
There should be an emergency TUC general council to thrash out a fighting strategy in light of the TUC demo and the rail strikes.
If necessary, fighting unions, such as those represented at the NSSN conference, should take the lead. Call a meeting and invite all those unions who want to wage the serious struggle that is needed. This could be open to union NECs.
Come to the NSSN conference – join the debate and discussion, to organise so that all workers faced with this crisis can strike together.