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Interview: 'get organised to support workers in struggle'
As we celebrate international workers' day on 1 May the Socialist speaks to Rob Williams, national chair of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN).
Rob Williams, photo Lorraine Dardis
The NSSN's founding conference in July 2007 resolved to rebuild the strength of the working class movement from the bottom up by creating local, regional and national networks of active trade unionists. The NSSN has already built a reputation among active, militant trade unionists as a body capable of effectively linking workers in struggle, against bosses increasingly expecting workers to pay for their economic crisis with jobs, pay and working conditions.
Many public sector workers are looking forward to and planning the next step of the pension battle. How can we make the strike on 10 May a success?
Firstly, we should emphasise how important this strike is. It has taken over four months to regroup after unions including Unison and the GMB signed the Con-Dems' 'Heads of Agreement' before Christmas. They broke ranks with the phenomenal 30 November (N30) strike which saw over two million public sector workers take action.
This strike is an opportunity to re-ignite this struggle, which has been the focus for all the anger against the cuts. It's also important to have a reaction to year one of the increased pension contributions - which are coming out of wage packets now. This is yet another pay cut on top of a four-year pay freeze!
Civil service union PCS, Unite in the NHS and civil service and Nipsa, the biggest public sector union in Northern Ireland, along with RMT members in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary have all confirmed that they're on strike on 10 May.
We hope that the teachers' and lecturers' unions NUT and UCU will also take part. NSSN supporters in those unions are calling for them to join in. London NUT were out on 28 March and the mood for national action was overwhelming. We also call on members of Unison and GMB to vote to reject the government's offer in the NHS and take part in coordinated action, preferably on 10 May, or when the next action is called, possibly in June.
As with the massive TUC demonstration last March and the strikes on 30 June (J30) and N30, the NSSN and its supporters and affiliates will do everything in our power to make 10 May a success and will support the picket lines, rallies and marches.
Next month will see the NSSN's sixth annual conference. What has the organisation done over the last year?
The NSSN was initiated by the RMT transport union in 2006 but the last year has really seen the NSSN come of age. In many respects, we are now in the period that the RMT started building for six years ago.
We've played a key role in the anti-cuts movement, lobbying the councils of all parties. We've been the champions of the 'fight all cuts' position. We also supported the Jarrow to London Youth March for Jobs.
But we've really made a difference in the struggles in the public and private sectors. I estimate that we gave out hundreds of thousands of leaflets last year with the demand for a 24-hour public sector general strike. Over 700 shop stewards came to our rally before the TUC conference in London last September which then lobbied the TUC. That week the union leaders called the N30 strike.
We also called a lobby of the TUC's Public Service Liaison Group when it met in December and January to attempt to stop the break-up of the N30 strike coalition and stop a sell-out. As part of this we supported the open conference called by PCS Left Unity on 7 January.
Among the many private sector disputes we've been involved in, we've given full support to the marathon but victorious struggle of the construction electricians, plumbers and pipe fitters that defeated the 'Dirty 7' electrical contractors. These companies wanted to impose the new Besna contract and cut wages by up to 35%. All over the country, NSSN supporters have been regularly getting up at 5am over the last seven months getting to the 'Sparks' protests.
We're also supporting the Remploy workers who are fighting the virtual closure of the company. They are defending an important gain won by the working class, in providing skilled jobs for disabled workers.
There's a temptation to draw comparisons between the NSSN and the Minority Movement, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) and the Broad Left Organising Committee (BLOC). What do you think about this?
We're still at an early stage but we certainly aim to play the role that these rank and file organisations played in the 1920s, 1970s and 1980s respectively. The Minority Movement had an influence over millions of workers and the LCDTU was able to call out over 500,000 workers on strike.
But the NSSN has shown in the public sector pensions struggle that it can also act as a lever on the official unions to push them into taking action. That was why we lobbied the TUC in September.
The Sparks' dispute showed how rank and file workers, if organised, can pressurise union leaderships to lead resistance to the employers and crucially lead to victories. After weeks of protests and unofficial action by the construction workers, the Unite leadership pushed the existing full-time officials aside to play a critical role.
But we want to transform the unions, not replace them. So we encourage workers to become active in their union. For example, the key Sparks activists have got on to the Unite Combine committee to ensure that any future talks with the employers are representative of what the members want.
Over the last year or so the potential strength of the trade union movement has been glimpsed. How can this be built on?
The organised working class in the unions have shown again that they are potentially the decisive force in society. The mammoth 26 March 2011 demonstration, the over two million-strong N30 strike, along with the Sparks victory, are the answer to the pessimists and cynics in the trade union movement.
The demonstrations of the striking public sector workers have definitely raised the profile of the unions and established again that they are fighting organisations. It can't be an accident that there's been a rash of disputes in the private sector in the aftermath of these events. Re-igniting the pensions dispute would strengthen this development.
Workers' Memorial Day is on 28 April. The Con-Dem coalition seems hell-bent on continuing to undermine health and safety legislation. Can this be resisted?
Yes, but only by getting organised and fighting these attacks through action. The Sparks victory will give construction workers the confidence to fight all the attacks against them, including the battle to make construction sites safer.
Because unofficial action isn't recorded in the statistics, we only have anecdotal evidence that in many workplaces workers are refusing to start work until a job is made safe.
But we also know that workers are killed or suffer injuries that stay with them for life. This is a genuine life and death issue. The Con-Dems have announced eye-watering cuts in the Health and Safety Executive of over 30%. This means even fewer inspections than there are now.
The electrical contractors wanted to reduce wages through de-skilling. This would have meant having semi-skilled workers carrying out work currently done by qualified electricians. Inevitably it would have increased the risk of accidents on the sites as well as the possibility of faulty wiring, which will face less stringent checks. It's all part of the same cost-cutting agenda to boost the profits of big business at the expense of the workers who make the profits.
The Tories' anti-trade union laws, kept on the books by Labour governments, can be a major block to trade union organisation - is there any way to remove them?
There are various tools to do this. The Sparks forced the 'Dirty 7' employers to capitulate because the result of the Unite strike ballot against the biggest of them, Balfour Beatty, was upheld against Balfour's legal challenge. This opened up the prospect of the Grangemouth Oil Refinery site shut down with millions of pounds being lost. It may have even been the start of a national strike through the construction industry.
However, when the original ballot was suspended because Balfours ran to the courts, thousands of electricians took unofficial strike action on the intended strike day of 7 December. A week later, when they coordinated action with other workers covered by the NAECI agreement, who were fighting on pay, over 5,000 construction workers came out on unofficial strike.
This was crucial in showing the bosses that the Sparks wouldn't be constrained by the anti-union laws. In any case, all the unofficial and threatened official action was backed up by hundreds of workers taking part in what was effectively a weekly campaign of civil disobedience lasting half a year, with protests, unofficial walkouts and other action.
In reality, as with the movement in the late 1960s against the Labour government's 'In Place of Strife' anti-union laws and then the Tories' Industrial Relations Bill in the early 1970s, it was mass strike action that defied the law and forced the government back.
Of course, if a mass party existed that truly represented the interests of workers, that would be a massive advantage. The reality is that none of the main parties want to repeal these laws which, as Labour ex-prime minister Blair once boasted, are the most repressive in Western Europe. They started under Thatcher, continued under New Labour and are now used by the Con-Dems.
Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, has announced his intention to stand down this year. Who do you think should replace him?
We need leadership in the labour movement that takes, as a starting position, opposition to all the cuts and a determination to lead a serious fight against austerity.
I think it's also important to think about how Barber should be replaced. I read that he's worked for the TUC since 1975.
He's a leader of the trade union movement and he played a pivotal role in attempting to sell out the pensions struggle by breaking up the N30 coalition. Yet as far as I'm aware he's never worked on the shop floor, let alone been a shop steward or branch rep!
At the very least, the leader of the TUC has to come from the affiliated unions and should have some experience of representing workers in the workplace. I also think that all union leaders should be on the same wage as those they represent. This is so that they really understand why jobs, terms and conditions and pensions have to be fought for.
If you had one minute on prime-time TV to convince people to attend the NSSN conference what would you say?
If you're angry about the threats to your job and your ever-smaller pay packet and want to know how you can fight back, this conference is for you. We've got the most militant union leaders - Bob Crow of the RMT and the PCS's Mark Serwotka speaking. But you'll also hear rank and file workers and reps from the platform, including one of the sparks.
But in some senses, you'll learn as much having a chat over a cup of tea in the break or a pint in the pub after from people who are just like you. They are all facing the same problems at work, from the big bosses or the line manager, foreman or supervisor. It might also be the frustrations of dealing with a union official who just won't listen to you.
That's the great thing about the NSSN - big meetings or small, you're getting organised into a network with other rank and file activists to support workers in struggle. You never know when you might need the help!
Come to the NSSN's sixth annual conference and join hundreds of others like you.