The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) rally in Brighton on 10 September was the most inspiring yet! The rally is now a regular feature at - and generally stands in stark contrast to - the TUC annual congress which it is timed to coincide with.
We saw a mix of fighting trade union leaders and workers currently active in workplace disputes. The TUC is always busy with its reports of mistreatment of workers and trade union members. The rally demanded action: it's time for change.
Janice Godrich, president of the PCS civil servants' union, opened the meeting and explained: "The NSSN has played a tremendous role supporting workers in dispute: holding rallies, lobbies; speaking up for the rank and file."
Steve Gillan, general secretary of the POA prison officers' and allied workers' union, described the "absolute misery on prisoners and staff," particularly physical attacks. "Disturbances on a weekly and monthly basis" resulting from overcrowding and government cuts. He spoke of the obstacles made by the government to try to stop union action.
Steve's main point was to: "Smash the pay cap. Public and private sector workers must get beyond-inflation pay rises... Any trade unionists who take action: I will not repudiate that action. This government is weak, make no mistake about it. Together and only together, we can win this battle."
Before NSSN chair Rob Williams spoke, Janice announced the arrival of the striking bin workers from Birmingham and the room rose in ovation (collecting tins went round for them too).
Rob explained: "The NSSN was initiated by the late, great Bob Crow eleven years ago" and made a series of important points. "Theresa May said there's no magic money tree. But they found £1 billion to do a dodgy deal with the DUP. Where's the magic money tree for the nurses?"
He warned of the damage Birmingham's Labour council could do to Jeremy Corbyn's anti-austerity message with its attacks on the bin workers, 'behaving more like Willie Walsh than Jeremy Corbyn', and the importance of the national Labour leadership pledging the removal of strike-breaking councillors. But he said to Corbyn and John McDonnell: "You have put nationalisation back on the agenda."
Rob said Corbyn's "promise to abolish student fees led to a 'youthquake' in the general election campaign. "Speaking of cuts in living standards," he added, "it is necessary to get back the 20% lost over the last seven years. This TUC must be a council of war."
Unite the Union general secretary Len McCluskey told the meeting: "Thank you for the work that you do. In Unite and every other union, the shop steward is the face that members see." Len also expressed his personal thanks to Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party. He added, "if working people have confidence, anything is possible."
"Unite have set up a £36 million strike fund... to tell bosses if they think they can starve our members back to work they had better think again." Len supported the bin workers and attacked Birmingham council, saying: "Some councillors don't have any backbone."
He continued: "Unite is proud to be a fighting-back union, afraid of no one... That is why we removed the rule from our rule book preventing illegal industrial action. If bosses want to push us outside the law, so be it." He ended: "It is possible to achieve a better world for our class and our people."
John McDonnell, Labour shadow chancellor, addressed his opening remarks to the bin strikers. "I do not see your strike as a strike against Labour: it is a strike against austerity." He called on Birmingham council to change its stance. "We want negotiations to resolve this dispute." Unfortunately, he did not call for the removal of the Labour councillors implementing austerity.
John, however, declared: "The role of a Labour MP isn't just to be in parliament, it is to be on the picket line." He supported various strikers at the rally and promised: "When we get into power we will restore trade union rights to the POA." He spoke of the "multi-millionaires on the front benches of this Tory government."
John listed further commitments: "We will scrap the pay cap... a real living wage of £10 an hour when Labour is elected... In the first hundred days of Labour government we'll scrap the Trade Union Act of the Tories."
He concluded: "We cannot tolerate a society which has such great inequalities in wealth and income... We want a society for the many, not the few; a society with respect for trade union rights."
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka pledged PCS support to all workers in dispute. Between 9 October and 6 November, every PCS worker in the public sector is to be balloted, in a consultative ballot, on their support for action against the pay cap. Mark called for coordinated action with other unions. "There should be no deserving and undeserving workers. Each and every one of us deserves a pay rise... there should be a minimum 5% pay rise for everyone across the board."
Sean Hoyle, president of the RMT transport union, continued on the same theme: "RMT will fight the removal of every safety-critical guard on every train... Transport should be run by the people, for the people - whether you're a bus driver, train driver or a guard."
He asked the TUC: "Which side are you on?" "Year after year" the TUC passes resolutions but "nothing happens. If you don't organise action, we will". Sean called for all progressive trade unions to stand together and coordinate action. "Every trade unionist should want to bring down this trade union-hating Tory government."
Sean went on to comment on Labour councils implementing cuts. "Whether it is Tory or Labour austerity it doesn't hurt any less... we have a socialist-led Labour Party but it is still no good if Labour councils are carrying out Tory austerity."
He reported on the removal of the guards by Merseyrail, a Labour transport authority, and concluded: "If councillors don't know what colour their rosette is, they need to leave" and make room for those who are prepared to fight.
Richie Beddows, convenor of Unite Birmingham bin workers, got the biggest cheers and they all got another standing ovation. Richie too stressed safety: "113 workers have to keep an eye on the rear of the vehicle, which CCTV can't replace." The council wanted to downgrade the job. "The 113 face a choice... the only real option is to stand and fight. We will take it all the way." He finished: "Enough is enough. Labour councillors fulfil your mandate and say no to austerity."
Ronnie Draper, general secretary the BFAWU bakers' union, came to the platform with Lewis Baker, a McDonalds striker from Crayford. Some young workers are on just £4.05 an hour.
No less important but so numerous were other speakers involved in strikes and struggle who addressed the rally. Solidarity with such workers is the whole purpose of the NSSN. Yet here we can only list them and refer readers to reports in the Socialist and on the Socialist Party website.
Terry Pullinger, deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, spoke for Royal Mail workers.
Amy Murphy, a Tesco worker on the executive committee of shopworkers' union Usdaw, spoke in a personal capacity.
Zim spoke for Unite on the BA mixed fleet cabin crew dispute.
Len Hockey is Unite leader of the striking Barts hospital workers in east London. He explained how the Barts strike had brought together longstanding trade unionists alongside recent employees, many of whom were migrant workers. The strike was currently suspended pending talks, but solidarity, action and campaigning had already won results including the introduction of the London living wage and workers on zero-hour contracts being given permanent, regular work.
Moe, a Unite bus workers' leader, spoke of their rally later in the week. Moe expressed solidarity with the striking McDonalds workers as he used to do that job himself.
Sean McGovern, an executive committee member of Unite, spoke of the campaign of Disabled People Against Cuts.
Linda Taaffe, secretary of the NSSN, appealed for union branches to help fund NSSN.
Finally, Hugo Pierre, an EC member of Unison (speaking in a personal capacity) contrasted the anti-union actions of Birmingham councillors with the historic part played by Liverpool councillors in the 1980s who defended working class people. Hugo questioned what these people were doing in the Labour Party. He explained the important role of the NSSN in encouraging groups of workers to carry on until they win: "Solidarity works!"
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 11 September 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.
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