The third conference of the National Shop Stewards' Network (NSSN) could not have been better timed, coming just one day after the victory of the Lindsey Oil Refinery (LOR) construction workers.
The NSSN conference was able to hear first-hand from Keith Gibson and others from the strike committee how the Lindsey victory came about. They spoke from the main platform and in the special workshop on the lessons of the strike. Conference also heard from Rob Williams, re-instated convenor of Swansea Linamar, and John Maguire, convenor of Belfast Visteon.
The recession has brought a relentless onslaught on workers' jobs, pay and conditions. These three struggles show that it is possible to successfully fight back against the onslaught. Although the NSSN is still only in its early days, this conference was an important step towards building the kind of mass shop stewards' organisation that will be a vital weapon in the struggles of the coming years.
To many, particularly younger people, this was the first whiff of what it was like to be involved in the huge trade union battles of the 1970s and 1980s in the private sector. Indeed, for everybody who was there, this was the most important gathering of trade union activists for some time.
The conference was an overwhelming success, attracting as it did shop stewards and workers' representatives from around Britain, but, like workers' struggles in general, there was a complete media blackout when it came to reporting this important event.
The victory of the LOR construction workers over Total, the international oil giant, was reported by the BBC website with accompanying library footage, featuring workers with union jacks and a homemade piece of cardboard saying British jobs for British workers. They could not bring themselves to show the reality of a magnificent demo by two thousand workers last week at Lindsey waving dozens of trade union flags and placards and calling for basic class demands. But what the media cannot hide was that the Lindsey workers scored a victory, in the words of Keith Gibson: "for workers everywhere".
The huge attacks on workers' jobs and wages since the onset of recession has been accompanied with relentless propaganda from the capitalist media, echoed unfortunately by too many trade union leaders, that workers are powerless to do anything to defend themselves. Saturday's conference showed clearly that this is not true.
Even three swallows, perhaps, a summer do not make, but what tremendous 'green shoots' of struggle they show. As the recession continues, half the workforce in Britain faces pay cuts or cuts in hours, with the resulting loss of pay, or a combination of both. Each struggle will be different, depending on its leadership, the economic conditions, and other factors which have to be taken into account.
Linamar, for example, faced the certain shut down of the Ford assembly plant in Kansas if the Swansea factory had gone into all-out strike action. In both Linamar and Lindsey, one of the lessons to be drawn is the effect that the threat of, or in Lindsey's case the carrying out of, all-out strike action had in forcing management to retreat.
In the recent period one or two day strikes have dominated. It will still vary from strike to strike, but all-out action will increasingly be posed.
Lindsey, of course, became a lock-out for the LOR construction workers themselves when they were sacked, and a national strike from below for the other 30 sites that took solidarity action in support of the Lindsey workers. This type of solidarity action is the music of the future.
Economically the engineering construction workers were, and are, in a powerful position as regards their bosses. The bosses have plans, costing hundreds of millions of pounds, to develop new capacity both in existing plants like Lindsey and in completely new ones, for example, in the nuclear power stations now being put on order. Not every group of workers will have the same muscle, but it will still require the development of action from below and bold leadership as each struggle develops over the next period.
All three battles were of a defensive character. In the case of Visteon this was even more so because on the surface they did not seem to have much economic power, but the decisive action of the Visteon workers, in occupying the workplaces deprived the owners of getting crucial machinery and components out of the factories, and cut across any possibility of reopening the factories under a different name, thus preventing the owners from taking the workers' money and running.
The existence of the NSSN enabled these three struggles to be brought together. But the role of the national unions cannot be ignored. As Keith Gibson said at the conference: "if the national union leaders had backed us last January and February, when Lindsey was left without leadership for a few days, then some of the more backward demands that appeared briefly [on placards] would have been kept even further in the background."
In the most recent strike the union leaders were drawn into supporting the struggle primarily because the workers had already acted from below. What the NSSN can do, as it was able to do in the case of these three struggles, is not only to act as clearing house for information about what is going on but also take a lead.
When the Unite union held its demo in Birmingham earlier this year, the NSSN had the authority to organise a fringe meeting of 200 around the issue of Linamar. The actions of the Linamar workers also brought about the promise at the same demo by Tony Woodley that he would accept the sacking of Rob Williams over his "dead body".
Construction workers throughout the country will soon be balloted for strike action over the issue of wages and conditions. Already the employers, fresh from being defeated by the massive demonstration of solidarity over Lindsey, are drawing up new battle lines. They will draw into their camp all the weapons they have at their disposal, including the law.
The employers' leader Mike Hockley (Financial Times 29 June) said that the ballot is illegal because it calls for jobs to be given to existing workers on contracts that are coming to an end. He claims that it breaches the Race Relations Act! This is not a case of the employers wanting to be fair in their employment hiring practices, but a case of them wanting to break the power of the trade unions on the sites.
The union leadership must not accept that the law can stop the struggle to defend these basic conditions, but if they do, then the construction workers themselves will have to take control of the situation and, as they have already proved they can, brush these anti-union laws to one side.
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