Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/721/14627
National Shop Stewards Network
The "hot breath on the back of the trade union leaders' necks"
Rob Williams, NSSN chair
On 9 June the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) is holding its sixth annual conference.
The NSSN was initiated by the RMT transport workers' union in 2006 and had its launch conference a year later. The potential of this organisation was clear, with the authority of one of the most militant unions behind it, and the Socialist Party immediately gave the NSSN its full support.
It wasn't long before the PCS civil service union, Communication Workers Union, National Union of Mineworkers and the POA prison officers' union also officially supported the network.
Now with the National Union of Journalists, six national unions back the NSSN. This is along with many trades councils, union branches, shop stewards' committees and individual stewards, branch reps, union activists and anti-cuts campaigners.
The NSSN was formed in preparation for the period of capitalist crisis and austerity we are in now. We've organised active solidarity to defend those being victimised and are proud of supporting trade union reps who have successfully seen off attacks by their employer, like the RMT members tube drivers Eamonn Lynch and Arwyn Thomas, and Paddy Brennan the Honda Unite convenor.
Pressure on union leaders
We're not here to replace the trade unions but to act as a vehicle where rank and file reps can channel pressure on to the unions and particularly the leaders. Two of the clearest examples of how that can happen is the public sector pension struggle and the 'sparks' dispute.
When Cameron, Clegg and Osborne announced their cuts programme, the NSSN was confident that there would be resistance from working class and middle class people. But we were adamant that the trade unions were absolutely central to leading this opposition, due to the economic weight of the organised working class. It was necessary to place demands on the union leaders and not allow them to avoid their responsibilities.
Therefore, we saw one of our prime roles as raising the idea of coordinated strike action against the cuts. Our message was clear on our leaflets and placards on the massive 26 March Trades Union Congress (TUC) 'March for the Alternative'.
Over 700 shop stewards and activists came to our lobby of the TUC the day before its September 2011 conference on the theme of a 24-hour public sector general strike.
The NSSN also gave out hundreds of thousands of leaflets in the run-up to the TUC conference, including on the 30 June 2011 (J30) strike which saw 750,000 civil servants from PCS striking alongside teachers and lecturers from the NUT, ATL and UCU unions.
The pressure put on union leaders, including by the NSSN and its lobby of the TUC conference, helped lead to the historic 30 November 2011 (N30) action.
Unison on strike
For example, following J30, the Unison leader Dave Prentis said that his union "would never strike alongside PCS". Five months later, that is exactly what Unison members did, together with most other public sector unions.
The strike on N30 of over two million public sector workers, arguably the biggest single day of strike action since the 1926 general strike, is not only the highest point of the last year, it has transformed the consciousness of the leading activists in the union movement.
The Con-Dems, the Tory media, and even unfortunately many of the union leaders, say that the pensions battle is now over with a 'sensible' agreement - meaning public sector workers have to work longer, pay more and get less.
The NSSN allied itself to militant public sector unions like PCS before N30, when the movement was on the offensive, and after when the right-wing union leaders like those in Unison and the TUC looked to settle the pension dispute and in the process throw away the huge momentum built up by the strike.
We lobbied the TUC on 19 December 2011 against a shabby pensions agreement that was little different to what was on 'offer' before N30. We helped build for a big turnout when PCS Left Unity boldly organised at short notice an open conference on 7 January 2012 as part of regrouping those unions still prepared to fight on to defend pensions.
The 400,000 strong strike on 10 May, when PCS linked up with Unite in the NHS and the civil service, the UCU, Immigration Services Union (ISU) and Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (Nipsa), along with the brave prison officers from the POA who took unofficial and illegal action, is the fruit of this labour. It offers the possibility of reigniting this struggle.
The massive police demonstration that day and now the strike vote of the British Medical Association, which saw 92% of junior doctors voting for action, shows how isolated the government is and why serious coordinated action can defeat them. We will continue to do all we can to make this possible, including supporting the rank and file NUT Local Associations conference on Saturday 16 June in Liverpool. This is open to all teachers, organised to force their unions and particularly the NUT back into the pensions fray.
We also welcome the TUC organised 20 October national demonstration against austerity. Such a demo has been a major demand of ours this year, although we think that it should have been called much earlier. But it can't be left at just a march. It should be the platform for further coordinated strikes, up to and including the N30 coalition, but also beyond it to reach out to the private sector.
The marathon and victorious struggle of the Sparks - the electricians, pipe-fitters and plumbers in the construction industry - shows how the years of retreat in the union movement can be reversed. The NSSN has supported this struggle from the beginning. It showed how rank and file workers can force the union leadership, in this case Unite, to take the dispute seriously.
As a result of countless protests in London and around the country, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey turned to his organising department and pushed the conservative officials aside, changing the tempo of the struggle. Eventually through the threat of an official strike against Balfour, the biggest of the 'Dirty 7' companies, their new Besna contract and the planned 35% pay cut was smashed.
The ripples of this victory are still being felt throughout the industry. There was a stoppage by Crown House workers at Heathrow terminal two in the middle of May. 600 construction workers walked out at Ratcliffe power station, Nottinghamshire, on 29 May to defend suspended health and safety steward Jason Poulter.
Over 1,000 workers at Sellafield power station, Cumbria, also walked out at the end of May to defend the jobs of two reps. On 31 May there was a stoppage at Alford Gas in Northwich, Cheshire.
A new period has opened up in Britain. The threats to our terms and conditions, trade union rights, the NHS, public services and the welfare state are real and devastating if the employers' and their government's offensive succeeds. Workers' organisations are central to resisting this onslaught and the sparks have shown that victories can be won.
The job of the NSSN is to be the 'hot breath on the back of the union leaders' necks'. The TUC must campaign for a massive demonstration against austerity on 20 October. Our approach should be: let's all march together to show our anger against the cuts, but let's use that to say clearly that we're going to strike together - public sector and private sector - before the end of the year.
85% of the government's cutbacks are yet to be made. Our movement has the potential power to stop this increasingly weak and divided government making those cuts. Let's do it!
National Shop Stewards Network Sixth Annual Conference
Saturday 9 June, 11am-4pm
Friends Meeting House, London NW1 2BJ
- Bob Crow, RMT general secretary
- Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary
- Rank and File construction electrician
- Kevin Courtney, NUT deputy general secretary
Where Next in the Pensions Dispute?
A meeting for all teachers
Local Associations National Action Conference
Saturday 16 June
Quaker Meeting House, Liverpool L1 3BT
Registration from 10.30am
For more information see: http://electmartin1.blogspot.co.uk/#!/2012/05/liverpool-conference-final-agenda-and.html
In The Socialist 6 June 2012:
Fight the cuts!
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