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NSSN conference - trade unionists and anti-cuts campaigners discuss strategy to defeat government's austerity
There may well have been a pause in struggle on the part of some trade union leaders, but there has been no pause in the struggle for ordinary trade unionists and campaigners.
This was the key point made by Linda Taaffe, secretary of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) in her opening address to the NSSN's seventh annual conference on Saturday.
The NSSN conference brought together over 400 key activists from these struggles in a hall at the Camden Centre in central London. Among the many topics for discussion and debate was the task of ending the 'pause' in struggle at the top of the trade union movement and making the demand for a 24-hour general strike a reality.
This discussion was given practical form by the action plan introduced by NSSN chair Rob Williams and passed unanimously by the delegates present. The key points of the plan were:
- To hold a NSSN rally near the TUC congress in Bournemouth on 8th September followed by a lobby of congress, to call for a 24-hour general strike.
- In the run-up to the congress, NSSN supporters were encouraged to pass motions in support of a 24-hour general strike in their shop stewards committees, union branches, anti-cuts groups and trades councils.
- Each region of the NSSN was encouraged to hold regional meetings to build for the lobby of the TUC and popularise the call for a general strike.
- To energetically build the TUC demonstration to defend the NHS taking place outside the Tory Party conference in Manchester on 29th September and organise a NSSN contingent on it which will march behind a banner calling for a 24-hour general strike.
In moving the action plan, Rob Williams said it was a scandal that almost 12 months on from the TUC congress that voted for the Prison Officers Association (POA) motion calling on the TUC to consider the practicalities of a general strike, precious little action in that direction had occurred.
In his speech Rob made clear that the NSSN supports many tactics in the struggle but is unapologetic in its view that mass strike action led by the trade unions must be central in defeating the austerity drive of the government and the employers. In this way the mass organisations of the workers' movement could draw behind them all of those whose lives have been ripped apart by cuts. In Brazil and Turkey the entry of ordinary people into struggle had shifted society to the left in those countries. This was a glimpse, he said, of the effect a 24-hour general strike could have in this country. Working people would feel their collective power and have their sights risen to what is possible when a mass movement confronts an intransigent government. Platform and floor contributions The theme of the general strike was addressed by many of the platform speakers and by activists making contributions from the floor.
John Reid, London regional secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) brought fraternal greetings from his union.
He told the audience that the RMT conference reaffirmed its support for the NSSN and for the idea of a general strike.
Steve Gillan, general secretary of the POA and mover of the general strike motion at the TUC congress pointed out that his union had taken more industrial action in the 19 years since its trade union rights were stripped from it by the then Tory government than in the previous 70 years.
The willingness of the POA to defy anti-trade union laws in defence of its members is an example to other trade union leaders hesitating to throw their full support behind the general strike call.
Donald McDougall, secretary of the Unite Honda branch in Swindon added his support to the campaign for a general strike in a short but powerful speech from the floor.
Martin Powell-Davies, a member of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) national executive reported on the success of the strike action by teachers in the north west on 27th June.
Teachers from the NUT and NASUWT took strike action in 22 local authorities. This was an excellent start, Martin said, but he insisted it must be the beginning of wider action.
The strike in the north west suffered a complete media blackout. A national strike by teachers would not be so easy for the media to ignore, he added.
Martin ended his contribution with a point that applies to teachers and the general strike equally: "We need to be out together to win".
The need for national action was made clear by Communication Workers Union general secretary Billy Hayes.
To big applause he informed conference that 96% of his union's members had voted to oppose privatisation of Royal Mail.
A vote to pursue a pay claim got 99% in favour. Billy remarked on the 'coincidence' that three days after the vote Royal Mail management approached the CWU to open up talks on a pay offer! The CWU now has a number of live industrial disputes around the issue of privatisation.
Unfortunately Billy continues to support the CWU's funding of the Labour Party - a party not pledging to renationalise Royal Mail if it wins the next general election. This stance towards Labour was strongly criticised in the discussion by pensioners' rights campaigner Mary Cooke, who received big applause when she called for the re-nationalisation of all public services.
Chris Baugh, assistant general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) reviewed the course of industrial struggle since 30th November 2011. Commenting on the decision of the GMB and Unison to settle the pensions dispute he said it was, at best, a terrible tactical decision or at worst a deliberate attempt to knock the stuffing out of the 30th November action.
PCS has been forced to soldier on alone in the interim. Chris pointed out that a variety of trade unions are preparing action for the autumn.
To big applause he declared that all unions taking action should get in a room together and begin planning a coordinated response to austerity.
Local disputes and campaigns
The conference did not solely discuss the general strike though. There was also a wide range of speakers fresh from local industrial disputes or community campaigns.
Michael Ologun, Unite shop steward from the Equinox housing group related his workmates' struggle against 25% cuts, including strike action.
In a sober but positive balance sheet of the strike, Michael reported that their action had won a deferral of the cuts. He pointed out that this action was in the context of a workplace that had been largely unorganised not too long ago.
Using their success in organising in the workplace and standing up to management, Michael urged other unorganised workers to get active in their workplace, telling them: "You can make a difference".
Paddy Brennan, convenor at the Honda factory in Swindon brought greetings from his workplace. In his speech he thanked the NSSN for its support during his successful campaign against victimisation at the plant.
Steve North, branch secretary of Salford Unison (like all members of that union, speaking in a personal capacity) asked conference to support industrial action taking place by Future Directions staff in Rochdale over cuts to pay and terms and conditions.
He also read out a message of support from George Tapp. George is a longstanding supporter of the NSSN who was a NSSN steward at last year's conference. For many years he has campaigned tirelessly against blacklisting in the building industry. During this campaigning George was hit by a car in a hit and run incident and seriously injured.
His long term recovery prevented him from attending this year's conference but he was keen to ensure he had a presence in spirit. Supporters of the NSSN wish George a speedy recovery and a return to his role in the struggle against blacklisting.
In a moving personal account Hannah Roche related the harsh conditions facing young workers in call centres.
Helen Pattison from the Youth Fight for Jobs initiative 'Sick of Your Boss' reported on campaigning work to organise young people in the retail sector in cooperation with Unite.
The conference had a distinctly international feel to it. The closing plenary had a speaker from the radical French trade union federation SUD.
However it was events in Turkey that were at the centre of discussion. NSSN supporters Steve Hedley, assistant general secretary of the RMT and Martin Powell-Davies (NUT) had visited Taksim Square in Istanbul as solidarity delegates from their respective unions.
In a commission chaired by Martin Powell-Davies, Steve Hedley gave an eye witness account of the brutal crackdown on protesters in Taksim Square and Gezi Park on 12th June.
On the same platform was Oktay Sahbaz from the Turkish and Kurdish group Day-Mer. Oktay also spoke at the conference closing plenary.
Day-Mer has been one of the key organisers of the almost daily solidarity protests with the movement in Turkey that have taken place in central London. Oktay thanked the NSSN for its support and participation in those protests.
Oktay gave a brief history of developments in Turkey that led up to the explosion in popular protest. In a wide ranging speech he emphasised that the movement has helped to break down divisions between Turks, Kurds, Alevis and other minorities.
Of particular importance has been a new sense of solidarity between ordinary Turkish workers and Kurdish people through their shared experience of state brutality. The recent shooting of Kurdish demonstrators has triggered an unprecedented wave of solidarity and protests in Turkish cities.
Scotland's anti-bedroom tax campaign
The bedroom tax has provoked one of the biggest grassroots campaigns since the coming to power of the Con-Dem coalition. NSSN supporters have thrown themselves into organising anti-bedroom tax campaigns across the country.
A special session on housing and fighting the tax was well attended. Tommy Sheridan from the Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax campaign gave a powerful speech on the inspiring work of the campaign north of the border.
In his opening remarks Tommy articulated the feelings of many working class people on the bedroom tax, which explains why opposition to the tax goes far beyond those affected. "I am not personally affected by the bedroom tax but I am offended by the bedroom tax!".
Tommy condemned the hypocrisy of politicians who make the very poorest in society homeless while they live in taxpayer funded mansions. Receiving loud applause, he pledged that the campaign in Scotland would meet any threat to evict people with "a wall of human solidarity".
State harassment has been a feature of life for labour movement activists as long as the movement has existed. This has been underlined this year with revelations of state collusion with blacklisting and police infiltration of labour movement organisations.
Chris Baugh reminded conference that the state is very well aware of the role of shop stewards and activists in defending the working class. It is the reason, he said, why the state spends so much time harassing and spying on them.
This point was underlined by Lois Austin in her speech at the closing plenary. Lois is the former chair of Youth Against Racism in Europe, that organised demonstrations in 1993 to close down the BNP's headquarters in Welling, and played a key role in driving the BNP out of Tower Hamlets and fighting for justice for Steven Lawrence.
So effective was YRE that it attracted the attention of the security forces and was targeted by police spy Peter Francis.
In her speech Lois rejected the idea that this was the work of 'a few bad apples'. Spying on peaceful political organisations was state policy. She called for a wide ranging inquiry that included those who had been spied upon. If that was not forthcoming from the state, Lois said, those affected should look to set up their own inquiry.
Presenting an alternative
In contrast to some other gatherings of activists the discussion at the NSSN conference was not just about organising the opposition to austerity, important as that is. There was also a number of contributions on the alternative.
Padraig Mulholland, president of the Northern Ireland Public Services Alliance (Nipsa) brought fraternal greetings from the Nipsa general council.
In his speech he said Nipsa was producing educational material for its members on the causes of the economic crisis which will explain that crisis is an organic part of the capitalist system, and that a socialist alternative is needed.
Steve Gillan (POA) responded to the government's plans to build a super prison by declaring: "Rather than spend £200 million on building a new super prison in Wales I'd rather see £200 million spent on helping to keep people out of prison!" - an illustration of the different approach of the labour movement to that of the government and employers.
A number of speakers explained that attacks on the conditions of working people are inevitable under capitalism.
The struggles in workplaces and communities against day-to-day attacks are essential but we must also raise the need for a political voice for working class people, and for socialism.
This was a theme of the conference from the outset, as John Reid reported that the RMT conference affirmed that it would continue to campaign for the replacement of the capitalist system with a democratic socialist system.
By the end of the conference, delegates had elected a NSSN steering committee and went away armed with ideas and tactics that can develop our movement in order to change our society.
For more coverage of NSSN conference, see 'The activists who don't give up'