Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/772/17049
National Shop Stewards Network seventh annual conference
The 'activists who don't give up'
Fight for a 24-hour general strike
There has been no pause in the Con-Dems' vicious austerity drive. The spending review included a further £11.5 billion of cuts.
Councils will face a 10% budget cut from 2015. Automatic annual pay progression in the public sector is to be axed.
Three days later, on 29 June, opening the 400-strong conference National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) secretary Linda Taaffe made the point that while struggles are "bubbling away" in many workforces there has been a pause in terms of a concerted, united, coordinated response to the cuts.
But the NSSN is not a body that bemoans what could have been - as Linda said: "We're the activists who don't give up".
Rob Williams, NSSN national chair, explained the NSSN supports many tactics that can be used to challenge austerity but the trade unions, with their over seven million members, have a central role and a central responsibility to organise mass action that can pull all the other sections of society behind them.
A one-day general strike would have a transformative effect on the conditions in Britain today. It would inject confidence to stand up to the divisive and bullying Con-Dem government.
Workers would sense their power and strength as the most significant social force in society.
Unison branch secretary Adrian O'Malley gave a glimpse of this when, from the floor, he described the impact nine days of strike had on hospital workers in the Mid-Yorkshire Health Trust.
Their strike forced important concessions from a vicious employer. The strike provided a glimpse of workers' essential role and their potential power.
Chris Baugh, assistant general secretary of the PCS civil service union, speaking in the opening session showed how the Tories seem to recognise the threat to their austerity agenda posed by the unions more than some trade union leaders do.
Vicious anti-working class warrior Tory Cabinet Minister Francis Maude has targeted facility time in the PCS in an attempt to undermine its strength.
The PCS has been to the fore in the battle so far with action in every week of the last three months but members ask about the general strike motion passed at the TUC congress last September.
Chris argued forcefully, and to huge applause, that if the TUC doesn't now act on the 2012 general strike motion then the left trade union leaders must get in a room together to coordinate it.
Rob Williams moved the action statement of the NSSN calling for a lobby of the TUC on 8 September in Bournemouth on the anniversary of the passing of the resolution to consider general strike action and for union branches and other bodies to pass supportive motions.
He also called for the biggest possible turnout to the TUC demo to defend the NHS on 29 September in Manchester with an NSSN contingent that calls for a one-day general strike action after the demo. "How much more powerful would that demo be if it gave notice that a date has been set for a 24-hour general strike?" he asked.
This was unanimously agreed and later the new steering committee was elected and the annual report was passed.
While the point had been made that the pause in the anti-cuts movement had invited aggression, the opposite is also true.
Giving the closing speech of the day Fran Heathcote, DWP group president in the PCS, confirmed this basic but important fact - action gets results.
PCS members had defeated attempts by the employers to inflict compulsory redundancies - and in the end they didn't even have to strike.
Martin Powell-Davies, national executive member of the NUT teachers' union spoke of the regional teachers' strike in the North West.
He argued this should only be the beginning with national action a priority - given both the enormity of the attacks on teachers and education, and the greater impact a country-wide strike would have. Teachers don't want to just protest - they want action that can defeat the attacks.
Michael Olugun, Unite shop steward for Equinox support workers, had started out as the only rep but their strike action deferred cuts - but also built the union structures.
A rep from the Thera support workers in the East Midlands spoke about another group involved in determined action for the first time.
Donald McDougall and Paddy Brennan, two of nine reps there from Honda in Swindon, spoke enthusiastically about the role of the NSSN in building solidarity and support for victimised workers such as helping Paddy to get re-instated, and for the centrality of the tactic of the general strike.
Padraig Mulholland, president of the Nipsa public service union in Northern Ireland and member of the Socialist Party's sister party there, brought official greetings from the union's general council which now has a left majority.
The new union leadership has been discussing what concrete steps it can take to address the disappointment and confusion that has set in after the TUC failed to call a follow-up to the magnificent 30 November 2011 public sector pension strike - which was particularly successful in Northern Ireland. A 24-hour general strike would be a key unifying point.
Suz Muna, branch secretary of the Unite housing workers' branch, explained that through privatisation housing workers are isolated in small workplaces. For them the need for a general strike to overcome this is plain to see.
A prominent theme that ran through the conference was condemnation of Labour's acquiescence to the Tory austerity programme, committing to form a cuts government should it be elected in 2015.
Steve Gillan, POA prison officers' union general secretary, called for the trade unions to take a lead on the fightback.
He said that Labour was failing to be a credible opposition and that as a Labour Party member he was ashamed.
CWU general secretary Billy Hayes spoke about the mood for a fight on pay among Royal Mail workers. He reported that on a 74% turnout 99% voted for a campaign for a pay rise and that action was on the cards.
There was big support for this but also huge applause for the demand from Mary Cooke, a retired nurse who spoke from the floor, that the CWU discusses disaffiliation from Labour who instigated much of the privatisation linked to the attacks on pay and conditions.
The closing session addressed a number of the key campaigns and questions facing the labour movement.
Scottish socialist and chair of the Scottish Anti-bedroom Tax Federation, Tommy Sheridan, denounced the bedroom tax forcefully.
Although he was "not personally affected by the bedroom tax" - he "was personally offended by it". The Federation has promised to build "walls of human solidarity" around anyone faced with eviction for the bedroom tax.
Lois Austin, former chair of Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), rejected the idea that the recent exposť of police spying on the family of Stephen Lawrence and infiltration of the YRE was the work of rogue elements in the police - it was and is state policy.
Lois called for a lobby of Scotland Yard on Tuesday 9 July to demand an end to such attacks on campaigners.
The Socialist Party demands a genuinely independent public inquiry made up of democratically elected representatives from the trade union movement and the anti-racist and environmental protest groups that have suffered infiltration.
Internationalism was present in references to the struggles in Brazil and Turkey. There were important contributions from Oktay Sahbaz, an NUT rep and a leader of the Day-Mer Turkish and Kurdish community centre which puts building solidarity with the trade unions to the fore, and Stephan Machieux from the SUD union federation in France (solidarity, unity and democracy) which is looking at how to build the resistance to the avalanche of cuts facing the working class in France.
By the end even the venue's workforce were enquiring about union membership and were clearly very supportive of the ideas they'd heard.
And rightly so - the NSSN conference will be a powerful shot in the arm in a difficult period as serious workers' leaders at every level plot a fightback against austerity.
NSSN conference workshops
Health workers will resist
Healthcare workers, campaigners in defence of the NHS and NHS users met to discuss what strategy and tactics are needed to stop the government's NHS privatisation juggernaut.
Health worker union activists exposed the Tory lies about 'protecting the NHS'. Helen O'Connor from south London and Roger Davey, chair of Wiltshire and Avon Unison Health (personal capacity), explained the devastating scale of privatisation, with NHS free services contracting as privatisation accelerates.
Union rep Len Hockey, a porter at Whipps Cross Hospital in east London, said members have had to take strike action on two occasions to defend pay and conditions against their private employers.
On top of Osborne's latest attacks on pay (see page 5), Len reported that 'precarious' workers are being reduced to arriving early at the hospital hoping to get a day's work.
Unison branch secretary Adrian O'Malley described the bitter fight by 500 workers employed by Mid Yorks Hospital Trust.
Management tried to make workers pay for a financial crisis caused by a three-year PFI contract, through savage pay cuts.
This was resisted through strike action but there remains the possibility of further action if stewards are attacked and threatened with the sack.
Many speakers were highly critical of those trade union leaders who fail to put forward an effective strategy to fight privatisation, and who seem to accept the false trade-off between pay and jobs.
As blood transfusion worker Andy Ford remarked, "union leaders are very good at telling us what the problems are but not so good at organising a fightback".
Andy has written a model resolution on a fighting strategy for trade unions which NSSN activists can use.
An NUJ member sparked controversy when he suggested that a Labour government was necessary to defend the NHS.
However, many delegates challenged Labour's record in government. Nursing worker, recently elected to the Unison NEC (personal capacity) Jacqui Berry reminded delegates that Labour had introduced cuts and many of the pro-market changes in the NHS.
Len Hockey explained that his fellow low-paid union members in the NHS had to strike to defend pay and conditions against private employers under Labour.
To applause, he announced that three of these workers would be challenging all the establishment parties in next year's council elections under the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition banner (www.tusc.org.uk).
The NSSN has produced an NHS bulletin putting forward a strategy for health workers to resist the attacks on them and the health service. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for copies or to contribute to future editions.
Housing - 'Striking helps'
The workshop on housing heard from housing workers who were "creating their own strike wave" as well as local campaigners who were tackling the government's assault on the right to a decent, affordable, and secure place to live.
Brian, a worker at One Housing, gave an inspiring account of those workers' battle against pay cuts. Like many housing providers, One Housing's care and support section was trying to compete for local government contracts by driving down the wages of its workforce.
But the One Housing workers stood up against this, in spite of being lectured about the market by managers and being told they should be grateful for just having a job.
Workers were facing cuts of several thousand pounds a year, after a four-year pay freeze. After taking strike action and building the membership of Unite in the workplace, the management have stopped lecturing and started talking. "Striking helps," Brian concluded.
There has been a similar battle in Equinox and several other housing organisations so the Unite housing workers' branch is campaigning for a national agreement on wages, which already exists in Scotland.
Others explained about community campaigns against the bedroom tax and the housing shortage in general.
All made the point that it was important for these campaigns to be linked to the battles in the workplaces.
The government must not be allowed to divide and rule between tenants and housing and other workers. A coordinated and confident struggle by housing workers can have a big effect on boosting the confidence of others to fight back against the Con-Dem attacks.
As Wally Kennedy from Hillingdon pointed out, 82% of council housing in the borough has been sold off and nothing has been built since 1983, so the trade unions also need to take up the campaign for the building of affordable social housing.
The meeting agreed that a socialist housing policy was urgently needed, which would include demands like the repeal of the bedroom tax and an urgent affordable house building programme.
People interested in developing this programme should contact the NSSN to be put on the housing email list.
Stop council cuts - 'We need a political voice too'
For my money one of the most important contributions at conference was Tony Mulhearn's, one of the leading figures of the Labour council that ran Liverpool between 1983 and 1987.
He pointed out that trade unionists need a political alternative and called for the NSSN to back the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).
In Wales, we are uniquely placed to know both what a Labour government will be like and the pressure that will come on trade unionists to not criticise them, even as they attack our jobs, pay, services and terms and conditions.
As Mark Evans, Carmarthenshire Unison branch secretary (speaking in a personal capacity), pointed out, the Labour Welsh Government is making deep cuts in the Welsh NHS which will mean that, by the general election, Wales will spend the least per head of population in the UK.
Only this week, Cardiff and Vale Health Board has announced up to 385 redundancies, making a mockery of the no redundancies agreement in the NHS in Wales.
Welsh councils have been zealous in carrying through Con-Dem cuts with Rhondda Cynon Taff trying to force existing homecare workers onto zero-hour contracts.
Yet the leadership of many unions, particularly of the Labour-affiliated ones like my own, Unison, either pretend that there are no cuts in Wales or that they are 'Con-Dem UK government cuts'.
When so many trade unionists are fighting cuts from Labour councils, they need the support of rank and file trade unionists, such as the NSSN can provide, because in many cases their union leadership will attempt to hold them back.
This will be even more the case when a Labour government is cutting the NHS, education and other services.
As Tony said, not to challenge those making the cuts electorally is to fight with one hand tied behind our backs.
A Swansea Unison activist
On behalf of the four-strong delegation from Bracknell Unite, I would like to say how much we were inspired by attending the NSSN conference on Saturday.
Speakers from both the platform and from the floor raised all the political issues facing workers and their families as a result of the government's austerity policies.
It was great to see youth, pensioners, blacklisted workers, health workers, private sector workers and many others united in discussing how to build mass action against austerity.
This was not a talking shop it was about preparing action such as a 24-hour general strike in defence of workers' jobs and conditions.
It was about fighting ALL cuts to jobs and services in the public sector. Part of this fight is to build for a lobby of the TUC in Bournemouth on 8 September with the demand to NAME THE DATE for the general strike.
Terry Pearce, chair Bracknell branch of Unite
It was great to see so many new shop stewards with a real determination and belief that we can push the TUC to name the day for a one-day general strike.
I found the blacklisting workshop very enlightening after Steve Leadbeater explained how construction workers, through the rank-and-file committee, are circumventing the anti-trade union laws with unofficial 24-hour stoppages that are winning concessions, giving workers a reason to be unionised and active.
Dave Walsh, branch secretary, Liverpool plasterers
Never thought I'd say this a year ago (when I first attended NSSN), but striking helps! They ignored us, now they talk to us and are negotiating, offering more money. They hate us, but they take us seriously!
A rep involved in striking from Unite LE1111 housing workers' branch
www.socialistworld.net for a report of the recent 24-hour general strike in Portugal
In The Socialist 3 July 2013:
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party feature
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party reports and campaigns