NSSN conference: “United and implacable in opposition to austerity”

Delegates and observers at the 10th annual NSSN conference show solidarity with sacked bakers' union rep Kumaran Bose, photo by Paul Mattsson

Delegates and observers at the 10th annual NSSN conference show solidarity with sacked bakers’ union rep Kumaran Bose, photo by Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Tessa Warrington

One year ago in the self-same hall, at the 9th annual conference of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), the burning question was also of a referendum. It was ahead of the referendum on EU austerity in Greece, to which the Greek working class voted a resounding ‘Oxi!’ – ‘No!’ The mood was jubilant and defiant.

This year, set amid the tumultuous events following our own EU referendum, the mood was determined and serious.

The urgent discussion needed across the trade union movement – how we defend Jeremy Corbyn, how we cut across growth of the right wing and defeat austerity – came out in the many contributions from the floor and top table.

This conference marked over a decade of the NSSN supporting workers’ struggle and organising among the rank and file. Suzanne Muna from the Unite LE1111 housing branch thanked the NSSN for its backing in their recent dispute. As an organised branch with wider support they won after just one day of action.

Dave Smith from the Blacklist Support Group also wrote to praise the NSSN. He said blacklisted workers could not have won their victories without the whole movement.

The morning session was titled ‘Organise to take on the Tories – link the strikes’. Fighting general secretaries Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union, Steve Gillan of the Prison Officers Association and Ronnie Draper of the bakers’ union BFAWU spoke alongside Janice Godrich, president of the civil servants’ union PCS, of the desperate need for a general strike against austerity.

Matt Wrack reflected the fear that Brexit will lead to a strengthening of the right wing and criticised the Socialist Party’s anti-austerity Leave position. Speaking later, former Unison NEC member Glenn Kelly took him up for departing the conference as soon as he’d spoken without listening to the debate. He said: “It is the tradition of our movement to have fraternal, at times sharp, debate. It has never been a tradition to walk out before any opposition has chance to comment”.

Glenn went on to explain that racism had been stoked not by anti-EU workers but by both Tory-led official campaigns. The Leave vote has in fact undermined the Tory Party, unleashing the demand for a general election and posing a Corbyn-led government – a real prospect to take on the Tories!

Blairite attacks

NSSN chair Rob Williams urged the trade union movement to rally behind Corbyn in the face of the Blairite attacks, as did Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition chair and former Labour MP Dave Nellist. They called on Corbyn to open up Labour Party structures to anti-austerity forces outside the party to defend his leadership.

Chris Baugh, PCS deputy general secretary, reaffirmed his union’s support for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell and pressed the need for a mass conference of the left to discuss a way forward.

There were contributions from sacked activists, including two migrant cleaners from United Voices of the World and CWU rep Clive Walder. Samworth Brothers worker and BFAWU activist Kumaran Bose spoke about his victimisation for standing up against attacks on terms and wages.

Addressing the multi-millionaire owners he said: “You don’t work on Christmas day; you enjoy nice food and wine with your families. Why should we be forced to work?” Despite his dismissal, Kumaran is refusing to give up, and was met with a standing ovation when he said: “You can take everything from me – my wages, my job, my house, but you cannot take away the self-confidence I have. I will continue to fight because I know it is wrong.”

Welsh Museums PCS striker Geraint Parfitt announced the significant victory of their three year dispute with the Welsh Assembly. They have secured permanent bank holiday payments and massively reduced weekend working. Geraint said he had not come to brag about their victory but said: “If we can do this in a branch with just over 200 members, imagine what we could accomplish all together. It’s time for a general strike!”

Speaking on the EU referendum, Oktay Sahbaz, an activist from Turkish and Kurdish community group Day-Mer, said: “I don’t believe 17 million people in this country are racist. I do believe 17 million people are fed up with austerity and expressed that anger.” Both he and Unite member Nancy Taaffe spoke about the politicisation of migrant workers through the referendum campaign and the massive opportunities and need to unionise.

Many others shared their experiences in the workshops on housing, education, organising migrant and young workers. Important contributions came from the Butterfields housing campaign and Angelika Teweleit, a German shop steward who described the backlash against EU austerity in her country.

In the final session, French striker Yann Vernier of the CGT union spoke of the massive ongoing social upheavals in France [click here for video of Yann’s speech]. A year ago he couldn’t have predicted this movement but since the start of the year strikes have doubled with each passing month! He explained the intense anger that has been building against the attacks of the Hollande government but that while struggles remained isolated this found no unified expression.

Now, in response to the proposed imposition of a super-exploitative labour law, a united mass movement has been unleashed. Struggle has been raging on a continuous basis for over four months with workers rediscovering the old methods of road blocks and occupation of the bosses’ organisations. Yann even described how workers had stormed Hollande’s Parti Socialiste headquarters and given it a paint job!

The conference was closed by RMT president Sean Hoyle, who railed against the anti-trade union act and threw down the gauntlet in opposing its attacks on democratic trade union rights, saying “When freedom is outlawed, only outlaws will be free”.

That summed up the gritty determination of the conference; to face the many challenges that lie ahead, united and implacable in our opposition to austerity and the ravages of the capitalist system.

Education fightback

Jane Nellist, a teacher and member of the executive council of teaching union the NUT, addressed the conference days before their day of action to “demonstrate anger at the attacks on terms and conditions and the consequences for children”.

Jane pointed out that “The attacks are the worst cuts for a generation and are hitting schools in deprived areas the worst, leading to misery. In a survey in Coventry, 81% of teachers said their workload wasn’t manageable and 97% said the workload was having consequences on their personal life.

But the junior doctors who we have marched alongside have set a great example and teachers have confidence in fighting these attacks.”

Sacked activist speaks

Sacked Samworth Brothers worker and bakers’ union activist Kumaran Bose addressed the conference. Samworth Brothers cut bank holiday, overtime and Sunday premiums for its 9,500 workers following the introduction of the National Living Wage. Kumaran said: “Why have I been dismissed? For fighting for the rights of people on the shop floor. I didn’t accept the cuts to premiums, my colleagues were angry, crying and someone needed to stand up. I recruited people to the union and now nearly 50% of workers there are in a union. But the company refused to recognise the union and sacked me. I will fight until the end.”

Welsh strikers score victory

Welsh strikers have been making headlines this summer and Geraint Parfitt, PCS rep at National Museum Wales site St Fagans, addressed the conference saying: “Wales have won in the football and we’ve also won our dispute at National Museum Wales”.

Clog maker and strike leader Geraint rousingly explained: “Our dispute was the longest running one since the formation of the Welsh Assembly government. We raised tens of thousands of pounds, took indefinite strike action and secured bank holiday payments and other important terms and conditions.

There is one word we can use – no. We said no, you are not taking our pay off us.” The NSSN played its part in the dispute, including raising £420 along with Socialist Party members in just three collections outside Cardiff stations.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, used his platform speech at the NSSN conference to raise a number of differences with the Socialist Party. He has every right to do so; comradely discussion and debate on the way forward is to be welcomed.

Regrettably, however, he also made unfounded criticisms of the Socialist Party and the Socialist newspaper. As the main report of the conference explains, he unfortunately did not stay to hear our response.

Matt said that the Socialist published an article by Unison NEC member Roger Bannister (writing in a personal capacity) saying that Matt “had not lifted a little finger to fight the trade union bill”. This is completely untrue.

On the contrary, while we have had differences with Matt, we have always recognised his role as one of the minority of trade union general secretaries that have trenchantly defended workers’ interests. This was even indicated by the way the chair of the conference, Socialist Party member and NSSN secretary Linda Taaffe, introduced Matt by praising his role in campaigning to demand the TUC take action in support of the junior doctors’ dispute and on other issues.

The article in question, published on 9 June, originally contained the sentence, “The trade union leaders’ support for the EU on the spurious grounds of defending workers’ rights ironically comes soon after they failed to lift a finger to stop the Tory government ripping up the right to strike of millions of British workers with the Trade Union Act.” This reference was not intended to include left union leaders such as Matt Wrack.

Nonetheless, when Matt complained about it to Socialist Party members via Twitter, we immediately changed the online version so that it read: “the TUC and most trade union leaders failed to lift a finger to stop the Tory government ripping up the right to strike of millions of British workers with the Trade Union Act.”

We wrote to Matt on 10 June to clarify and to explain how the article had been reworded. Given this, it was highly misleading of Matt to tell the NSSN conference that we had attacked him for not lifting a finger on the anti-trade union bill.

Video shown at NSSN conference