Up to 200 striking workers, trade union reps, campaigners and socialists met virtually on 20 June as the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) held its 2021 summer conference.
The NSSN conference is the biggest annual event that brings together fighting rank-and-file union members with campaigners. This year it included many workers in dispute, education workers, health staff and more.
NSSN national chair Rob Williams kicked off the conference, pointing out that if workers are given a lead then they will fight, as they have shown throughout the pandemic, forcing their union into action in some cases and leading action of their own.
Those workers who have fought, and are still fighting, made up most of the contributions to the meeting.
Tony, Unite rep and bin worker in Thurrock, talked about their victory over the Tory council. 90 workers in the waste and recycling department walked out throughout April and May fighting pay cuts of between £1,200 and £3,800 a year. But the council has now agreed changes to the original proposal, which means members will not have a reduction in their pay.
Kathy Smith, another local government worker and member of Unite, whose members have taken multiple rounds of strike action in Bromley, told the conference how just the threat of strike action forced bosses back in the libraries, following the action taken previously.
Jared Wood, RMT national executive council member for London, laid out the coming battles in transport, in particular the fight with Transport for London, which is planning a tsunami of cuts and attacks on workers and the transport system.
Another London transport worker, Mark at Woolwich Ferry, reiterated the points Jared made and told conference of the disputes that have taken place on the ferry. Workers there have recently walked out over a victimised rep taking seven days action in May and June. The ferry has seen a number of disputes in the last few years, provoked by “poor employment relations”. The current action has forced bosses into talks.
Mike Hirst, speaking from Unite NE/Sec 2 branch and Hull Trades Council, talked about the looming threat of freeports and what they will mean for workers pay, terms and conditions.
At previous NSSN meetings, workers at the GKN Automotive plant in Birmingham have spoken about the looming threat of closure and redundancies. This time Rich gave an update on the campaign, saying loud and clear: “We have not accepted the closure of GKN in Birmingham and the fight continues to keep the site open.”
Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, fighting blacklisting particularly in the construction industry, spoke about the recent victory electricians won against deskilling. The ‘sparks’, as they are known, were supported all the way by the NSSN and the Socialist Party, including blockading the Atomic Weapons Establishment near Reading.
Elaine Brunskill from the North East reported that following the sparks victory, there was a walkout in Gateshead, and the workers have now scandalously been sacked for this. The site is being built for Amazon and Elaine explained: “The sparks downed tools over dangerous working practices by the electrical contractors SIS systems. The sparks are absolutely resolute.”
Workers asked the meeting for support and solidarity – one of the key roles of the NSSN, in disputes. Mark Evans, Unison branch secretary in Carmarthenshire, speaking in a personal capacity, reported on the campaign for union recognition at an ‘arms-length’ waste disposal company, “100% owned by the council”.
Mark also talked about the reality of ‘social partnership’ between the Welsh Labour government and the tops of the trade unions, despite the record of cuts by the government. The unions need to fight: “The unions don’t win anything just through negotiation.”
Ozzy, a Unite member from the Midlands, wished solidarity to his fellow union members at Brush Electrical Machines in Leicestershire, who are now in the fifth week of a 12-week strike against huge attacks on pay, terms and conditions by yet another vicious management using ‘fire and rehire’.
This is an attack being used by many employers against workers, and was a regular theme of the conference. James from the Socialist Party in Oxford asked for solidarity for journalists fighting ‘fire and rehire’ at a local newspaper there.
Joanne McNeill, is a member of the national executive of the University and College Union (UCU). Her branch members have just finished 14 days of strike action at the University of Liverpool. Speaking in a personal capacity, Joanne appealed for support for the dispute. The university is trying to sack 47 academics, who during the pandemic worked in the NHS, for allegedly “dropping research standards, basically not bringing in enough grant money during the pandemic”. Now the workers, supported by students, are taking part in action short of a strike by refusing to mark work.
Socialist Party member Bea Gardner, a UCU member and branch officer at Southampton University, also spoke about the dozens of branches in higher and further education which are also currently in dispute, “successfully smashing the Tory anti-union laws and thresholds which is a sign of determination to resist these attacks.” Bea reiterated that when a lead is given workers will fight.
A St Mungo’s housing worker in London asked for support against the battle against bullying bosses and management who are also using the pandemic to “carry out attacks on employees.” The workers are now in the ninth week of action.
Len Hockey, chair of Unite Barts Health workers branch in east London, talked about his members, low-paid Serco caterers, who are striking at the Royal London Hospital, fighting for better pay and parity with directly employed NHS cleaners. His branch is holding a protest on 3 July as part of a day of action, with actions taking place right across the UK.
Martin Powell-Davies, a teacher and National Education Union rep, reminded conference of the huge fight and victory by teachers at the start of the year to delay the unsafe reopening of schools, using Section 44 legislation collectively, and warned that “those issues have not gone away, and people’s minds are also returning to the issues that were always there before the pandemic, which will come back with a vengeance: excessive workload, job losses, lack of funding and so on.”
Another of the many disputes taking place in the private sector is a strike against inadequate redundancy pay at DHL in Long Eaton in Derbyshire, which supplies M&S with goods and products. Ken spoke about the dispute and how they have organised action through their union Usdaw. The site is due to close in July 2021. But as well as the bosses refusing to pay furlough and making the workers redundant, the companies are now offering only half the redundancy pay anticipated.
Alex Smith, assistant secretary of Liverpool Trades Council and a Unite member, appealed for support for Youth Fight for Jobs. The organisation was founded in 2009 to fight youth unemployment, made worse by Tory austerity. Youth Fight for Jobs is back in action to fight the coming post-Covid onslaught: “We want to do everything we possibly can to get young people involved in the trade union movement and are planning rallies for when the furlough scheme ends.”
NSSN national secretary Linda Taaffe spoke about the need for political representation for working-class people and for workers to have their own party. She ended by saying: “The contributions of all those conducting battles show that the spirit of resistance is alive and kicking and it reflects the class battles against the bosses who want to grind everyone into the ground.” The NSSN will be there helping to coordinate the fightback.