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 this Saturday.
The NSSN conference successfully brought together the key activists from these struggles in a packed hall at the Camden Centre. Among the many topics for discussion and debate was the task of ending the ‘pause’ in struggle at the top of the trade movement and making the demand of 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 action plan were an NSSN rally at the TUC Congress at Bournemouth on September 8th followed by a lobby of Congress.
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 group and trades councils. Each region of the NSSN was encouraged to hold regional meetings to build for the lobby of the TUC and popularize the call for a general strike.
Finally the action plan pledged to energetically build the TUC demonstration outside the Tory Party Conference in Manchester on September 29th and organise an 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 voting 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 all tactics in the struggle but the NSSN was 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.
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 greeting 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 their trade union rights were stripped from them 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 their 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, from the National Union of Teachers (NUT) national executive reported on the success of the joint 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 black out. A national strike by teachers would not be so easy for the media to ignore, he said. 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 96% of his members had voted to oppose privatisation of Royal Mail. A vote to pursue a pay offer 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 issue of privatisation.
Chris Baugh, Assistant General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) reviewed the course of industrial struggle since November 30th 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 November 30th action. PCS has been forced to soldier on alone in the interim. Chris pointed out that a variety of trade unions are preparing action in 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.
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 made the point that their action had won a deferral of the cuts. Michael pointed out 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 the conference 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 their 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 upcoming industrial action by Future Directions staff in Rochdale over cuts to pay and terms and conditions. He also read out a message of support from Gearge Tapp. George is a longstanding supporter of the NSSN who was a steward at last year’s conference. For many years George has campaigned tirelessly against blacklisting in the building industry. During this campaigning George was hit by a car in a hit and run incident on a picket line and seriously injured. George’s long term recovery prevented him from attending this year’s conference but he was keen to ensure he had a presence in spirit at the conference. Supporters of the NSSN wish George a speedy recovery and a return to his vital 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 the campaigns work in organising 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 at the conference. NSSN supporters Steve Hedley, Assistant General Secretary of the RMT and Martin Powell-Davies visited Taksim Square 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 protestors in Taksim and Gezi Park on 12th June. He was joined by 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 in London with the movement in Turkey. Oktay thanked the NSSN for their 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 Oktay emphasised that the movement has helped to break down divisions between Turks, Kurds, Alevi’s 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.
The Bedroom Tax has provoked one of the biggest grass roots campaigns since the coming to power of the coalition. NSSN supporters have thrown themselves into organising anti-bedroom tax campaigns across the country. A special session on 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 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 tax payer funded mansions! To a standing ovation Tommy 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 importance 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, an organisation that played a key role in driving the BNP out of Tower Hamlets and fighting for justice for Steven Lawrence in the early 90’s. 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 effected should look to set up their own inquiry.
In contrast to 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 important 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 exploring the causes of the economic crisis. A central part of this material will explain that crisis is an organic part of the capitalist system.
Steve Gillan responded to the governments 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” A perfect 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 were inevitable under capitalism. The struggle in the workplaces and the communities against day to day attacks are important but it must also include a political expression and a socialist alternative.
This was a theme of the conference from the outset as John Reid reported that the RMT conference affirmed that it would use all its resources to campaign for the replacement of the capitalist system with a democratic socialist system.
By the end of the conference delegates went away armed with the ideas and tactics to change our movement in order to change our society.