“Capitalism is killing our people”

A report of the 2012 Midlands NSSN Conference by Dave Gorton (UNITE)

Craig Johnston from the RMT got the Midlands NSSN Conference off to a resounding start with the cry “never mind where the money’s coming from; where’s the money gone?” Transport workers were not going to take the blame for the capitalist crisis they hadn’t caused. Craig related the solidarity of railworkers such as those who were forced to strike on the Newcastle Metro – “not a wheel turned”. And it wasn’t just the so-called skilled workforce that were being represented; the RMT was now linking the claims and industrial action of cleaning staff up and down the country.

To continue an excellent beginning to the well-attended conference, Kevin Greenway from the PCS national executive gave a brief outline of the key tasks facing the movement after the necessary regrouping following the TUC’s failure to build on November 30th 2011 and in the light of the potentially momentous decision of this year’s Congress to assess the possibility of a one-day general strike. He emphasised that the question of political representation was a crucial aspect in the struggle and PCS members had understood this in their recent historic decision to support or stand candidates in elections where it would help defend members’ jobs or protect public services.

The organisers of the conference had decided to invite a number of key speakers and ask them to address those present for 5-10 minutes each, rather than have just 1 or 2 speakers for longer. This seemed to go down well as Craig and Kevin swapped places with national NSSN secretary Linda Taaffe and Dave Auger from UNISON. Linda brought the first international flavour to the day with some reminders of the huge movement of workers in Portugal, Spain and Greece just in the past few days. She reminded conference that, in Britain, despite membership losses during the recession, the trade union movement was still massive, accounting for 7 million workers. They were still very much the key organisations in the battles against cuts; the NSSN’s role was to help move the machinery of the big trade unions. “A hurricane is coming” predicted Linda.

Sadly having to remind everyone that it was important it was known he was speaking in a personal capacity, Dave Auger spelt out some of the frustrations UNISON members in the Midlands had felt over pensions, pay and cuts in local councils. Members had asked him how it was possible to sit on UNISON committees with other ‘activists’ who, as Labour Party councillors, were voting for cuts in their own councils.

Dave Gorton of UNITE who chaired the morning session introduced the final 2 speakers in Lee Barron, the midlands regional secretary of the CWU and, finally, the POA assistant general secretary, Joe Simpson. Lee congratulated the NSSN for organising the conference and said he was proud his union had been involved from the start. He believed it was the role of the trade union movement to put forward the alternative to the political position of cuts adopted by the main parties. He said he’d probably disagree with the majority in the room in that he believed it was better to fight within the Labour Party to try and win that party back for the movement, but he would join with all those seeking to protect the livelihoods of their members.

Joe Simpson began his contribution by saying how he hated speaking last, because he ended up changing his speech half a dozen times before starting! But he immediately, though in comradely fashion, rose to Lee’s challenge by saying that as long as he was active in the POA, they would never affiliate to Labour or trust them ever again. Joe related how his union (denied by law the right to strike) had ignored anti-union laws to protect members by taking strike action when necessary not when a political party or a judge said they could. “The only people who are going to stop what’s happening to us … is us”. And, of course, he gave some background to this year’s TUC Congress Motion 5 which called for consideration of a general strike and which he was proud of his union being the movers.

A lively debate ensued with excellent contributions from the floor by Judy Griffiths (CWU), Pete McNally (ASLEF), Dave Nellist (UNITE), Brian Loader (UNISON), Clive Walder (CWU), Jane Nellist (NUT) and Joe Foster (PCS). Several motions were moved and a message of support sent to workers at Manganese Bronze in Coventry (the assemblers of the famous black taxi cabs) facing closure.

After a short lunch break, the afternoon started with three workshops:- Organising in the workplace (facilitated by Clive Walder), Fighting to save our NHS (Dave Gorton) and Organising against the cuts (Paul Hunt). These met for almost an hour to discuss specific ways in which the NSSN could intervene within the region. Excellent, but brief, report-backs were given from the sessions by Drew Walton, Scott McKie and Clive Walder including some excellent initiatives such as producing a local NSSN bulletin, as an insert to the latest national NSSN NHS leaflet, on the massive ambulance station closures in the east midlands.

The closing session, chaired by Jane Nellist, was a short one led by Clive and Jane herself on strengthening the NSSN across the region. Paul Hunt also made a contribution on the situation in South Africa at present and the urgent need to raise finance for the striking miners. All the money collected from the selling of refreshments (special thanks to JP and Isla!) was donated to this cause.

The conference had attracted delegates from 10 unions, coming from as far and wide as Lincoln, Stoke, Northampton, Worcester and Wrexham – a huge area; there were speaking contributions from members of 8 of those unions and the overwhelming consensus as many of the delegates met for a comradely ‘half’ afterwards was that it had been a great success and there was determination to organise more local meetings of the NSSN across the region.