Britain: National Shop Stewards’ Network Conference Confident and Enthusiastic


Dave Gorton, Unite 1/372 branch delegate, personal capacity

Saturday June 27, 2009 may well be remembered for the day the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) really came into its own. As stewards continued to flood into the opening rally of the 3rd annual conference throughout the morning, there was a building feeling of confidence and enthusiasm. This mood continued to grow throughout the day and the vast majority of those attending filed out in the late afternoon exhilarated by the day’s proceedings.

Two weeks ago, delegates at the Unison public service union conference were treated to an hour-long lecture in how to negotiate redundancies. In just quarter of an hour Keith Gibson, from the Lindsey Oil Refinery strike committee, detailed to the NSSN conference how to stop redundancies… and without trading other benefits into the bargain!

What a clear demonstration of the difference in approach between class fighters in the movement and the majority of the official trade union bureaucracy.

Just two days before the conference, construction workers at Lindsey had won a victory in their struggle. 650+ sacked workers reinstated and the 51 redundancies that triggered the strike action withdrawn. Keith highlighted the solidarity action at other plants (up to 30 around the UK); illegal action which showed how workers can just brush aside the anti-union legislation.

This was a theme which the opening speaker Brian Caton, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, had concentrated upon. “When you use direct action, that’s when you begin to see change… when we’ve got bad laws, we should break them”. Brian finished his contribution with “Let’s keep pressing for a workers’ party”, a rallying call heard repeatedly throughout the day.

Keith also expressed the Lindsey workers’ discontent and confusion at some on the left of the movement who refused to support their struggles in January and February, ridiculously claiming the strikes were xenophobic. These groups had aligned themselves with the right-wing media and bosses.

Belatedly trying to correct their mistakes, these groups supported the more recent strike but to cover their tracks, somehow claimed there was a difference between the January and June action.

As Keith said, both strikes were: “pure and simple class issues about bosses attacking workers”. And to denounce the plainly incorrect claims about racism and xenophobia, Keith detailed the letters of support from trade unions across Europe: “[This week] we scored a tremendous victory for workers nationally and internationally.”

Postal workers are gearing up for a national strike in the wake of the marvellous action in London recently. Mark Palfrey, a London Divisional rep from the CWU explained that over 30,000 jobs had gone in the postal industry in the last three years.

Postal workers in London were now seriously questioning the union’s link with Labour which the majority of the national leadership clings to.

Moves were afoot to defy the leaders and ballot all London postal workers on whether they wished to retain that link.

He expressed the amazement of many that whilst workers were up in arms about MPs with their snouts in the trough, the silence from the TUC and union general secretaries had been deafening.

Owen Morris, another engineering construction steward and organiser of the picket at London’s Olympic stadium site, explained the transient nature of such workers’ jobs. Three weeks on a job, possibly hundreds of miles from home, then just three days leave with their families. Owen also raised the issue of the employers’ blacklists: “If you work safely you become a ‘troublemaker’, are blacklisted and can’t work again”.

To a rousing reception, newly elected Socialist MEP for Dublin, Joe Higgins, was the last platform speaker. Eloquently detailing the crisis of capitalism, both in Ireland and internationally, he explained how socialists in Ireland had kept loyal to the working class and how that loyalty had paid off with the outstanding victory in the European elections.

The Socialist Party defeated the ruling Fianna Fáil so that the main capitalist party in Ireland, in the capital city, was left without a seat!

There was some time for speakers from the floor and delegates heard inspiring contributions from, amongst others, workers campaigning for Justice for the Shrewsbury 24 [trade unionists convicted during the 1972 building workers’ dispute], from Robbie Segal who polled over 40% in last year’s Usdaw general secretary election, from Dave Nellist highlighting the Campaign for A New Workers’ Party and another leading Lindsey activist, John McEwan who asked “What anti-trade union laws?”!

“Campaigning works, action gets results”
by Pauline Vickers

The closing rally was kicked off by John McInally, PCS vice president and member of the Socialist Party. “Campaigning works, action gets results” said John “leaders must lead!”

His own union PCS, is free of the shackles of affiliation to New Labour and the illusion that cosying up to the political establishment will deliver a better deal. The demand at their conference was not just for a fightback against the onslaught of public sector cuts we are facing. It was also for expansion of public services as the recession tightens its grip and the pressures on those services and the workers that deliver them become greater than ever.

Andy Littlechild from the RMT tube-workers spoke about the ‘hardball’ game being played with trade unions. The employers are dragging their feet in the current dispute in the hope that the mood of the membership will ‘go off the boil’. But further action is planned in July.
Clara Osagiede, the RMT Cleaners Grade Secretary for the London Underground tells NSSN conference 2009 of the cleaners

Clara Osagiede, the RMT Cleaners Grade Secretary for the London Underground tells NSSN conference 2009 of the cleaners’ struggle for a living wage, photo Socialist Party

Conference heard from Clara Osagiede on the London Underground cleaners’ struggle to win the London Living Wage after years of exploitation on poverty wages. The RMT balloted the cleaning workers who voted unanimously for two day action and won a wage increase to £7.45/hour.

Two days later union activists were sacked and suspended by letter and a campaign of bullying of this group of workers by the immigration office began. Clara raised the demand for dignity and respect and an end to the 18th century conditions that still exist for her group of workers – no pension scheme and forced to pay to travel on the tube trains that they clean!

Dave Chappell, chairing the rally, condemned Unison’s witch-hunt of key Socialist Party and other left activists and its attempt to impose an ‘official ban’ on involvement with NSSN in the North East region.

Antonia Bright reported from the campaign at the School Of African and Oriental Studies in London on another group of cleaning workers. They have organised in Unison to win union recognition and raised their pay to the London Living Wage. They now face brutal criminalisation by their private employer ISS.

Two weeks ago this group of Latin American workers was locked into a room, denied representation and interrogated. Workers were immediately deported following the raid and two remain in detention with a lobby of the Home Office planned to demand that they be granted leave to remain.

Linda Taaffe, national secretary of NSSN, looked back over the events and struggles of the past year of economic turmoil and the key role that the NSSN has played, raising its banner at the centre of each of the struggles.

John Maguire, Unite convenor at Visteon Belfast where car workers occupied the factory when the plant went into administration, called for the books to be opened on union general secretaries’ expenses and for the election of full time union officials. This got a great reception. He warned that ‘Visteon part 2′ was coming soon in the fight to defend workers’ pensions.

The final speaker of the day was Rob Williams, Unite convenor at the Linamar car components factory in Swansea, Socialist Party member and vice-chair of NSSN. Rob won an inspiring victory against his unjustifiable sacking by a management who mistakenly thought they could get the militant union fighter out of their plant in order to lower terms and conditions. They hadn’t bargained for the shopfloor walkout and an 88% vote for all-out strike action.

Rob was given a standing ovation at the end of a victory speech. It boosted the confidence of any trade union activist or member with their backs against the wall and the stark choice to either give in or stand and fight.

“There have been too many hard luck stories in the car industry,” said Rob, “employers using the recession to try to smash our terms and conditions and plunder our pensions. There is no mystery to the magnificent victories won at Linamar, Visteon and Lindsey over the recent few months,” explained Rob, “they have been won through leadership, strategy and grass roots organisation- the weapons at our disposal!”

And so the 400 delegates and visitors left the conference to go into the battles looming or already being fought in their workplaces. They are not prepared to be yet another hard luck story.

As Rob Williams said: “If you fight you may not win but if you don’t fight you will definitely lose!”

Joe Higgins’ speech to NSSN conference
‘We need fighting representatives on a worker’s wage’

Joe Higgins, the newly elected Socialist Party MEP for Dublin, Ireland, addressed the delegates and visitors to the National Shop Stewards Network conference in London last Saturday, 27 June. The Socialist prints below exerts from his inspiring speech.

Click here for videos (in three parts) of Joe’s speech

“I think it is timely and appropriate that representatives of working people in Britain are discussing the theme of ‘stop the race to the bottom, how workers can win.’ Because with the crisis of capitalism on an international scale we have a huge intensification of exploitation by employers and corporations, a squeeze on the wages and working conditions of ever larger groups of workers.

In the Irish Republic we have an absolute crisis of capitalism due to the general international crisis that is raging but then intensified massively by a property crash.

There has been a ten year orgy of outright profiteering, particularly in housing, with young working people seeing the price of an ordinary family home increase fourfold – making incredible profits for the speculators, the developers, the big builders and the banks.

It has resulted in a generation of workers who now are saddled with huge 40 year mortgages, whereas their parents had 20 year mortgages. And these mortgages are at an unsustainable rate in terms of the amount of their income that it will take to try to meet the repayments.

Virtually a quarter of the economy was handed over to the speculators and the developers, with the whole tax base contingent on that for a ten year period.

But every property boom and bubble is going to burst with huge consequences, which the ruling class didn’t want to know about in the context of the massive profits they were raking in. In fact the Fianna Fail government actually slashed the taxes on the speculators and developers.

Now we have the inevitable crash and the inevitable theme that it is the working class which is being asked to pay lock, stock and barrel for this crisis.

The same government that presided over this economic bubble and then over the disaster is now trying to find a solution by savaging the wages and living standards of the working class. Not just by increases in taxation which have been implemented in the last few months but by savage, direct cuts – especially in the public sector workers’ wages of nurses, teachers, council staff, etc.

So, many workers on average wages are now carrying cuts directly from €1,000 to €3,000 and €4,000 a year. It is an incredible assault on their living standards and also there is a huge attack on services like health and education.

So, in other words, capitalism can only survive now by an all-out onslaught on the living standards of the working class to try and make their economy competitive again.

And what we are told now by the IMF and other agencies is that it’s a four or five year program of such cuts. This year alone nearly 10% of the economy will be cut. But at a time when leadership was never more needed, the leaders of the official trade union movement have gone underground!

We had a magnificent 120,000 workers on the streets of Dublin on one Saturday in February, against these savage attacks.

There was the potential for a massive fightback. The low and middle income public-sector workers had a very successful one-day strike, but then just when things could have been carried forward to a huge battle (and there was the potential for a massively successful general strike of at least one day’s duration), we had utter capitulation from the leadership of the trade unions. They opted to go and talk to the government.

Gama dispute

In Ireland, the Socialist Party has shown in action how attacks like this and how the exploitation of the workers in ‘the race to the bottom’ could be fought.

In 2005 we found a major Turkish multinational company called Gama which had 1,000 imported workers from Turkey and who had got big government contracts for roads and power stations etc. The workers were isolated, living in horrible sheds on the building sites and, incredibly, were being paid €2.20 an hour for an 80-hour week. That regime had gone on for four years!

We were able to use the position we had in the Irish parliament at that stage to burst this story into the open. It caused a massive shock and led to a tremendous strike of about 400 of the workers, braving huge pressure from the management.

For two months a hard battle was fought eventually resulting in a victory for those workers. We said in the course of that action that a victory for those workers is a guarantee against ‘the race to the bottom’. By stopping this example of exploitation then the bosses are stopped in their tracks from undermining the wages and conditions of Irish-born workers or migrant workers.

In 1994-96 we had a massive community wide campaign in the greater Dublin area against a water tax. We led a movement of opposition against that, based on the boycott of this tax. We had tens of thousands of people refusing to pay and being threatened and intimidated with water disconnection.
European election

These struggles featured in the European elections in Dublin on 5 June. There were four outgoing seats – Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein. This was reduced to three seats, so one of the sitting MEPs was going to lose out. You can imagine the nature of the battle for their careers and position!

We decided in the Socialist Party that we had to stand in that election. We stood on two key themes – working people should not pay for the crisis they did not cause. We demanded a fightback and no cuts. Secondly, was the idea of a socialist alternative. Capitalism had failed and was wreaking havoc on the living standards and services of working people.

We put forward a radical programme against the financial crisis for the nationalization of the banks, under democratic ownership and control and also the nationalization of major companies which were sacking workers.

There was one huge example in Dublin at the time. A company called SR Technics which had 1,150 highly skilled aircraft maintenance workers at Dublin airport. It was privatized ten years ago. A few months before the election the new owners convened the workers in a hangar to tell them they had all lost their jobs.

We immediately demanded the renationalisation of that plant. They had three years work and 60 apprentices. We called on the workers to occupy and campaign for renationalisation.

Unfortunately that did not happen. If those workers had a few shop stewards like the Lindsey oil refinery stewards, who had an understanding of how a battle could have been engaged, that could have been an historic struggle.

But in the course of the election campaign we were able to argue what should have happened and also what the programme of a fightback should be.

People saw our record over a decade or two that the Socialist Party fights uncompromisingly for the interests of working people, even if they did not fully agree with a socialist program. That was what led to our victory on 5 June.

This rocked the establishment parties. The main capitalist party in the capital city was left without a seat. And that was done by the socialists.

I represent just one seat in the 700 plus seats in the parliamentary meetings in Strasbourg. It will be rather difficult to use it as a platform [for socialism], although we will try to. Most of my action is outside parliament amongst the working class and the labor movement.

We have to build solidarity across borders as well. Just as the Totals and the rest of them are massively organized and they can dictate policy to the European commission, the working class needs a similar level of organization.

Our first challenge is the referendum on the Lisbon treaty in Ireland in October. We defeated a similar referendum last year. The ruling classes in Europe went berserk because it derailed their plans for an intensification of neo-liberalism and militarization.

Political representation for the working class is assuming ever more urgency. The vacuum on the left is huge. We must keep raising the need for a new political voice for working people, with fighting representatives who will live on the average worker’s wage plus legitimate expenses. We need representatives who will be democratically accountable to their parties, and uncompromising fighters on each issue and on the need to transform our society. That is the challenge that faces us.

But we cannot simply wish this into existence. The struggles of working people will throw up the need for clear, class-based representation. That goes hand in hand with the industrial and community struggles that will build a new alternative to allow working people to take control of society and resolve the horrific problems that workers have to deal with.”

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