As seven workers from Honda Swindon were leaving the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) conference on Saturday 11 June, one car worker remarked: "I wish we could have brought a coachload!".
This was a typical reaction amongst the 350 workers attending the best conference NSSN has held so far, a regular event that is rapidly becoming a feature in the calendar of the labour movement.
Rob Williams, NSSN chair, speaking at National Shop Stewards Network Conference June 2011, photo by Socialist Party (Click to enlarge)
It was a solid working-class trade union conference getting ready for the huge struggles ahead, aware of the difficulties but ready for the fight. Opening the conference, NSSN chair Rob Williams pointed out that we were meeting just 19 days before a real milestone - the 30 June joint strike of teachers and civil servants against the pensions robbery.
Martin Powell Davies from the National Union of Teachers national executive remarked: "The school hall we are meeting in is packed full today; on 30th June it will be totally empty." Janice Godrich, president of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) declared that 30 June should not just be a protest strike but a day to light a spark that will give confidence to all other public sector unions to join in and swell the force to four million workers for more strikes in the autumn.
Mark Palfrey, London Communication Workers Union (CWU), said that although his union was not yet joining the action it would respect all picket lines and he and others would be doing what they can to get the union on board, especially now that mail privatisation and closures are on the cards again.
Alex Gordon, RMT president, photo by Socialist Party (Click to enlarge)
Alex Gordon, Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) president, reminded delegates about the biggest ever trade union demonstration that was held on 26th March, showing what the TUC can do when it lifts its little finger.
But he urged that this event should not be squandered. The correct conclusions about the way forward must be drawn.
A general strike is needed. The £81 million of cuts so far are only year one of the Tory programme.
The NSSN will work with unions and anti-cuts campaigns everywhere to demand that councillors refuse to implement cuts.
He noted that NSSN also provides a valuable space to discuss serious arguments on strategy, which are bound to become sharper. Those who walked out of the NSSN in January after a democratic and open discussion on exactly this issue of strategy, have in fact left NSSN stronger and more active. (We understand a couple of those detractors snooped into the conference hall simply to do a headcount!)
Conference gave a very warm reception to Les Woodward from GMB Remploy. In very colourful and bold language he described how the disabled are getting a kicking from the "Tory Taliban" with closures and cutbacks in Remploy factories and are in line for even more rubbish to be heaped on them.
But the thousands of disabled are ready to fight factory by factory, and he appealed to the "temporarily-abled" for solidarity. Conference agreed to support a motion to oppose closures of Remploy factories and to send protest postcards to Iain Duncan Smith MP.
Wide range of contributions
National Shop Stewards Network Conference June 2011, photo by Socialist Party (Click to enlarge)
But the conference was not all 'top table'. There was a whole range of marvellous contributions, both from trade unionists in leading positions and from rank and file workers struggling in the workplaces.
Every contribution was interesting and informative. 51% of workers in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are on wages too low to be covered by the wage freeze.
Pensioners are gearing up for a fight to defend the welfare state. And Tony Mulhearn one of the 'Liverpool 47' councillors who led a magnificent anti-cuts struggle in the 1980s, lambasted New Labour councillors today who use their re-election, not to fight cuts but to vote through cuts; who organise celebrations for dead working class heroes while denouncing living fighters who want to make a stand now.
He praised NSSN for putting these councillors on the spot.
The conference was practical too. At the six working-lunch regional get-togethers, delegates planned how NSSN in their areas could assist and build for 30 June and start planning for the NSSN lobby of the TUC in September, as a way of implementing the NSSN statement agreed in the morning session.
'The Right to Strike' theme of the afternoon session was recognition that whilst we are preparing for mass action, the bosses are too. The representatives of the rich and powerful are ready to introduce even more draconian laws to restrict strikes. Boris Johnson and Vince Cable have made that absolutely clear.
But on the ground even now a raw battle is being waged. Individuals who stand up, get sacked.
Frank Morris described his blacklisting from the Olympics site. Tube drivers Arwyn Thomas and Eamon Lynch outlined how they were sacked for participating in legal industrial action.
The RMT has backed them to the hilt, balloting every London Underground member for four days of strike action, due soon. John Hancock from the Prison Officers Association (POA) national executive explained in a speech very complimentary of the NSSN, that POA is banned from striking, but that pressure is building up to break those restrictions, especially because of the drive for privatisation.
Paul Callanan of Youth Fight for Jobs (YFJ) described how youth and students suffered police kettling tactics during the student protests, but that with youth unemployment getting worse and university fees skyrocketing, the best form of defence is attack.
They aim to bring together youth, students and trade unionists on a new Jarrow march in October. And Keith Gibson, who spoke at the NSSN conference two years ago about the victory of construction workers at Lindsay Oil Refinery against all odds, gave us, in his bold inimitable style, a vivid account of a recent battle at Saltend, near Hull, where 400 construction workers were locked out.
Despite a willingness of the workforce to fight, the battle was eventually lost, unfortunately leaving many questions being asked of some trade union officials.
This theme was taken up in the many contributions from the floor, including by Unite convenor Paddy Brennan, who appealed to NSSN for assistance with current problems at Honda, where some time ago a no-strike deal was struck between Unite union officials and management.
Kathy from Bromley Unison also took up the issue of victimisation by a trade union leadership, but this time, she said it was not all bad news. She had stood for the Unison NEC in the seat of her union colleague Glenn Kelly who has been suspended from holding office by the right-wing union leadership ... and won! You can't keep down ideas whose time has come.
The problems we are all facing, ie the bosses and some labour leaders, are international. NSSN conference was asked to support a campaign by a group of stewards in the Lonmin Karee mine in South Africa.
9,000 were sacked but only 8,000 reinstated after stewards had challenged corruption between management and the leadership of NUM.
Towards the end of the conference we were very happy to hear from our Greek brothers and sisters once again. Apostolis Kasimeris of the Union of Public Transport Workers in Attica, Greece, gave a great account of the effects of the terrible IMF austerity measures on workers' living standards.
He described how the Greek workers are fighting back with actions like bus fare boycotts, but are being hamstrung by the cowardice of the union leadership who are hated by workers, and by the difficulties workers on the ground face in getting together to work out what to do after ten general strikes! Both he and his very able translator, Eleni, were given a well deserved standing ovation.
Chris Baugh, PCS Assistant Secretary, gave a rousing speech to close the conference, calling on all workers to make the 30 June action a resounding success.
The NSSN, as pointed out in the officers' report to the conference, has gone from strength to strength over the last year. The newly-elected Steering Committee of 24 trade unionists with positions in all the major unions will develop the work in conjunction with those in the regions.
The last year has seen the pace of events step up as the financial crisis deepens and the outline of the huge industrial struggles to come begins to take shape.
NSSN has increased its presence and will continue to develop a respected role in the labour movement. In the course of the conference John Hancock articulated similar ideas in his contribution: "Shop steward!" he said, "what wonderful words those are!" They conjure up days when the trade unions had real power.
We bear those words on our banner - and we intend to help our mighty unions realise that power again.
National Shop Stewards Network Conference Secretary's report
2010 - 2011
FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH
This last year has seen the pace of events step up as the financial crisis deepens, and the outline of the huge industrial struggles to come begin to take shape.
Over the last year the NSSN has increased its presence and continues to develop a respected role in the labour movement.
June 2010 The Annual Conference took place only a few weeks after the announcement of huge Coalition government cuts.
We welcomed leading trade unionists from Spain, Ireland and Greece involved in mass actions against their austerity cuts, and they had an enormous effect on everyone.
Delegates agreed to lobby the TUC to call a national demo, and urged everyone to get involved in, or set up, local anti-cuts campaigns to stop all local council cuts.
September 2010 The TUC lobby in Manchester attracted hundreds of trade unionists for an open air rally, a march - the first nationally against cuts - and then a very lively and enthusiastic indoor meeting.
Leading trade unionists like Bob Crow, Billy Hayes and Chris Baugh addressed the crowd alongside rank and file fighters on the ground. A fringe meeting was also organised later in the week addressed by Bob Crow and Linda Taaffe.
Under pressure from many forces the TUC finally agreed to organise a mass demo - six months down the line.
Better late than never!
October 2010 As councils begin cutting the fight-back gathers apace. The urgency for mass demonstrations as a first step gains ground, but unfortunately the bodies that could act decide to delay.
In London the NSSN worked jointly with leading RMT, FBU, PCS and NUT members to organise a demonstration, eventually going to a SERTUC event. On the day striking fire fighters led a lively, noisy and colourful march of around 4,000.
On the same day well attended marches took place in Bristol and Cardiff, as well as other places. It became clear that anti-cuts campaigners were forming the backbone of many local protests, and the NSSN needed to address this. The Steering Committee decided to call an NSSN Anti-Cuts Conference.
November and December 2010 Our attention was riveted by the mass of students from colleges and university pouring onto the streets in a show of protest that has not been seen for many years against skyrocketing fees.
They came in their thousand to London, were cruelly treated by the police, but lifted the spirits of many older trade unionists. NSSN participated in the demos and produced leaflets appealing for students to join forces with the trade unions as a realistic way forward.
January 2011 The Anti-Cuts Conference on January 22nd was the biggest NSSN conference so far with up to 600 attending. After an extremely democratic debate and discussion lasting all day the vote was overwhelmingly to set up an anti-cuts committee which included Alex Gordon RMT President, Ben Sprung London FBU, Martin Powell Davies NUT Executive, Katrine Williams Wales Chair PCS, and others.
The result has been that the NSSN has its own distinct role in the anti-cuts movement and has worked with the other anti-cuts organisations. The latest development being that we will be meeting the TUC on June 28th with Coalition of Resistance, People's Charter, Right to Work and UKUncut.
We have consistently fought on a "No to ALL cuts" platform and campaigned for the unions to co-ordinate strike action against the cuts.
February 2011 The Anti-Cuts Committee called a lobby of local anti-cuts campaigners and trade unionists to march to the Labour Local Government Leaders meeting near Westminster.
These 'leaders' of the labour movement were discussing - not how to rally opposition to cuts, but how to do the Tories' dirty work! With budget setting council meetings imminent the NSSN presented a petition calling on these leaders to invoke the spirit of Poplar, Clay Cross , Liverpool and Lambeth and join with trade unionists and anti-cuts campaigners to fight government cuts.
They accepted in good spirits but unfortunately not one Labour councillor in the whole country raised their hand against cuts when it came to the vote.
March 2011 This month was dominated by the build-up to the TUC demo. And what a demo! Over half a million trade unionist showed what can be achieved when the TUC just raises its little finger.
The NSSN and Anti-Cuts Committee prepared well to intervene on the day. 40,000 flyers were produced with 1,500 placards calling on the TUC to organise joint strike action.
A stage was set up at Speakers Corner with agreement from leading trade unionists to come and give a fighting alternative to the 'wait for a Labour government' answer that was coming from the main platform.
As it turned out the demo was so huge many speakers never made it! No matter, rank and file trade unionists stepped up from the crowd, spoke about their industry or area, and gave the same message - the need for a 24 hour public sector strike.
April 2011 The start of the conference season saw preparations put in place to hold official meetings, fringe meetings and stands in exhibition halls.
NSSN has had a presence at ALL trade union conferences, especially NUT, PCS, FBU and will hold an official fringe meeting at RMT later in June. The Wales Shop Stewards Network organised a successful anti-cuts conference attended by 80 union reps and anti-cuts campaigners, launching Wales Against the Cuts.
May 2011 NSSN had stalls at many May Day demos and events around the country. There are plans to cover the Durham Miners Gala, Tolpuddle and Burston in the next few weeks.
We are also supporting the ballot on the pensions' robbery in NUT and PCS, and look forward keenly to the joint strike day on June 30th, where we will support picket lines and distribute our NSSN bulletins.