Tuesday, 11 September 2012
NSSN lobby demands a 24-hour general strike
'TUC - name the date' By editor of the Socialist Sarah Sachs-Eldridge Given the weather forecast Brighton was the obvious destination on Sunday 9 September. But for up to 1,000 trade unionists and anti-cuts activists, boarding early morning transport from as far afield as Wales, Plymouth, Manchester, Yorkshire and Birmingham, and coming from all across the south and east of England, the appeal wasn't just a day in the sun. With the TUC holding its 2012 Congress in the seaside city this was a chance to demand that the official leadership of the labour movement steps up action against a long winter of austerity, threatened, if we don't stop it, to last for years. The march, rally and lobby organised by the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) called on the trade union leaders to coordinate action in a 24-hour general strike. History in the making Closing the magnificent rally Rob Williams, NSSN national chair, described those attending as 'history makers'. Despite attempts by soon-to-be-replaced TUC general secretary Brendan Barber to pour on cold water, all the news around the Congress featured the question of a general strike. Even before the coaches departed, it was clear that momentum for coordinated strike action was building. The delegation for Unison, the biggest public sector union, we learned through Twitter, had voted to support the Prison Officers' union (POA) motion, 'Motion 5'. It says: "Congress accepts that the trade union movement must continue leading from the front against the uncaring government with a coalition of resistance taking coordinated action where possible with far reaching campaigns including the consideration and practicalities of a general strike." Earlier on, Brighton's sun-seekers may have been a little surprised to see hundreds of trade unionists marching - but the placards, banners and chants made it clear what we were about: "Cuts, job losses, money for the bosses - if these are things that you don't like - join the fight for a general strike!" Even some of those sent to police the march couldn't hide their sympathy for our demand. Why is such action needed - and so supported? There isn't a worker, benefit claimant, young person or pensioner who doesn't know about austerity. In the autumn sunshine activists described the cold cruelty of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Outdoor rally and march Even earlier, at the pre-march rally starting just after 1pm, Phil Clarke from Brighton Trades Council welcomed us to a city whose workers have been serious about fighting cuts. 10,000 marched on the 30 November public sector strike day. The demand for further coordinated action was hugely popular. Katrine Williams from the Wales Shop Stewards Network and NSSN steering committee chaired this rally. Martin Powell-Davies, member of the national executive of the NUT teaching union, outlined the government's campaign to take education back to the 19th century under Michael the 'grade-snatcher' Gove and his 'free school' movement. Nancy Taaffe, a library worker sacked through the cuts, celebrated the victory of the working class of Waltham Forest against the racist and hooligan English Defence League. But, she warned, the far right cannot be beaten by mounting counter-demos against them alone. She explained that the working class must be at the centre of that fight to show that the way to defeat poverty and austerity is through a mass united movement of the working class - not the hatred and division of the EDL. On behalf of Youth Fight for Jobs and Education Claire Laker-Mansfield pointed to the gross hypocrisy of pampered David Cameron talking about the 'privilege of getting work experience' through the government's slave labour workfare schemes. How far is this from the PM's own privileged youth? Steve Hedley, recently elected assistant general secretary of one of the most militant unions, the RMT transport union, spoke next. Following on from Claire he pointed out how young people had broken the right-wing consensus when they protested against education cuts - but that action by the organised working class was necessary to win the battle against austerity. President of the PCS civil service union Janice Godrich thanked the NSSN and made it clear that lobbying the TUC, the trade union leadership, is a crucial task for the left. She said she would not have believed that there could be a tied vote at the general council, a traditionally conservative body to say the least, on a motion calling for a general strike to be considered. But there was, and, she finished, the task for the TUC now is not only to consider such action but to deliver it. "Join the union, join the fight - build a one-day general strike" rang out, as the ranks of trade union banners and NSSN placards processed through the city. So too did appeals for support from labour movement veterans, such as former Liverpool Labour councillor Tony Mulhearn and former Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist. And the march swelled as it made its way to the rallying point at the Metropole hotel on the seafront. The trade union crowd Linda Taaffe, NSSN national secretary, welcomed us and set out the task of the rally. This was not an opportunity to recount statistics that illustrate the horror of the Con-Dems' austerity programme, appalling as they are; this was a chance for us to set out what we are going to do about it. Linda, referring to the crowd that booed Tory Chancellor George Osborne at the Paralympics, described the rally as representing an even bigger and much more powerful crowd - the trade union crowd of six and a half million people. This crowd was also very vocal - spontaneously applauding bold demands for mass action. The first speaker was Brighton activist and member of Unison's higher education group executive (HESGE) Shona McCulloch. She explained that, given her union's attacks on socialist and left activists, she had to speak in a personal capacity. She smashed the idea put forward by right-wing trade union leaders that 'strike fatigue' had set in after the superb action on 30 November. In fact the opposite was the case as the HESGE proved by voting to ballot for two days' strike action over pay. RMT general secretary Bob Crow was up next. He made it absolutely clear that his union was backing the POA motion. He also ridiculed claims that the trade union movement was dead saying he saw a lot of lively corpses marching on the 26 March TUC demo last year. But, he argued, more was needed. "Demos are fantastic for raising consciousness... but the only thing the Con-Dems will understand is economic austerity from workers" in the form of generalised strike action. He finished by demanding that the TUC not only vote for general strike action, but that a date is named as soon as possible after the 20 October demo. Solidarity A victim of the cuts followed. But Mark Holloway, convenor of Remploy in Barking, east London, showed huge determination to fight back, as have his comrades, by striking across the country. He explained that Remploy workplaces represent much more than factories: they are "small communities" and give families and carers much-needed respite. The standing ovation Mark received was testament to the huge solidarity for the Remploy trade union fighters. Steve Gillan, general secretary of the POA prison officers' union, explained that the Remploy closures were part of his union's motivation when they put forward Motion 5. When the Con-Dems are tearing the fabric out of society while bailing out the banks, the trade unions have a responsibility to give a lead. It's not the first time the POA has called for a general strike, but this time, he explained, they have sought wider trade union support with the aim of letting both the government and New Labour know that enough is enough. With regard to the anti-trade union laws Steve explained that there was no intention to be reckless and risk sequestration - but that the best way to get rid of that repressive legislation was by pushing it aside. Unison NEC member April Ashley, speaking in a personal capacity, made an appeal for solidarity with striking miners in South Africa. Earlier a Belgian rail worker had brought solidarity greetings from his union and a message of support was given from the Conlutas left trade union federation in Brazil. Strikes can win As at the June annual NSSN conference Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, explained the importance of the NSSN's lobbies. Last December when the right-wing leaders of the TUC and unions such as Unison and GMB sold out the 30 November strike he and the left union leaders appreciated the support outside as they argued to continue coordinated action. Mark confirmed support for general strike action and said that as soon as the teachers' unions set a date for strike action in the autumn, the PCS would meet to organise to join them. He gave very concrete proof of how effective it is to challenge the cuts - 1,000 jobs created in HMRC where strike action has taken place and 1,100 in the Home Office. Huge applause met his final remarks: the Tories appear to be having internal difficulties. The best thing we can do on behalf of the people of this country is, when they're down, to kick them! Steve, an electrician and Unite member, spoke about the campaign against the Besna contract, which threatened pay cuts of around 35%, but led to unofficial action and the seven construction companies backing down. Strategy Rob Williams explained the approach of the NSSN to fighting the cuts and the misery they bring. "We welcome the 20 October demonstrations - we'll do whatever we can to build for a million on the streets in London and Belfast and Glasgow - but we are right to ask the question of what comes after. "What is necessary to resist the 85% of Con-Dem cuts still to come?" He referred to the disgrace of on average one food-bank opening every week, saying: "If you're looking for a reason [to strike] this week - let's have one on pay, or pensions or privatisation, or redundancies - but let's coordinate." "So if teachers could be taking action, and if the PCS could be taking action, and all those in the middle of a four year pay freeze could be taking action and we put the call out to those in the private sector to coordinate their planned action - eg workers at a Remploy factory, or the sparks if the bosses don't honour the agreement or the rail workers or the bus workers - it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could go out on strike on the same day." He called on the hundreds of TUC delegates, trade union leaders and activists and anti-cuts campaigners in the huge room to take the NSSN's model motion back to all the regions, workplaces and union branches. Summing up the NSSN's tasks Rob said we have to "say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done." Fight is on Linda was then able to close the rally on a huge positive with the report that Unison's delegation, possibly meeting in the same hotel and hearing the cheering from the indoor rally, had voted to join the pro-strike consensus. At this news of Unison being shifted to the left the rally rose to its feet. The significance of such action, only the start of what is needed, cannot be underestimated. It would be the first general strike since 1926 and would transform the situation. It would allow working class people to sense their power and strength as the most significant social force in society. Kicking out the Con-Dem coalition, fracturing and isolated, would be an obvious next step. Following the rally, the lobby of the TUC a few doors down outside the Brighton Centre was a celebration of a historic day. The fight to get a coordinated 24-hour general strike is definitely on - and we had all played a part. The chant went up: "TUC - name the date!"