Saturday 28 June 2008

National Shop Stewards' Network Conference

I attended the second annual national conference of the NSSN, having been delegated by Keele UCU, and was glad I did. There were over 200 delegates and close to 100 observers. It was refreshing to see some new faces. Yes, there was a good turnout from a lot of the Socialist Party regulars, but the SP far from dominated the event. Dave Chapple of the CWU, National Chairperson of the NSSN, explained from the start that he was not ‘politically-affiliated’, and that the purpose of the network was ‘to build the strength of the grassroots movement up to what it was 30 years ago’. He also stressed that no one union dominated the network, and that if it did he would not be involved with the movement. He then introduced Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT.

There were several guest-speakers during the day, and I am not going to give a blow-by-blow account of ‘he said this’ and ‘she said that’. I will concentrate more on trying to describe the flavour of the event, and will provide just a snippet from each of the main speakers. For me, Bob Crow’s most interesting contribution was a call to change the rules of the TUC to allow trades councils to send delegates (as is the case Bob told us in Scotland, Wales and Ireland). He said that the TUC should be about more than general secretaries talking to other general secretaries. I agree with Bob as this would increase the potential influence of lay officials and help open up the TUC to the grassroots.

Onay Kasab of Unison did not say much (if anything) about the need for a shop stewards’ movement but he did highlight how grassroots activists are fighting back at the bureaucrats who were attempting to stifle them in his union. Onay is one of the activists currently being ‘witch-hunted’ in Unison for seemingly nothing more than exercising his right to free speech!

Karen Reissmann, also of Unison, spoke about her already well-documented struggle in which her branch were out for 42 days, and of how good it was to be on strike on April 23 with other public-sector workers and strikers from Fujitsu.

Brian Caton, general secretary of the POA, bemoaned the failure of the TUC to take on the fundamental issue of trade unionism, which he defined as rights and freedoms. He argued that when the TUC are asked to take the lead on this issue, "we give reports" is their reply. Brian, if I recall rightly, had a more robust answer to the problem - a general strike. Not surprisingly, this went down a storm with the delegates!

We then broke for lunch and for the modest sum of three quid enjoyed tea and a very varied selection of rolls. A big thank you to whoever organised that!

In the afternoon we had a choice of eight workshops to attend. I went to a session entitled ‘Organising in the workplace and young workers’. There was a panel of four from the PCS, CWU and Unite and the workshop was chaired by Sheila Cohen, a National Organiser of the NSSN. There were practical and positive contributions from both the panel and the floor. A delegate from BECTU explained that she was having trouble organising at the BBC and was given a wealth of advice from other participants. I was particularly interested to hear from one of the panel on his successes in organising in a largely unorganised workplace in Fujitsu.

The final session of the day started with varied and enthusiastic contributions from the floor, even if they weren’t always focussed on the need for a shop steward’s network! Sadly, we were then informed by Tony Mulhearn that Terry Fields, the former Militant MP, was dying from cancer and was not expected to last the hour. Obviously this was shocking news to everyone.

Linda Taaffe of the NUT, Secretary of the NSSN, then reviewed the progress of the movement over the last year. She reported that regional shop stewards’ networks had been set up in seven areas, and that there had been a fringe meeting at the TUC. Linda said that at the moment the movement had a founding policy but no rigid structures. However, it had intervened in a wealth of disputes. She urged everyone to go to the next meeting in their region and take a friend. She also urged us all to send a motion to our union branches to donate money to the movement.

Jack Hayman of the International Longshore Workers’ Union told conference of the current strikes against Bush’s policy in Iraq that were hitting the ports on the West Coast of the US. It was great to hear of trade union activism in the States, as we are often given the impression there is no real class struggle in North America. Jack’s appeal for solidarity naturally met with load applause.

Rob Williams of Unite then treated us to his typically rousing Welsh oratory and then Caroline Johnson of Unison told us of the recent inspiring dispute in Birmingham City Council. Janice Godrich, president of the PCS, was the final guest speaker. Janice told conference that her union had affiliated to NSSN and, importantly, had made a financial contribution!

It was a very good day. Refreshingly, there was an absence of sectarianism, and a real feeling of the left working together. I intend to support the next meeting in my region. As the recession deepens, employers are going to try and cut workers’ pay in real terms. These are ideal times for the left to come together and forge a renewal in trade unionism. Let us take this opportunity and get behind the NSSN!


Leftwing Criminologist said...

sounds like a really good conference. we launched a north wales stewards network about a month or so ago, but it's kind of awkward as everywhere's so damn isolated frome ach up here.

Phil said...

An excellent post, Brother S. Just a question - in the second paragraph you write "For me, Bob Crow’s most interesting contribution was a call to change the rules of the TUC to allow trades councils to send delegates (as is the case Bob told us in Scotland, Wales and Ireland)."

I assume this meant to allow trades councils to send delegates to TUC conference?

Anonymous said...

I think that is what he meant Phil.
I wasn't absolutely sure so I was deliberately vague.

Phil said...

I still think you should have mentioned sister J's contribution to the event, of shouting down a Spart as they got up to rant about the prison service ...