Wednesday, 17 September 2008

North Staffs NSSN Launched

North Staffs branch of the National Shop Stewards' Network got off to a flying start this evening. Participants from the UCU, Unison, CWU, PCS, Unite and North Staffs TUC were present. Chairing the proceedings was AVPS's very own Brother S.

Sheila Cohen, our visiting speaker from the national steering committee of the NSSN began with a potted history of the network, of how it started as an initiative from the RMT looking to experiment with new forms of activism in the wake of that union's ejection from Labour. Its aim is to bring rank and file trade unionists together to help rebuild the strength of our movement from the bottom up. This can be done by exchanging information and encouraging solidarity between far flung workplaces. To this end another key objective of the NSSN is to act as a clearing house for workers in struggle, as a means for disseminating information about disputes and strikes and bringing solidarity to bear. But this also requires an expansion of the network into a truly mass movement, a position it's nowhere near at the moment but could become as our rulers try to make workers pay for the crisis of their making.

As if to demonstrate this, one of the Burslem 12 talked about how the self-inflicted difficulties that have been plaguing Royal Mail these last few years have been paid by increasing the exploitation heaped onto workers. Changes to work patterns, more work for no extra money, "macho" managers - they're all part of the same package. Anyone who stands up against this culture are targeted by management and picked off. This is why a movement is needed, to ensure they cannot get away with this.

Pete McNally of the NSSN SC and ASLEF (speaking in a personal capacity) suggested that the time is right for the NSSN to have emerged onto the scene. Workers are facing attacks on every front - prices are rising while wages are stagnating, in real terms. And yet the bosses tell us they have to keep a lid on wages to stop inflation rising, as if spiralling food prices have anything to do with the tens of pence per hour most workers can expect by way of a wage increase. Coupled with the steady rise in the number of strike days and growing unemployment there is a good chance the unions could be shook up in the near future as more and more workers are forced into struggle.

From the chair, S gave a short contribution on the situation at Keele, where the struggle won concessions from management. It was magnificent to see so much of the local labour movement and unions from outside North Staffs descend upon Keele on April 4th to demonstrate against management's cuts. It sends the message that instead of taking on a local association, the bosses were up against the wider labour movement. This is why solidarity is important. We need to move from the mindset that see things as 'PCS struggles' and 'CWU disputes' but as workers' struggles we all have a stake in. This is where the NSSN can come into its own.

We heard a series of contributions from the floor. One postal worker said there was nothing better than receiving visitors on the picket line, and it's something that always worries management and, occasionally, higher union officials don't like to see. For the union tops its about keeping a handle on a particular dispute, for management it's the avoidance of embarrassment and publicity. Perversely keeping an action isolated and unremarked is in both their interests. Another added that last year's successful action by the POA talk just two phone calls from the leadership - the rest was self-organising. The NSSN has the potential for facilitating this kind of action across the labour movement.

A argued we were forever being told that action is doomed to defeat, but that simply isn't the case. In Swansea at Visteon a successful struggle saw workers maintain their pay and conditions after the company was sold off, including a fiver per cent pay increase. In Greenwich, Unison was able to wage a successful fight against the local authority's attempt to reduce some workers' wages to pay for rises in others in the name of single status by winning equal pay without any losses for anyone. It shows that where a lead can be given victory is possible. A key task for the NSSN is to act as a pressure on union leaders to give that lead.

Another of the Burslem 12 made some observations about struggle. Recalling the days when he used to lug 8-10 sacks of mail per day to Robbie William's house when he still lived in Stoke, it was more a less a case of it going in through the front and straight out the back. And it's the same with petitions also. Struggle requires direct action and militancy. As valuable as initiatives like the NSSN are it's not enough in itself - a new party that speaks up for workers is needed. What this means for the NSSN politically is it should try and make Labour work, but if it fails it shouldn't be afraid of trying something else.

In short this was an excellent beginning for North Staffs NSSN. The meeting appointed a local steering committee and solidarity actions with local struggles are planned. The aim now is to reach out to greater layers of trade unionists and make our local movement into something that will give Potteries' bosses sleepless nights.

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