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Shop stewards conference: Workers and war
THE SECOND conference of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) took place in London on 28 June, attended by around 300 people. In addition to the plenary sessions (see The Socialist, issue 540), there were nine workshops, covering issues such as privatisation, organising migrant workers and political representation. Below, Tom Baldwin reports on the Trade unions and the war discussion. (For more information about the NSSN visit the website www.shopstewards.net)
THE WORKSHOP on trade unions and the war at the National Shop Stewards Network conference focussed on Iraq and Afghanistan and the power organised workers have to stop imperialist war.
All contributors agreed that trade unions, through industrial action, can be more effective than street demonstrations and that a general strike could have averted the war on Iraq. While some people were more derisory about the role of demonstrations, the first speaker, from Leicestershire Postal Workers Against the War, explained the effect they can have in building opposition.
He described how the two million-strong demo of 15 February 2003 had generated discussion about the war in the workplace and given confidence to those workers who wanted to do something about it.
By linking the war and occupation to the attacks that the postal workers themselves were facing at work they managed to build a good group of activists. They have won a victory in stopping military recruiters coming in to their sorting office by threatening to all immediately down tools the next time one is sent.
He also described how this has strengthened the union, with those workers who became active around the anti-war campaign becoming politicised and going on to become union reps.
The next two speakers were from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and are dockers from the west coast of America. They reported on the inspirational strike that their union took on May Day this year against the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jack Heyman gave the background to the strike and spoke of the union's proud history in organising international solidarity action. In the past they had refused to load weapons for the Pinochet regime in Chile and apartheid South Africa and had supported the Liverpool dockers.
The strike was pushed by a resolution from the militant San Francisco Bay branch calling for a 24-hour stoppage against the war "for oil and empire." This was carried after the impassioned support of Vietnam war veterans in the union swung people behind it.
The strike received a lot of support from around the world but most impressive was a one-hour solidarity strike from the Iraqi dock workers.
Anthony, the other ILWU speaker explained the risks and sacrifice the strike had meant to workers in Oakland. Dockers are employed on a lottery system and the job is seen as an escape from violence and poverty, especially for black workers.
Overall the session was a reminder of the enormous potential strength of the working class and showed why war should be a trade union issue. What also came through was the need to strengthen workers' consciousness and confidence to build a movement that can stop the next imperialist adventure.
Supporters of the Shop Stewards Network in north east England have called a public meeting for Saturday 2 August, 11am-1pm, Shakespeare Hall, North Road, Durham. The subject is: "The way forward for the rank and file in the unions."
In The Socialist 16 July 2008:
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party campaigns
Workplace news and analysis
The Socialist Comment
Socialist Party review