Saturday, 11 April 2009

shop stewards network

Wednesday evening's 'Recession and Resistance' meeting was a small step forward for rebuilding rank and file union resistance in Tyneside. It's a relief, when you consider the history of bickering and mutual suspicion on the left, to be able to have people from various socialist groups and traditions working together.

There's still some way to go, however, in really expanding the Shop Stewards Network (the meeting was organised by the North East SSN) to fulfil its potential. There were 40 people, which isn't bad, but it was overly dependent on the established organisations of the left. We need to find ways of reaching out to young workers, young unemployed people (unfortunately a growing constituency) and students to create a broad, militant grassroots movement.

The Gaza protests and occupations showed a new militancy on the streets and in the colleges, most obviously among students but in fact more broadly. And it would be naive to believe it's only about war and imperialism - the protest movement was sharpened, given an edge, by the economic crisis. It's also blindingly obvious by now that anti-capitalist sentiments enjoy sympathy like never before - petitioning to 'sack the bankers, not the workers' today the raw disgust people feel at the bank bailouts was tangible. The potential exists for a young, angry and political movement, centred on the issue of jobs but more powerful than a mere 'single-issue' campaign, feeding a possible revival in workers' struggle.

I suspect it will be common action around resisting job losses that takes us forward. It was striking that unemployment was the biggest topic of discussion. Graham Turner, left wing economist and author of The Credit Crunch, spoke eloquently about the severity of the recession (or depression - he said we should start talking of it in such terms), the centrality of unemployment to the crisis, and the urgent need for mass resistance to job cuts. Various contributions - including my own - focused on the jobs crisis and how we can build resistance.

There seemed to be agreement that practical solidarity with workers struggling to save their jobs - e.g. at Visteon - is vital, but the network still needs to plan what actions to take more generally. What can be done to strengthen the movement against us being made to pay for their crisis? This is one of the big challenges for the whole left, in the North East as everywhere else.

We aren't yet at the point where independent rank and file action by workers is a widespread reality. But we are also not still stuck in the era of defeats and passivity. Confidence is growing, but it's a process not an overnight situation, and you never know when something - a wildcat strike, an occupation - will spark much wider resistance. There's a new volatility since the crisis deepened last autumn - anything might happen.

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