SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 121 - September 2008

Prospects for the National Shop Stewards Network

BILL MULLINS, one of the co-organisers of the National Shop Stewards Network, looks at how the network can develop in the new economic and political conditions that are unfolding.

THE NATIONAL Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) came about as a result of an initiative of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union (RMT) who, at their annual general meeting in 2005, called for a conference to discuss the crisis of political representation for the trade unions. When this conference took place in January 2006 Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT, said from the platform that "before we can build a new party (for the trade unions) then we need to rebuild the trade unions". As a consequence a further RMT conference was organised for October 2006 to discuss the rebuilding of the unions, which led to the formation of NSSN.

The Socialist Party welcomed this initiative and has fully participated in the building of the NSSN. However, we do not accept the argument about ‘rebuilding the unions first’ and said so at the January conference. The building of a new mass party for the working class, based above all on the trade unions, does not absolutely require the rebuilding of the unions, though of course it goes without saying that a stronger trade union movement would enormously aid the development of a new mass workers party. And what does ‘rebuilding the unions first’ mean anyway? Bob did not make this clear at the conference – does it mean, for example, that the unions should not move in the direction of establishing political representation until they are as strong as they were in the 1970s and 1980s, or some other historical period?

The very struggle for an organised political arm for the unions (and thereby a big section of the working class), with its own programme and democratic structure, would give the trade union movement an opportunity to develop its political voice. Not just in the institutions of the capitalist state (parliament and, at local level, the council chambers) but also in the wider community, whereby workers could participate in its deliberations and decide on its policies through democratic debate and discussion, which even at this limited level they can not do at the moment given the collapse of the Labour Party into the arms of big business.

Genuine Marxists would see the coming into being of this type of party not as a Labour Party ‘mark two’, which would be forced to go through a similar hundred-year long development. Instead, in the modern era, such a party would rapidly become a forum where the most advanced workers would be able to develop socialist policies to answer the developing global crisis of capitalism. In such a forum the revolutionary party would fight for its programme and policies to become the programme of the working class.

The very building of this political working class organisation would in turn act to give a political direction to the struggle to rebuild the trade unions. Without a political direction then the rebuilding of the trade unions will be that much harder. It will mean that the trade unions will be fighting the bosses with one arm tied behind their backs.

Nevertheless, despite these genuine differences with the leadership of the RMT, the Socialist Party enthusiastically participated in the further conference organised by the RMT to discuss the rebuilding of the trade unions, that took place in October 2006.

NSSN launched

AT THE October conference the RMT executive proposed a number of important initiatives including the election of a committee to build support for a national shop stewards network. The RMT executive also put forward the basic guidelines for the NSSN which included the following:

"The NSSN would:

1. Offer support to TUC-affiliated unions in their campaigns and industrial disputes.

2. Offer support to existing workplace committees and trades councils".

Establishing a steering committee was an important step forward and a number of Socialist Party members were elected who held positions as shop stewards and workplace reps. The steering committee then organised a founding conference to formally launch the NSSN. This took place in July 2007 and was attended by over 300 shop stewards and workplace reps as delegates, with another 50-100 visitors.

The RMT financed much of the early work of the NSSN including the cost of the founding conference. The NSSN has now been able to finance its own activities since then, which is an important consideration given that the NSSN should be seen as an independent rank-and-file organisation and not tied to any particular union.

After its formal launch, the NSSN began to build at a local level, with a number of regions organising conferences at which local shops stewards were brought together to discuss common problems they faced on a day-to-day basis.

Lessons from past movements

FOLLOWING THE SECOND national conference in June 2008 it has become clear that the NSSN, whilst relatively successful in what it set out to do, nevertheless has come up against the very difficulties which we foresaw, given its lack of a political analysis of the way forward, in other words, the need for the trade unions to have their own political voice and party.

The idea of bringing together at local, regional and national level shop stewards and workplace reps to discuss and give practical support to workers entering struggle against the bosses is good in and of itself but to have a real programme for rebuilding the trade union movement requires more than just this.

The history of the British trade unions demonstrates again and again that this is the case. Probably the most successful example, historically speaking, of the type of rank-and-file organisation which the NSSN aspires to be was the National Minority Movement (NMM) in the 1920s.

The Minority Movement represented at its height some of the most combative elements of the British working class. It was responsible, for example, for organising the election of Arthur J Cook to the leadership of the then million-strong National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1924. Cook, who called himself a follower of Lenin, led the NUM when the miners came under vicious attacks by the mine owners which, in turn, led to mass strikes that culminated in the 1926 general strike.

At its height the Minority Movement represented at least a quarter of the membership of the unions but it went into decline after the defeat of the general strike, with the complete capitulation of the TUC leaders, who ended the general strike without any gains whatsoever. The Communist Party compounded the difficulties the NMM faced in the post-strike period when, at the end of the 1920s, it adopted an ultra-left position of declaring that workers should leave their trade unions and set up ‘red unions’ instead, a policy which inevitably led many of the most militant shop stewards and workplace reps being marginalized in the workplace.

But the point is that the Minority Movement did not just develop spontaneously. It came about as a direct result of the intervention of the Third International under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky and the young Communist Party of Britain at the time.

The history of the British unions is littered with attempts to establish rank-and-file organisations, when the official trade unions are under the grip of the dead hand of the right wing trade union bureaucracy, to be effective in the fight to defend workers against the attacks of the employers. And the most successful examples of rank-and-file organisations in the unions have been those that were linked to a perspective for generalised struggle, which includes its political prospects as well.

In the modern era it has been the work of the broad lefts in certain unions which has led to gains for the left. Probably the best example of this (but not the only one) is the Left Unity organisation in the PCS civil service union, which won back control of the union in 2003 from a seemingly entrenched right-wing leadership. Now the PCS is held up as an example for others to follow. But the caveat here is that it was the role of the Socialist Party (and Militant, its predecessor organisation) that gave a political outlook to this broad left whilst other broad lefts disappeared from view in the political and workplace climate of the 1990s.

The existence of the ‘shop stewards movement’ (which strictly speaking is a semi-official movement) has waxed and waned according to the periods that it passes through.

The height of the movement was undoubtedly the 1970s, which came at a time of the beginnings of a generalized struggle against the bosses’ attacks, both in Britain and internationally. The British trade unions by the 1970s had never been stronger. This was a result of the whole previous period when the unions grew to a membership of 13 million (compared to today’s 6.7 million).

The workers in manufacturing were to the forefront of the battles to defend the post-war gains of the trade unions on jobs, hours, wages and conditions, which the employers were desperately seeking to take back when the economy went into recession at the beginning of that decade. In the end the employers turned to Margaret Thatcher who led a generalized offensive against the power of the trade union movement.

This was done by the brutal carrying through of the de-industrialisation of Britain, with a massive growth in unemployment and a glut of anti-union laws. This coupled with the defeat of the miners in 1984-85, put the trade unions back to almost pre-war levels of membership.

A new period

WE NOW HAVE a situation where the capitalist economies across the globe are entering a new period of crisis, which in turn is leading to more and more attacks on workers’ jobs and living standards. To resist these attacks will require a determined leadership of the trade unions and that is the crunch issue.

Too many trade union leaders throughout the past 15 years have been prepared to accept the logic of ‘the market economy’ and so had no answer when the bosses said, ‘we have to cut back because of the fall in the market’, ‘we need to raise our profits to safeguard investment’ and so on.

The role of the NSSN will be to demonstrate and show that this is not the only road to go down. It will increasingly be able to bring together the best shop stewards, to give them the confidence to fight back and show how to resist the demands of big business to accept cut backs and compromises.

The NSSN and its regional affiliates can also play a role in organising solidarity support and action with workers entering struggle. It could even from time to time be in a position of taking these localised struggles forward in more militant ways, especially where it becomes clear that there is support for this amongst those workers most involved, even if this means coming into conflict with the union leadership.

But just as important in all these activities will be the need to give a political lead as well, particularly the key question of the need for workers to have their own political party as well as the need for militant industrial action.

Inevitably there will be differences about the role of the NSSN from time to time – even complete opposition to the idea of linking the political and industrial struggles together. This has already surfaced in the NSSN in the arguments of those who believe in a syndicalist approach to these problems, in other words, that we should keep the struggle limited to a purely industrial basis and avoid politics altogether (or at least ‘party politics’).

But differences like this should not stop – and have not stopped – the urgent need to build the NSSN on as wide a basis as possible, including involving workers who might not agree with linking together the political and the industrial at this stage

The key question for all those who genuinely want to build the NSSN is that it is a democratic body built from below but that it also allows all organised political and non-political voices to be heard in its meetings and activities.


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