SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 149 - June 2011


The National Shop Stewards Network

Central to building the anti-cuts movement

THE NATIONAL Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) is holding its fifth annual conference 19 days before up to 800,000 workers could take strike action against the Con-Dem coalition’s attacks on public-sector pensions.

The PCS civil service union and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) have agreed to hold strike ballots alongside the traditionally moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Even the Royal College of Nursing has agreed to ballot after its members gave a vote of no confidence in Tory health minister, Andrew Lansley. The University and College Union (UCU) is already in dispute over pensions. After the mighty TUC demonstration on 26 March, 30 June is the next staging post in the movement against this government and its cuts package.

The NSSN was initiated by the National Union of Rail Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) in 2006 as an attempt to build a rank-and-file organisation in the trade unions. The Socialist Party has played a key role in its development. The NSSN had already shown its potential as an organiser of solidarity in early 2009, in the private-sector disputes in the Lindsey oil refinery, and the occupations at the Visteon car component and Vestas wind turbine factories, and the dispute at the Linamar car component plant. The network showed how it could be far nimbler than the formal union structures in spreading the word about these struggles.

A key role of the NSSN will be to act as a vehicle for bypassing conservative full-time officials and as a means to transform the unions into fighting organisations. The NSSN should stand in the best traditions of rank-and-file union organisations such as the Minority Movement in the 1920s and the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions in the 1960s and 1970s, both led by the Communist Party. At their peak, they were capable of leading hundreds of thousands of shop stewards and union activists. Despite the size of the 26 March TUC demo and the developing anti-cuts movement, we are still far from a comparable situation. Nonetheless, the NSSN has started to carve out a reputation for itself and can act as a lever in pressuring the unions into a more militant position against the cuts and in other battles in the future.

The NSSN anti-cuts conference in January has provided the only real arena of debate in the movement. Despite some detractors, many of whom left the NSSN after the conference voted overwhelmingly to launch an anti-cuts campaign, the debate brought out the main conflicting positions in the battle against Con-Dem austerity measures. The NSSN programme is alone in clearly opposing all cuts, from Labour councils as well as Tory and Liberal Democrat ones.

At the time of the conference, councils were preparing their budgets for the new financial year. In contrast to other anti-cuts organisations, such as Coalition of Resistance (CoR) and the SWP’s Right to Work (RtW), the NSSN was adamant that a warning had to be given about Labour councils passing on Con-Dem cuts. Astonishingly, RtW in Manchester produced a leaflet saying that it was proud to stand with ‘our’ Labour councillors against the cuts – days before the council announced it was sacking 2,000 workers! The result has been that some activists have been disoriented by the capitulation of Labour councillors. They should have been prepared, however. John McDonnell MP gave the warning in a RtW forum in December that the most right-wing section of the Labour Party is made up of councillors. Many receive annual allowances of £20,000-plus from serving in council cabinets.

At one stage in the battle against Margaret Thatcher’s rate-capping in 1984-85, there were over 20 Labour councils prepared to break the law, although only Liverpool and Lambeth stayed the course. This year, we have not seen 20 Labour councillors prepared to vote against the cuts where Labour controlled the budgets! In Lambeth, the Unite national executive member and local councillor, Kingsley Abrams, was suspended for three months for voting against the cuts budget in a Labour group meeting.

Since 1985, Labour councils have gone from the ‘dented shield’ – setting legal cuts budgets but trying to mitigate the worst effects, advocated by the then leader Neil Kinnock – to signing up to the Tory programme of privatisation, outsourcing, selling off council housing and other services. To expect resistance from this source was either naive or dishonest. We argued that Labour councils should set needs budgets and, if necessary, dig into their reserves to buy time to build a mass campaign that could unite councillors, council workers and the communities they service. The task now is to build a campaign of resistance that forces these councils to use their reserves against their will to preserve jobs and services.

The incorrect position taken on Labour councillors is the consequence of a lack of confidence in the ability of workers to fight back industrially. This was betrayed by many opposition speakers at the NSSN anti-cuts conference. Of course, the unions have suffered serious setbacks over the last two-and-a-half decades. The defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 and the printers at Wapping in 1987 were major blows to the confidence and combativity of the organised working class. Allied to the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Russia and eastern Europe in 1989-91, workers’ organisations and activists were disoriented and socialist consciousness has been pushed back. These factors provided the conditions for a shift to the right at the summits of the Labour Party and, crucially, the trade unions.

The result has been brutal management-driven attacks on jobs, terms and conditions and pensions. Workers in Britain work some of the longest hours with the least protection in the advanced capitalist countries. Union membership has halved from its highpoint of nearly 13 million in 1979. Union density in the private sector has declined to about 12%. The continuous erosion of British manufacturing has played a key role in this fall, with the disappearance of large union-organised workplaces. There are now just over two million manufacturing workers in Britain compared to eight million in the 1970s.

However, the organised working class still represents a potentially decisive force. While the activities of the anti-cuts movement nationally and locally are very important, it has to be centred on building the idea of co-ordinated strike action, led by millions of public-sector workers. That would transform the struggle. That is why winning the strike ballots and ensuring that 30 June sees the maximum number of workers taking action is paramount.

However, the fact that the three main unions, Unison, GMB and Unite, will not be involved – although Unite’s health sector committee has asked for a ballot – is a major drawback. Along with the NASUWT teachers’ union, they are delaying action until negotiations have been ‘exhausted’. Actually, as the government’s ‘pause’ on NHS changes show, the Con-Dems are vulnerable now and could be defeated by a real show of strength. Therefore, the NSSN conference on 11 June can act as an important event to draw activists from these unions into the fight.

The NSSN intervened on the TUC demonstration with 40,000 leaflets raising the idea of a 24-hour general strike to stop the cuts and defend pensions. The battle over public-sector pensions poses this concretely. We also argued for the TUC to organise a midweek demonstration on the first day of strike action. We elaborated these points in an open letter to the TUC after the demonstration. Unsurprisingly, no reply has been received. If successful in their ballots, however, the PCS and NUT are committed to organising demonstrations on 30 June. All union activists have to build these where they have been organised and, if necessary, organise them through trades councils, local anti-cuts groups and NSSN supporters. They should then reach out to the whole union movement as a concrete stage in widening this out to all public-sector workers, at least, over the next few months.

The NSSN will be holding meetings of delegates from each region at the conference to discuss these tasks. The sight of city centres filled with thousands of marching workers on 30 June would send a signal to the government and union leaders that the mood that brought 500,000-plus to London on 26 March has not petered out but can fire the struggle to a higher stage. The NSSN was brought into existence in anticipation of these events. By being at the fore in these battles over the next few months it can establish itself as a vital part of the union movement in Britain.

Rob Williams

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