National Shop Stewards Network

A national meeting called by the RMT attended by 250 union reps has agreed to launch a ‘National Shop Stewards Network’.

At a national meeting organised by the RMT and supported by major unions including the TGWU, PCS, FBU, UCU and NUJ, it was decided to organise a delegate conference next year to launch a ‘National Shop Stewards Network’. A steering committee of 10 people was elected to organise it.Bob Crow in his introduction said that the organisation of workplace reps had always been a barometer of the general health of the trade union movement. “If we are to roll back the tide of privatisation and war…rebuilding the grassroots of the movement is an essential part of that process.”

Barry Camfield for the TGWU said:

“We need to change the centre of gravity towards shop floor reps if we are to create the conditions for change.”

Paul Mackney for the University & Colleges Union spoke about the need to rebuild a ‘cadre’ of workplace activists.

A statement drafted by the RMT was agreed. It said:

“We recognise that our ability to protect and advance these values (workers rights, solidarity, equality and unity) and to achieve our shared goals – such as the implementation of the Trade Union Freedom Bill – will be assisted by the development of the broadest possible unity of grassroots trade union activity at the workplace and between workplaces.”

The title ‘shop stewards network’ was shorthand for workplace reps; these could obviously include health & safety and other reps. So the Network would be comprised of workplace reps from TUC affiliated unions. Whilst full-time officials could participate they would only have observer status, with speaking rights.

The aims of the Network would be:

To offer support to TUC affiliated unions in their campaigns and industrial disputes;
To offer support to existing workplace reps and Trades Councils.

Obviously this is only a framework. To the extent that such a body developed it would determine and develop its agenda.

Such a Network could be an important development in the light of the crisis facing the unions. Aside from the loss of 5 million trade union members, the decline in workplace organisation has been steep. Despite ‘organising’ efforts there has yet to be a significant rise in union membership. This is not only as a result of a generation of defeats. It also results from the so-called ‘service model’ with its concentration on individual services, creating a culture of a passive membership with no understanding of their responsibility for building their own organisation.

In many industries shop stewards have been trained in the methods of ‘social partnership’, identifying the interests of the workforce with market ‘success’ of ‘their’ company. This has meant that the drive for profitability and productivity has been seen as primary, and some unions have collaborated in the destruction of jobs.

Aside from the obvious role of building support and solidarity, a Network could play a role a key role in developing a serious discussion about rebuilding workplace organisation. It could enable activists to exchange experience and to draw on positive organising efforts in other workplaces.

Jeremy Dear, NUJ General Secretary, speaking at the meeting reported on the experience of NUJ members at the Daily Star. They managed to stop the production of an article entitled the ‘Daily Fatwa’, a supposedly satirical piece directed against Muslims. They took action completely outside the framework of existing employment legislation, a rare event these days, and they got away with it.

Probably the only industry where the example of solidarity action has survived is the Royal Mail, where there is a tradition of refusing to touch mail coming from an area on strike. Challenging the anti-union laws, of course, depends on strong workplace organisation.

The Network which is being proposed will obviously be built at the national level. But its success will depend upon the building of networks in towns and cities, on a cross union basis. Trades Councils could play an important role in this regard. They should be able to participate in it. They strive, albeit under difficult conditions, to build a labour movement in a locality rather than leaving isolated individual unions ploughing their own furrow. A connection to

The rebuilding of the unions requires a different culture to the one that has dominated them since the Thatcher years: the building of an active membership which understands that the ‘service’ which a union provides depends upon the collective organisation of the membership on the ground. The role of the Network would include striving to develop a consciousness of the need for independent, fighting, and democratic unions, controlled at every level by the members.

As Dave Chapple said, “we need a democratic grassroots movement that is not dominated by any single party.” The Network should be a framework for practical work rather than an arena for flowery speeches, in which organisations compete against each other.

When John McDonnell spoke in Swindon recently he said that we were on the verge of losing what remains of the gains of the welfare state. The idea that in the face of such attacks, the neo-liberal Blair government can be persuaded to abandon its programme, is pure delusion. Only industrial action will have any impact on it. Yet there is no sign of an industrial response, for instance, in relation to the destruction of the NHS.

Building a Network of reps can play an important role in creating conditions in which the government’s programme is answered by struggle instead of the pleading of trade union leaders.

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