A reason to be cheerful
Posted by Left Luggage on July 2, 2009
As we’ve previously commented, the state of working class industrial organisation in Britain does not compare favourably to our European neighbours. A detailed article in the International Socialism journal in March highlighted the slow disintegration of independent networks of militant shop stewards as a major factor contributing to the decline of industrial militancy. The number of workers per shop steward has risen, and there seems to be some degree of stagnation. The majority of shop stewards are over 40 and have held their position for 8 years or more.
The National Shop Stewards Network was set up to attempt to reverse this decline, and to build links between trade union activists in different industries. NSSN is now three years old, and had its third annual conference last Saturday. While there is no formal membership structure at present, the conference was open to unpaid shop stewards from any union in Britain. Full time union officials could attend in an “observer” capacity only.
The conference was more of a rally than a policy-making forum, but it was one of the better rallies I have attended. In the morning we heard some rousing speeches from Keith Gibson and Owen Morris – both members of the victorious Lindsey Oil Refinery Strike Committee. Gibson explained how stewards used mobile phone networks and held mass meetings every morning to communicate with members. Morris was at pains to defend the action Lindsey workers took in February over the use of non-union foreign contractors. He said:
My members might be working in Aberdeen one week and Cornwall the next. According to our national agreement, no matter where they’re working they get paid £14 per hour plus expenses, plus bonuses, plus lunch. Companies have been using Polish workers and paying them £4 per hour. We, as working class people, can’t accept that.
Also on the platform was newly elected Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins. He gave inspiring accounts of community campaigns that built public support for the SP in Dublin, including the campaign against water charges in the mid-90s and the exposure of the shocking treatment of Turkish migrant workers by Turkish multinational GAMA in 2005.
After lunch there was a choice of workshops on different topics related to trade union struggles. I attended the talk on the crisis in the Post Office. Activists seemed united in seeing the national office of their union – the CWU – as an obstacle to their attempts to organise resistance.
The day ended with a closing rally, the highlight of which was an address by the RMT rep for the London Underground cleaners, Clara Osagiede, who recounted the successful campaign to get cleaners the London Living Wage. Pretty much the last act of the conference was to elect a steering committee of 50 shop stewards to decide policy for the organisation.
The event was impressively non-sectarian, on the whole. Although the influence of the Socialist Party was clearly in evidence in the choice of platform speakers, many of the afternoon workshops were run by Socialist Workers Party members like Weyman Bennett and Paul Garraway. Interestingly, the SWP did not have the organised presence (paper sellers, stalls etc) that we have come to expect at left wing events over the years. Perhaps they were keeping a low profile following the fall-out from their open letter to the Left.
To have a conference of 300 of the best and most militant union reps in the country, to share ideas and experiences, is a major achievement in itself. Even in the short term, the network could help to inspire confidence in union reps (like myself) whose workplaces do not have a strong history of militancy.
Nevertheless, I left the conference with a couple of questions. There are several different directions I could forsee the NSSN taking. Will it remain merely a forum for discussion, or will it become a more active presence in trade union struggles? Strategies for shop stewards to build a culture of resistance in their workplaces, recruit or simply communicate with their members could be developed and implemented by reps in different industries. The network could even formally embrace demands such as those of sacked Visteon Belfast convenor John McGuire: for union executives to be elected annually at mass meetings, and to receive the average industrial wage.
No doubt the newly elected steering committee will address these issues, but a large national gathering could have been an opportunity to discuss different proposals publicly with reps from all areas of industry.
Despite my reservations, the conference was an uplifting experience, and a reason to be hopeful in an otherwise unpromising industrial climate.