“If we are to roll back the tide of privatisation and war, rebuilding the grass roots of our movement is essential.”
Bob Crow – General Secretary, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT)
The National Shop Stewards Network was established in 2007, the first such initiative in the 21st century. Its origins lay in a conference called in October 2006 by the RMT union which was attended by 300 trade union officials and activists and addressed by the union leaders from a group that had become known as the “Awkward Squad”.
The conferences called for the establishment of a network of rank and file trade unionists in order to “Offer support to TUC affiliated trade unions in their campaigns and industrial disputes” and to “offer support to existing workplace committees and trades councils.”
At first glance it looked like a top-down initiative from the leaderships. But the conference had been called after pressure amongst rank and filers in the RMT. It reflected a growing feeling amongst union activists that such a network was overdue.
A Steering Committee was elected with the mandate to establish a National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) through a formal delegate conference. The Steering Committee published a short pamphlet on why such a network was needed and what it might hope to achieve. This included a call to rebuild the unions, shattered after decades of anti-trade union laws and the consequences of a transformed UK economy where only 10% of jobs are in traditional manufacturing industries.
In July 2007, a founding conference established the network where:
1. Participation is a matter for individual TUC affiliated trade unions;
2. It would be made up from bona fide rank and file TUC affiliated trade union workplace representatives. Full time trade union officials would be observers with speaking rights;
3. It would not encroach on the established union organisation or interfere in the internal affairs and elections of TUC affiliated trade unions or the functions of the TUC.
At the moment, regional Shop Stewards Networks are beginning to develop and are calling meetings and conferences across the country. In some areas these are being co-ordinated with local Trades Councils, building on existing formal and informal networks.
Local NSSN groups have also been actively involved in supporting local disputes, notably in the fight to save jobs at the Linamar (formerly Visteon) car parts plant in Swansea and the campaign to keep the Newcastle Metro underground system in public hands, amongst many others.
As Doug, an NSSN activist in Birmingham, puts it: “Locally, NSSN do vary in their structure and approach but how these local groups feed into a national structure still needs to be determined.” One thing is for sure, without local participation any national co-ordination would be meaningless. The growth of the NSSN locally can be seen as a barometer of the health of grassroots activity in the trade unions. This activity, which has often been sustained by very small numbers, varies from branch to branch and from region to region.
Sometimes it happens through organised rank and file “caucuses” such as the Independent Left in the PCS civil servants union. Elsewhere grassroots activity is more localised around specific campaigns. The NSSN hopes to be able to facilitate communication and solidarity between isolated activities.
Conflict with the leadership?
With the numerical decline of the unions, caused by the decimation of heavily-unionised industries and the privatisation of services, union officials have in recent years begun to talk about the “organising model” as opposed to the “service model” which has dominated since the 1980s. So, rather than selling cheap insurance and credit cards, unions have begun to put an emphasis on recruitment and establishing a visible presence on the shop floor.
This “organising” agenda doesn’t meant that the traditional union leaderships have actually changed and what rank and file activists are looking for may go far beyond what the union chiefs have imagined.
Although the NSSN clearly states that it does not intend to “interfere with internal union business”, its activities may bring it up against entrenched bureaucracies, many of whom are tied to support for the Labour Party.
The network’s support for UNISON branch officials currently being disciplined by their own union is an illustration of this.
The idea of a National Shop Stewards Network is capturing the imagination of many activists. What develops remains to be seen and a number of challenges need to be faced.
The NSSN is supported by unions such as the RMT, PCS, Prison Officers Association(!) and the NUM. Building support in the giant unions, eg UNISON and Unite, may be more difficult as the network may be seen as a threat to the leaderships of these Labour-affiliated unions.
The demographic of the trade union activist movement shows young people are notably under-represented. Young activists in the anti-war, anti-climate change and migrant worker solidarity movements are beginning to reach out to build alliances with the labour movement, but they are rarely connecting with people of their own age. The NSSN may be the sort of initiative to address young people’s low levels of involvement in the unions.
Another problem the NSSN may face is the potential domination of political factions who may see the project as a means to recruit union activists to their party or make the network the “industrial wing” of a future political party.
Whatever the challenges facing the NSSN, the project is undoubtedly the most exciting initiative to have emerged in the trade union movement in many years and should be of interest to everyone focussed on movements for nonviolent social change in this country.