Britain: Building a new shop stewards’ movement

Linking the industrial to the political

At the recent RMT rail union discussion conference on the crisis of working-class political representation, RMT general secretary Bob Crow argued for the building of "a cross-industry national shop stewards’ movement".

But, as Bill Mullins explains, the call for a new 200,000-strong shop stewards’ movement to be built in Britain is a worthy aim in itself but it does not answer the pressing need for a new mass workers’ party.

Building a new shop stewards’ movement

Bob Crow’s call for a national shop stewards’ movement seemed to many at the conference to indicate this was his priority for the period ahead.

There is no doubt that there is a crying need for active trade unionists and shop stewards in every workplace. But to realise that goal we need to look back at how the shop stewards’ organisations were built in the past, particularly the high point of the stewards’ movement in the 1960s and 70s, rather than believe we can conjure up such a movement now.

Without a clear perspective about the need for shop stewards to have their own political voice is to condemn a new generation to fight with one hand tied behind their backs.

Every day, workers feel the brutal attacks on their conditions and standards of living and want to do something about it. In the average workplace, bosses brutally strive to get the most they can out of their workers whilst paying them the least possible. This is a major contributor to the huge rise in workplace stress today.

Millions of workers would, given the chance, join a trade union. No doubt the new layer of shop stewards that Bob Crow hopes for would come from their ranks. But this will not happen automatically. Indeed the fastest-growing unions, PCS and RMT, with the biggest increase in shop stewards have socialists playing the leading role. The role of workers’ leaders at all levels but particularly at national level, is crucial.

If these leaders remain silent on how a new party could be built, or counter-pose the idea of the need for a new shop stewards’ movement, as Bob Crow does, this could encourage the idea that militant trade unionism is enough.

Different situation

The situation in the 1970s was very different. There were 13 million workers in unions, compared to 6.7 million today. And there were 29 million days lost in strikes in 1979, for example, compared to less than one million last year.

The reasons for falling union membership and the corresponding decline in mass collective strike action have been explained many times in Socialist Party publications. They are a combination of de-industrialisation of much of the British economy and the existence of draconian anti-union laws, which trade union leaders have refused to challenge.

Also, the collapse of the planned economies in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe ideologically demoralised or disoriented many trade union activists. Lastly, throughout the 1990s, right-wing trade union leaders clamped down on strikes and entered into partnership agreements and single-union, no-strike deals with the bosses.

Yet, even in the 1970s, the development of the shop stewards’ movements and industrial struggle was not in a straight line. The slow building up of working-class confidence in the workplaces over a whole period led to these developments.

The growing confidence of workers to take strike action was a direct result of full employment and a gradual increase in living standards. This flowed from the massive development of the British economy in the post-war years, which healed the scars of the inter-war period, of mass unemployment and industrial defeats.

By the 1960s, the capitalist class had become increasingly alarmed by the growth of unofficial strikes and industrial action led by shop stewards in industries like docks, car manufacturing and engineering.

In the 1970s the Labour government commissioned an investigation into the power of the shop stewards’ movement and the unions as a whole.

The Bullock Report revealed the widespread strength of trade union organisation on the shopfloor. Its leading layers were the shop stewards. Bullock revealed there were something like 350,000 shop stewards in the workplaces.

Then, workplaces mainly meant factories. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, service-sector and public-sector workers were only just beginning to get organised in trade unions.

NUPE for example (which later became part of UNISON) had about 60,000 members in 1970. By the end of the decade its membership had grown to 600,000.

Organisation

It would be wrong to visualise the shop stewards’ movement as a fully coherent national force. But in certain industries and companies the movement became better organised than others.

In the car industry, for example, because of the intense nature of production line assembly work, strikes against the bosses were frequent and in the words of one report: "99% of them were unofficial" – not sanctioned by the official unions but organised by the shop stewards from below.

And there wasn’t one level of political understanding amongst the shop stewards. The very fact of becoming involved in union activity led to many stewards drawing political conclusions.

During the 1960s, for example, the Communist Party had a certain level of support amongst shop stewards and played a key role in mobilising the shop stewards’ movement in the engineering industry, car industry, docks and certain areas of the mining industry.

In the mining industry, there had been 20 years or more of gradual decline. It was the reaction against Ted Heath’s Tory government that propelled Left leaders like Arthur Scargill into prominence during the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974.

The Communist Party mainly developed its influence through the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. (LCDTU).

In the late 1960s, the LCDTU organised action against the Wilson Labour government’s attempts to introduce anti-trade union laws.

At that time, the Labour Party as a whole opposed Wilson’s anti-union ideas. Eventually, the combined pressure of the unions and the Labour Party led to Wilson’s own cabinet revolting against this first attempt to bind the unions with new laws.

The LCDTU continued to mobilise the shop stewards’ movement against the Heath government when he came to power in 1970 and tried to introduce anti-union laws through the Industrial Relations Act.

And the LCDTU, through a network of CP shop stewards, organised an unofficial national one-day strike in October 1970 against the Industrial Relations Act. Over 250,000 workers downed tools.

Political and industrial

Through the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, the link between the political and the industrial struggle was clear. This reflected the material base of workers’ struggles at that time and the existence of large well-organised factories.

Today, neither the large-scale factories or that level of trade union organisation exists to the same extent – though there is a relatively high level of trade union organisation in the public sector.

Workers can be propelled to become activists and shop stewards by a rapacious capitalist class driving workers into defensive struggles. But to continually motivate these same activists requires the need to change society along socialist lines to be raised.

To rebuild anything like a mass shop stewards’ movement nowadays requires the best workers’ leaders to argue and campaign for the building of a mass political alternative to New Labour. The big unions’ links to the Labour Party today are an impediment to conducting an effective struggle for their members.

A new mass party of the working class would attract the best of the new generation of trade union activists and a new layer of workers. This would feed into the creation of a mass shop stewards’ movement. In the current political situation one task has to go hand in hand with the other. To pretend otherwise is, unfortunately, to throw sand into the eyes of today’s trade union activists.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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