Britain: National Shop Stewards’ Network Conference

A starting point for strengthening struggle

"In the future, when people look back, this will be seen as the starting point in rebuilding the TUC." That was how Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT (rail workers’ union) described the founding conference of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) which took place on Saturday 7 July.

Around three hundred trade union shop stewards and workplace representatives took part in the first national rank-and-file conference of shop stewards for many years. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s the development of a mass shop stewards’ movement played an important role in giving workers the confidence to fight back. Saturday’s conference showed that the NSSN has the potential to play a critical role in helping to develop a new generation of shop stewards and in coordinating their struggles at rank and file level.

Stewards and workplace representatives in struggle; from the post office, car plants, electronics factories, schools, care homes, hospitals, airports, the London underground, the railways and many other public and private sector workplaces, came together to discuss how to rebuild the workers’ movement into a force capable of effectively resisting big business and the government’s determined assault on workers’ pay, pensions, and conditions. The NSSN was initiated by the RMT and is supported by the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), the Communication Workers Union (CWU), the Prison Officers Association and the National Union of Mineworkers. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS addressed the conference.

Bob Crow summed up the conference, commenting on many of the strands of the day’s discussion. In his contribution he outlined what he saw as the key tasks of the newly-founded NSSN in the coming months: For shop stewards to fight to build up the rank and file in their own union; to adopt a branch of the CWU and give 100% support to the postal workers’ strike action; to organise a major lobby of the TUC to demand action on the trade union freedom bill; and finally, for those in Labour Party affiliated unions to ask why their union is giving money to a political party that doesn’t represent most trade unionists.

In addition to these crucial practical proposals, the conference began to discuss many important issues on how to develop the strength and confidence of the working class. Future conferences, as the NSSN grows in strength, will build on these. Issues that were debated included how to fight for trade union democracy, and when and how the anti-trade union laws could be defied successfully. In the afternoon, the conference broke up into separate workshops on: fighting the anti-union laws; fighting privatisation; organising in the workplace; organising migrant workers; organising young workers; pay struggles in the public and private sector; and the attack on pensions in the public and private sector.

Need for new workers’ party

A key theme of the conference was the capitalist nature of all three establishment parties, and the need for a new mass party that fights in workers’ interests. Janice Godrich, President of the PCS, set the tone when she opened the conference, arguing that Gordon Brown "who has bought the ex-head of the CBI into the government" will do no more for working-class people than Blair before him. "The PCS needs no lessons to understand what a Brown government is going to be like; just look how he has treated our union". Andrew Price, of the University and College Union national executive and an organiser of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party was the first to explicitly raise the need for a new mass workers’ party. He was interrupted by applause repeatedly.

Bob Crow later put the case for a new party very explicitly: "We can’t separate the trade union and the political path. We can have a great shop stewards’ movement that can get pay rises and so on, but when the economy goes down those gains are taken back. That’s why I argue we need not just new militant trade unionism but an alternative political party."

He went on to explain how the RMT had supported John McDonnell’s campaign to get on the ballot paper for the Labour Party deputy leadership contest but that John did not get enough nominations to get to the ballot, even though 22 of the 29 RMT-sponsored MPs supported him. "It is another six-inch nail in the coffin of the Labour Party". Bob Crow continued: "Suddenly, then Jon Cruddas MP was going to be the saviour, even though he voted for the war, but he didn’t win the election and he hasn’t got a place in the cabinet. Digby Jones has. I say to all Labour Party members, you are giving them credibility. The marriage is over. Get a divorce and move on."

He finished by suggesting that the RMT "may form a political party to contest the next London mayoral and assembly elections" as part of a struggle against privatisation of the East London train line. He added that the Fire Brigades Union and others might have to do the same and that this could be a step towards the formation of a new party in a few years’ time.

These remarks were enthusiastically welcomed by conference delegates, around fifty of whom attended the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party fringe meeting after the conference.

Without doubt all the delegates, having spent the day discussing with workplace representatives involved in similar struggles to their own, left with renewed confidence, determination and huge enthusiasm for building a national movement of shop stewards – within which all the crucial issues facing the working class could be discussed. A thirty-two strong committee was elected to coordinate the work of the NSSN.

Trevor Prior, CWU delivery rep from Cambridge

It’d be good if more of the members could come down and listen to all the speakers themselves because they would certainly go away feeling far more confident in the struggles they’re involved in and so on. The message I feel I can take back to my members is that they’re not on their own. There are other people supporting them and if we get the support pledged here on the picket lines it’s going to help things all the more.

Angela Powell, Voluntary youth worker, Southampton

The young trade unionists’ session was really good. It’s great to hear the voices of young people. Unfortunately some of the issues around twenty years ago still exist today.

Noreen Ferrari, Shop steward, convenor for catering, vice-chair Unison, Waltham Forest

For 26 years I’ve worked in school meals as a cook supervisor. I’m here because we’re involved in a struggle against back-door privatisation of school meals. It feels like we keep being knocked back. But I’ve really enjoyed being here and what I’ve heard has just strengthened me more!

The conference agreed to:

  1. Immediately send messages of support to all workers in struggle.
  2. Organise a lobby and fringe meeting at the TUC conference in Brighton in September and call for the unions to step up their efforts to end the anti-trade union laws as soon as possible.
  3. Support the call by the PCS for a national day of action against the government’s pay freeze in the public sector.
  4. Support all efforts to defend the NHS against cuts and closures by mobilising support for the proposed national demonstration in October.
  5. Organise at regional level conferences of work shop stewards and representatives to build regional shop stewards networks, and to mobilise the local unions in support of those in struggle.
  6. Organise a further national conference next year in the late spring.
  7. Give support to all workers in struggle for a decent wage, to defend their jobs and to fight for a shorter working week.
  8. Produce a short pamphlet on the need for a new shop stewards’ movement.
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