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Rebuilding the Shop Stewards Movement:

A discussion document


The Rail Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) sponsored a conference on 28 October 2006 attended by over 300 shop stewards and trade union activists from a number of unions and called for �the establishment of a National Shop Stewards� Network� (NSSN)


This NSSN would:

1. �Offer support to TUC affiliated trade unions in their campaigns and industrial disputes�

2. �To offer support to existing workplace committees and trades councils�.

The conference elected a Steering Group (SG) to �organise a formal delegate conference� and �establish a National Shop Stewards Network� and to report back to a future conference.

In its first meeting the SG agreed that as part of the ongoing programme of action it would produce a small pamphlet as a discussion document that would lay out some of the issues on helping to establish a NSSN.

What are the prospects today for the rebuilding of the shop stewards movement? The answer to this is directly linked with the rebuilding of the trade unions themselves.


What is the situation today in the unions?

Trade union membership (all figures from the DTI report on trade union membership March 2006) now stands at just over 6.39 million employees (down from 12 million in the 1970s). This is 29% of the workforce. But only 11% of young workers between 16 and 24 are in unions.


There has been a rise in the number of women workers in trade unions to 29.9% whilst the number of men in unions fell by 0.3% to 28.2%.


17.2% of private sector workers are in unions (2.7 million) whilst in the public sector 58.6% are in unions. (3.68 million).


The number of workplace shop stewards or worker representatives has also declined from a height of 350,000 in the 1970s (Bullock report on industrial democracy 1977) to about 100,000 today.


Though there has been a halt in the decline of trade union recognition which had taken place in the previous period, the unions are still running fast to stand still. However there have been some notable exceptions to this with unions like the RMT and the PCS actually growing in membership.


In both the PCS and the RMT this has directly arisen from the militant, fighting stance of both unions an behalf of their members.


The organising agenda

In both the RMT and the PCS there has been an active encouragement of new workplace activists (shop stewards).


The PCS is in the process of training an extra 3,000 shop stewards as part of the big increase in its membership from 250,000 to 300,000.


Structures have been set up to train these new activists with the appointment of a whole new layer of full-time organizers whose job is to help organise the local workplaces whilst other officials are responsible for the day-to-day negotiations with the employers.


Other unions have an organising agenda also with the introduction of new full-time organizers to win new workers to the union but unless this is accompanied with a commitment by the union leadership to deliver on their promises for an improvement in the situation of the individual worker then unfortunately we will see a �revolving door� phenomenon with workers leaving the union as fast as new ones are recruited.


The development of a shop stewards structure is a key to union organisation in the workplace, both in terms of fighting for the interests of workers and maintaining the union itself.


What is happing in the workplace?

In 2004 the DTI workplace survey revealed the continuation of the decline in union influence in the workplaces. The survey revealed that the number of shop stewards across the unions continues to fall.


Only 13% of workplaces with 10 or more workers (private and public sector) in 2004 had a shop steward compared to 17% in 1998. But in workplaces with 100 or more workers 74% had a shop stewards/union representative or joint consultative committee).


In workplaces which had recognized trade unions, 45% had shop stewards (in 1998 it was 55%).


The DTI workplace surveys don�t tell the whole picture, no doubt (they are based on interviews held in 950 workplaces). The trade unions themselves would no doubt have a different set of figures but what it shows is the vital need for this initiative in trying to give to the average shop steward on the shop floor or office the realisation that they are part of something bigger than just the immediate day-to-day negotiations and battles with the boss.


The decline of manufacturing from 8 million workers 30 years ago to 3.6 million today (14% of the total workforce) is, along with the anti union laws and the compliance of some union leaders with these laws, is one of the main reasons for decline in trade union organisation in the work place.



This is also reflected in the decline in the number of strikes. In the 1970s there was an average of 130 strikes a month, (the Department of Employment measures strikes based on whole days lost, it did not include all the other forms of industrial action from �go slows� to overtime bans that were also taking place) in 2004 there was no more than 113 strikes for the whole year.


Days lost in strikes that year were 157,000 compared for example to 13 million per year on average during the 1970s.


In 2005 that went up, mainly due to the one-day strike of local authority workers over the attack on their pensions but nevertheless it is clear the decline in workplace union organisation has led to a decline in strikes. This is not to say that everything is hunky-dory and that industrial relations are better than ever, on the contrary the workplace over the past decades has become more and more an area of intimidation and arrogant bosses who lord it over their workers.


Anti-union laws

The issues that lead workers into taking industrial action are still there, low pay, long hours and stress but what is lacking is an organisational means of countering this and stopping the bosses� offensive in its tracks.


Trade unions at the end of the day are a means of challenging the imbalance on the shop floor between the boss and the worker. It is a means of ensuring that the dictatorship of the boss is held in some sort of check. Without trade union organisation in the workplace, the worker is an individual and the power over them is held solely by the boss.


The introduction of more and more anti-union laws has tipped the balance even further in the boss�s direction. However, the anti-union laws can be defeated on the shop floor.


An example of this was the Visteon workers strikes last year which won a 4.25% pay rise for all tiers after a 15 month campaign by management to actually drive through a two-year pay freeze and other concessions. Not one day was lost in official strike action but the Company was brought to the table when workers refused to work overtime.


Because of �Just in Time� production methods, Visteon workers found themselves in a strong position. It is not enough merely to lobby New Labour to bring in the Trade Union Freedom Bill (unsuccessfully); stewards are grappling with the tactics to get around the apparent stranglehold of the legislation now.


The encouragement of a shop stewards� network is vital to the rebuilding of the unions but as a delegate said to the recent TGWU merger conference. �Any new union should start with a commitment that it will not repudiate the shop stewards if they are forced by circumstances to organise action in defence of their members, even if this does not fit into the time-scale of the anti-union laws�.


Far too often this happens, with the anti-union laws so weighted in favour of the bosses it is impossible to take defensive action officially in under a month, meanwhile the boss can have sacked, dismissed and run riot on our member�s rights.


Gate Gourmet is one of the most recent examples where the bosses sacked the workers at five minutes� notice by megaphone and when the Heathrow baggage handlers employed by British airways instinctively �downed tools� and took solidarity action BA demanded that the TGWU repudiate their action. As Tony Woodley, the TGWU general secretary, said on TV when he was asked if he would condemn the �illegal� the strike action of the BA workers he correctly answered �that it was the illegal action of the gate gourmet management that caused the problem in the first place�.


By then the strike of the baggage handlers and others had brought BA to its knees with 1000 planes grounded around the world and 100,000 passengers unable to get their flights. The bosses of BA had a choice at that moment they could have pressurised Gate Gourmet bosses into backing down and reinstating the sacked workers or, as they chose to do, threaten the union with the anti union laws. The union had a choice to call on its members across the airport to back the gate gourmet workers and face down BA or as it chose to do to accept once again the remit of the law.


After all Gate gourmet had been an in-house operation of BA�s beforehand and all that had happened is that BA had divested itself of the operation.


100% of all the pre-packed meals produced by gate Gourmet workers was destined for BA planes. The contract was controlled solely by BA and without it gate gourmet had nothing.


The use of the anti union laws can only work if we accept them. Once the organised woringr class says no then that will be the beginning of the end of them. This will be the case in the future as it is now the power of the organised working class moving as one is greater than any legal restraints. A reborn shop stewards movement will play an important role in bringing this about.


The United Socialist Party adds:

The fundamental issue facing the trade unions in Britain in 2007 is the �Anti Trade Union Laws�. Make no mistake, since they were introduced some twenty six years ago, democracy and the trade unions have felt the impact by dwindling membership, unfair practices and pay and conditions eroded to the point were most union members feel totally isolated from their fellow workers, not only within their industries/workplaces but more widely within the brotherhood of trade unions.


In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s this brotherhood looked for and got support from one another, in many different disguises. No more. Just as serious is the slow erosion of civil liberties for trade unionists and within the working class, both on the work front but more dangerously at home and in our communities. Attacks on our civil liberties started in real earnest with the introduction of the �anti-trade union laws� under Margaret Thatcher�s Tory government.


The dockers� dispute in 1995 would have been resolved and those dockers would still be employed today if the Tory government had left our civil liberties intact. The fundamental right of anyone, including trade unionists, is to be able to be in opposition to the government of the day or big businesses, where there are fundamental issues relating to our �common law� rights either as a union member or as Joe Public.


Throughout the centuries in Britain, men and women have fought single-handed or in groups to improve our �common laws� and then have them written into government legislation. Many countries look to Britain as a shining example of British democracy and our civil liberties being the building blocks of a civilized country. Civil liberties go hand in hand with working class conditions and our economic standing at any given time in history.


As we in Britain fought and gained our economic rights together with our civil liberties, the Tory government and to a greater extent the New Labour with the Liberal Democrats saw the unions in the late 1970s as their biggest threat. They should have taken a real close look in the mirror. It is only Britain and some other countries that deny these rights to their people. The British government and big businesses have removed and deny the rights of workers or individuals to protest either singularly or as a group of workers on matters effecting their economic stability and conditions, and to be able to protest without fear of recrimination either by imprisonment or heavy fines. This is both unfair and disregards fundamental rights embodied in �common law�.


Businesses either trading �on shore or offshore� from these Isles and using the anti trade union Laws to restrict �the people� from negotiating their economic threshold are breaching our civil liberties but also the �common law� of the land.


France and Germany now want to take the same route as Britain did in the 1980�s and introduce their own anti trade union laws. Any worker, whether a labourer, docker, dentist or doctor, if they do not come from a family with money or good economic backgrounds, have only the hands or their brain or both to create their own economic stability and living condition for themselves and their families. But, alas, using their hands or brains creates more for their employers rather than for themselves. And the balance steadily shifts away from the individual worker.


Economics is the root of most if not all the major disputes in the world or in industrial conflicts. These disputes can escalate into wars such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. A dispute can start from a very minor cause and build into something that is uncontrollable. The shop floor union steward faces minor economic disputes daily and has no civil liberty measures or common law methods of quelling or negotiating out of the problems. They have inflexible regional union officials who don�t want to take note of the �small fire� that their shop stewards are facing and cannot take up their dispute unless it fits in with the complicated, bureaucratic anti trade union legislation factors governing disputes. The trade union regional officials are to a greater extent fixed on looking after the interests of their union�s assets and the constraints by the anti trade union legislation to take them away if they get the process wrong.


The unfair industrial playing field of businesses in favour of the bosses by the introduction of the 7-day cooling off period in disputes, the 28-day notice of strike action and ballot procedures all helps to gain the upper hand for the bosses. These industrial playing fields of the bosses need legislation to make the pitch level for everyone. You wouldn�t play a football match on an uneven, uphill field, then why play industrial economics on a similar field which gives advantage to the owners of the business? All have a stake in the actions of both sides. When an economic industrial dispute shows itself, there must be a common law equivalent that accepts that the person or those individual have the right to stop work immediately without them losing their jobs. A democratic show of hands in the work place should be sufficient to show the management that there are economic factors for the workforce which run counter their workforce needs as employers. If there is a 50/50 split in the decision then a paper ballot should be introduced. Management should realise that better industrial economic and democratic methods of alleviating disputes must be on a level playing field. Management at present do not conform to the 7-day or the 28-dayprocess when making decision regarding economic factors affecting their businesses. The have months if not years to prepare, which is unfair and totally weighted in favour of the company.


The NSSN must consider thinking outside of the box to get changes made or to get the Anti Trade Union Laws repealed. But again I state we are 26 years down a road not of our making. Therefore we must have funds outside of the individual Trade Union assets which are �offshored� for the NSSC to use without being Confiscated by the government of the day. We must fund individual Members of Parliament instead of funding just the Labour party. This-would encourage such MPs to look more favourably on the requirements of the NSSN. This is selective funding. In the interim we must try and get those MPs to table as many Private Members Bills as possible on amending or throwing out the Anti Trade Union Laws. We must revisit how the NSSN is formed and run together with its aims and objectives.


How the shop stewards� movement was built in the past

The history of the shop stewards� movement in Britain has varied with the development of industry, the economy and the state of the trade unions at any particular time.


There was a huge growth of trade unions in the post-war period from which developed, to one degree or another, shop stewards� organisations that varied widely depending on the industry or services, the trade unions and the political level of workers in those industries and services.


At various times there have been different shop stewards� organisations that came to the fore and gave a lead to other workers and trade union activists across society as a whole.


Without going into a lengthy historical narrative, an example of this development came about in the first world war when engineering shop stewards committees organised strikes at a time when the official unions had signed up to no-strike agreements with the coalition government as part of the imperialist war effort.


But in peace time or war time, there has been a tendency for shop stewards� organisations to develop when it was perceived that the official trade unions were either lagging behind the needs of the workers or in some cases acting directly contrary to those needs.


Post war and the growth of the shop stewards organisations

The biggest growth in the shop stewards� organisations took place in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. This was a period of growth in the economy. Production and manufacturing grew apace and for the first time since the 1930s there was more or less full employment.


Industries like engineering, the car industry and others developed rapidly taking on more and more workers. Shop stewards� committees became the norm in industry. One reason for this was the problems brought about by the multiplicity of unions in workplaces. It was the rivalry between unions that caused problems.


Shop stewards committees comprising in general most of the unions in a workplace cut across this rivalry (though not completely) and showed a united front to the management.


Jack Jones built his reputations as a union leader by actively encouraging the development of shop stewards in the TGWU. He produced pamphlets as general secretary of the union on �why you should be a shop steward� thousands of TGWU members took his advice and helped build the shop stewards movement to new heights, in the process making the TGWU the biggest in the country.


One example of this was the car industry where the unions had historically recruited their members based on their grades. For example the engineering union recruited amongst the skilled workers and the TGWU recruited amongst the semi-skilled and unskilled.


In Fords, for example, anything up to 18 or 19 unions had members in the Dagenham plant. In the BL Longbridge, Birmingham a similar situation existed.


Without a conscious attempt to develop shop stewards� committees representing all workers irrespective of the skill base then it would have been much easier for management to divide and rule. Based on the workplace shop stewards committees in engineering and the car industry combine committees were organised.


By the 1960s even the government became worried about the growth of the shop stewards� movement. Harold Wilson government initiated a number of reports into the shop stewards� organisations in industry. They did this because it was becoming clear that the traditional authority of the unions� leaderships over their members was becoming less and less and was being replaced by the shop stewards instead.


The Bullock report on industrial democracy

In 1977 in response to the growing strength of the unions the labour government initiated a report by Alan Bullock, an academic, who was asked to come up with a way of getting the shop stewards to be less confrontational with their employers and be more prepared to work together for the so called �common interests�.


Bullock revealed that there was something like 300,000 shop stewards spread across the workplaces but mainly concentrated in industry and manufacturing.


A feature of this was the strongest shop stewards committees (that is those that had most influence over their members and had replaced the influence of the official union leaders) were in the bigger factories.


Bullock revealed that in the private sector alone one third of all workers were in 738 companies employing over 2000 workers. It was from these fortresses of trade unionism that much of the running was being made on wages and working conditions.


Thatcher�s anti-union campaign

But it was the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher that saw the reversal of the union strength in the workplace. This was primarily done through a combination of running down industry and introducing draconian anti-union laws.


The de-industrialisation of manufacturing was a quite deliberate policy by the Tory government who saw it as a way of clipping the wings of the organised working class. Thatcher followed this up with direct attacks on one of the strongest sections of the working class, the miners, in 1984/85.


But even before this the ground had been ploughed by the bosses� attacks on the shop stewards� committees in the car industry for example with the sacking of Derek Robinson, the convenor of Longbridge and chair of the British Leyland combine committee, in 1979.


The anti-union laws introduced by Thatcher were aimed to undermine the ability of the working class to act together against the bosses. The first laws passed were to limit solidarity action on the picket line and across industries.


By limiting pickets to no more than six the Tories hoped to see the end to mass picketing. By limiting strike action to the initial company that the workers had a dispute with, it stopped effective solidarity action by workers in other companies who might be asked to do their work of those in dispute.


The bosses did not have it all their own way. In fact Thatcher could have been beaten in the early days if there had been organised mass action against the anti-union laws and preparedness by the union leaders to ignore those laws when it became clear that they were so unfair and changed the balance on the shop floor decisively against the unions.


What must be done now?

In the private sector there has been a big decline in union organisation from 60% in the 1970s (with 90% in engineering and the car industry and manufacturing in general) to 17.2% today. Amongst young workers, as said before, no more than 11% of those under 25 are in unions. this is despite the fact that 600,000 full time students are in some sort of part time work to finance their university courses. Some unions are developing youth structures but much more needs to be done.


There are nevertheless signs that despite all the obstacles put in the way there is a rise in the number of struggles taking place. Examples of this include in the NHS where low-paid ancillary hospitals workers in Whipps Cross hospital in east London have held successful strikes in defence of wages and conditions. Also the struggle of the �justice for cleaners� campaign and the strikes of the JJB sports warehouse workers in Lancashire.


In the public sector there is a rising struggle of strikes by workers in local government over the implementation of wage cuts through the single status agreement now coming to fruition. Civil servants en masse are fighting back against job cuts and low wages.


Immigrant workers

With 700,000 immigrants from Eastern Europe, mainly in low-paid and super-exploited jobs, the trade unions are making efforts to organise these workers though this is still at an early stage.


The GMBU has set up branches for Polish workers in Glasgow and Southampton. One of the GMB organisers commented to The Guardian on 6 December: �We were expecting 20 to come to the meeting and were amazed when 130 arrived.� The TGWU has appointed Polish organisers and produced leaflets in Polish for these workers.



The development of a NSSN will not be easy. But there are signs that show the way forward. In the public sector the widespread attacks by government on jobs and conditions is drawing a response.


The PCS civil service union, along with others, has encouraged the linking together at a local level of workers in the public sector irrespective of their union into town committees. These are developing high-profile campaigns bringing to the attention of the wider public the role of the public sector in their lives in making for a more civilised society.


Examples of this are in Yorkshire (Sheffield) and the West Midlands (Telford). The local trades councils in both cases have played an important role in aiding the development of these town committees.


In the NHS, local campaigns by the users in defence of local heath services have been widespread. Increasingly there has been a link up with health unions also.


All the history of the shop stewards movement demonstrates that it was part of the wider political struggle for a more decent and more civilised society. Politically this was led by those who were conscious socialists throughout that period.


It is undoubtedly the case that the role of the New Labour government in going even further with their attacks on the welfare state than the Tories would ever have dared has caused political confusion and a certain demoralisation.


It is part of this process to rebuild the shop stewards� movement that it cannot be divorced from the need for a political voice for all those potential work place activists of the future who see the need to widen their struggle outside of their immediate workplaces.


We hope this pamphlet helps in the overall development of a new shop stewards movement.


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