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From The Socialist newspaper, 2 November 2006

Building a national shop stewards' network

OVER 200 trade union shop stewards and workplace reps attended the railworkers' RMT union conference held on 28 October to discuss the setting up of a national shop stewards' network.

Ken Smith

Bob Crow, RMT general secretary, said there was an urgent need for "getting back to basics" in the trade union movement to rebuild a healthy rank-and-file shop stewards' movement. He pointed out that workers had fewer rights in the workplace than 100 years ago and that 50% of the world's labour force work for less than $2 a day.

The RMT executive council had submitted a statement to the conference calling for a steering committee of ten people to be elected which would be given 3,000 from the RMT and asked to establish a national shop stewards' network.

This would be achieved by organising a formal delegate conference in the spring of 2007, which would have as its aims to support unions in their industrial disputes and to build workplace committees and trades councils.

The conference agreed that the network will "be made up of bona fide rank-and-file TUC-affiliated workplace representatives. The participation of full-time trade union officials would be as observers with speaking rights."

The election of the steering committee of ten, including four Socialist Party workplace reps, could represent a significant step forward in re-establishing a vibrant national shop stewards' network.

But what are the issues that are going to attract stewards to a conference on building such a network? And will the RMT leadership, who convened the conference and the other union leaders who spoke at the conference, throw their weight behind the drive for such a conference? Or will they now think they have done their job and leave it solely to the incoming rank-and-file steering committee?

The turnout for Saturday's conference was only about half that of the RMT's January conference on the crisis in political representation.

That conference turnout showed a significant interest was developing in the idea of trade unions like the RMT looking towards establishing a new party to represent working-class people. Unfortunately, the fact that this conference did not address that issue as well as building a shop stewards' network did represent a step backwards.

As Andrew Price, Socialist Party member and UCU lecturers' union delegate, told the conference: "Public-sector workers have been the victims of a continuous assault from the Labour government. There are many brave shop stewards out there who will welcome this initiative. But there are also political questions that need answers.

"We need to organise workplace reps but also address the crisis in political representation. There is no prospect of reclaiming the Labour Party but there is the basis for creating a new party."


The conference had many top table speakers - mainly union general secretaries - who correctly bemoaned the lack of fight and organisation of the TUC. But it seemed to have escaped their notice that there were at least six members of the TUC general council speaking at the conference who could play some role - if an organised Left caucus was developed on the TUC - to begin to change things.

Unfortunately, they seem to feel that it is outside their power.

Rob Williams, TGWU Visteon convenor and Socialist Party member, showed the conference how a programme of defiance of the anti-union laws could be built that would inspire workers, saying: "Three years ago I seconded a motion at the Wales TUC moved by Bob Crow and the RMT about getting rid of the anti-union laws. It was unanimously supported there but it is not enough just to support motions.

"Over 100 million has been given by the unions to New Labour in the last nine years but it hasn't got rid of the anti-union laws...

"A fighting shopfloor leadership will not be stopped by anti-union laws. We don't take defiance lightly and we don't want sacked and defeated martyrs. But the best organising and recruitment comes when we lead struggles. Our movement has always had to fight to win reedoms.

"I would suggest to this conference and a national shop stewards' network that from 1 May 2007 all the unions signed up at this conference should show their support for any workers taking unofficial action and no longer issue any repudiation letters to any group of workers taking 'illegal' action."

Over 40 people attended a fringe meeting straight after the conference, organised by the Campaign for a New Workers' Party.

Roger Bannister (secretary of the campaign and UNISON NEC member in a personal capacity) and Socialist Party Coventry councillor Dave Nellist outlined the aims of the campaign and the success it has had so far.

Judge gives the game away

Matt Wrack (FBU general secretary) told the conference that commentators on Radio 4 that morning had talked about the end of the class struggle.

Matt said: "Well I wish someone would tell that to the Fire Service employers or the judges".

He explained how the FBU had recently won a High Court case over the issue of co-responding (where firefighters are expected to act as paramedics at the scene of an incident).

But, showing the limitations of any legal changes, the judge had said that if he could have possibly ruled against the FBU he would have done so!

Matt also reported that in the last 12 months there have been more local disputes than in any other period in the history of the FBU.

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