Feature: Building the shop stewards’ movement

Trade unions

Building the shop stewards’ movement

One of the themes of the Socialist Party’s Socialism2007 weekend last November was the development of the shop stewards’ movement. There were interesting discussions about the early years of the twentieth century, developments in the 1970s and the prospects for rebuilding and developing fighting trade unions today. The three articles below are edited versions of the introductions to those discussions.

The first part of the twentieth century was a stormy period in the relations between the working class and the bosses. It was when the bosses tried to make the working class pay for the failings of their own system. But it was also when the working class built new organisations – both trade union and political.

Alison Hill, industrial editor of the socialist

Stirred into that pot was the revolution in Russia, which had a profound inspiring effect on the working class worldwide, including on Britain. Later developments in Russia, the rise of Stalinism, in turn had a baleful effect on some of those new organisations.

At the end of the nineteenth century, workers were pouring into the towns and cities of Britain during a period of rapid industrialisation. Unskilled workers organised into new unions outside the old craft unions.

The employers aggressively attacked the working class as they scrabbled for profits with their rivals in Germany and the USA.

Trotsky, writing Where is Britain Going? in 1925 described the nature of those times: “… a state of internal want of confidence and a ferment among the upper classes and a profound molecular process of an essentially revolutionary character among the working class…”

Taff Vale

One of the most notorious of these attacks on the working class was the Taff Vale Railway case of 1901, when the railway union was sued for losses after a strike. The bosses were awarded the equivalent today of £2 million in damages – effectively ruining the union.

The fact that the bosses were using their own courts to seek revenge on the trade unions for organising strikes spurred many workers to discuss the need for political representation.

In the 1906 general election the Tories were defeated by the Liberals. 29 Labour Representation Committee MPs were elected, along with 14 miners’ MPs. Under this pressure the Trade Disputes Act of 1906 reversed the Taff Vale decision.

But the working class was still having to fight tooth and nail. The period of 1911-1913 saw a whole series of battles by the miners, railway and other transport workers. It was a period which Trotsky described as having the “vague shadow of revolution” hanging over it.

The First World War, when the British ruling class attempted to cow its economic rivals, at huge cost to the working class, resulted in a labour shortage. And the bosses were forced to give some concessions in sickness and unemployment benefits.

This had the effect of reinforcing the conservative tendencies of some of the leaders of the trade union movement. After all – if the bosses are giving concessions, all you need to do is to appeal to them to act reasonably.

But most of the working class had other ideas. There was a huge strike wave between 1917 and 1920, most notably ‘Red Clydeside’, when the Clydeside engineers, led by the Clyde Workers’ Committee came out for a 40-hour week.

This was one of the early developments of a shop stewards’ movement and where the government showed their true nature by sending in tanks and troops to try to break the strike. They were terrified of the idea of a ‘triple alliance’, of a united struggle of transport workers, railway workers and miners.

That was the background to the formation of the Communist Party in Britain in 1920, led by hardened industrial militants like Willie Gallagher of Red Clydeside and Tom Mann.

As those trade union and political organisations were being forged, the post-First World War boom was coming to an end. There were two million unemployed by June 1921.

The miners were locked out in March 1921, after rejecting pay cuts. When they appealed to the Triple Alliance for support, the right-wing trade union leaders refused, on a day which became known as ‘Black Friday’.

This showed the need for the left to organise in the trade unions, making demands such as the democratic control of trade union officials.

In 1924 the first congress of the Minority Movement was held, with 271 delegates representing 200,000 workers. It was led by Communist Party members but it also involved non-members like miners’ leader AJ Cook who had left the Communist Party in 1921.

At least some of the CP leaders saw the necessity of not only helping to mobilise workers against the bosses’ attacks but also to challenge the muddled ideas of some of the left-wingers.


Unfortunately the Minority Movement was organising at a time when Stalin’s ideas were developing in Russia – the idea of ‘socialism in one country’, abandoning the idea of international revolution.

After Red Friday in 1925, when the government announced a subsidy to the mines, the TUC should have prepared the working class for a mighty struggle. That was certainly what the capitalists were doing, by buying time to prepare. Instead the CP ended up giving uncritical support to the “lefts” and eventually the TUC itself.

The Minority Movement was still growing, with a nearly 700-strong conference in 1925 and a special conference to prepare for the 1926 general strike.

After the TUC surrendered and called off the general strike, the CP leaders confessed that they had not realised what sort of a role the “lefts” could play.

They were disappointed that the lefts had “turned out to be windbags”.

In 1927 the TUC instructed trades councils to disaffiliate from the Minority Movement, which effectively died shortly afterwards. By 1931 Trotsky referred to the CP as a “negligible sect”.

But there are rich lessons to learn from this period. Workers are often prepared to struggle but they need worthy leadership. And you have to fight to build that leadership – not just in the tops of the trade unions but leaders in every workplace and at every level of the trade unions.

  • For a more detailed account and analysis of the general strike, see 1926 General Strike, Workers Taste Power, by Peter Taaffe.

  • A rising tide of strikes:

    the shop stewards’ movement in the 1970s

    Never has the organised British working class been stronger industrially than in the 1970s. The ruling class was so concerned about the rising tide of strikes that the Labour government commissioned a report into the trade unions. This report, under its chairman Alan Bullock, revealed that the British working class had attained a level of organisation which it never had before and unfortunately hasn’t had since.

    Bill Mullins, Socialist Party industrial organiser

    The reason for the government’s concern about the trade unions was not through any sympathy with workers but because it was preparing to carry out massive attacks on the living standards of the working class.

    It was doing this because the British economy, as part of the world economy, had been battered by the end of the post-war boom around 1973.

    In the boom period, world and British capitalism had seen steady growth. The boom healed some of the scars from the interwar period of mass unemployment and falling living standards.

    The 1950s and the 1960s was a period when the working class, organised through the trade unions, built up their strength. By the 1970s the boom was beginning to peter out, marked by the fourfold increase in oil prices and rising unemployment. For the bosses to carry through their attacks on the working class meant taking on the unions.

    Bullock revealed that over 12 million workers (some 60%) were in trade unions. These 12 million workers had 300,000 shop stewards representing them.

    On the shop floor, particularly in industry – at the time eight million workers were in manufacturing compared to less than four million today – the shop stewards’ committees often involved all the unions in one factory or a combination of factories. They had increasingly taken control of all aspects of union organisation.

    The union full-time officials had to a large extent been marginalised by the shop stewards. This did not mean that the unions themselves became redundant but instead the shop stewards’ movement became the most important section of the unions.

    The union structures themselves – branches, district and regional committees and national executive committees – moved left under the pressure of the shop stewards’ movement. The old right-wing leaders were gradually replaced by new left leaders such as Jack Jones of the TGWU and Hugh Scanlon of the engineering union, the AEUW.

    Accompanying the rising strength of the unions and the shop floor was an increase in strike action. Between 1970 and 1980 the average days lost in strikes was 11 million a year compared with less than 500,000 days lost in 2006.

    In 1979, by the end of the decade in the ‘dirty jobs’ strikes, 29 million days were lost in strikes.

    Militant industrial action in the private sector of industry had encouraged other previously unorganised sections to join the unions and more importantly to take strike action. For example the health union COHSE grew from 67,000 in 1969 to 200,000 by 1974 (Bullock Report). The industrial strength of the shop stewards was particularly concentrated in the big factories.


    Bullock said that one-third of all workers in manufacturing were in 738 plants employing more than 2,000 workers in each. These factories were in reality fortresses of the organised working class which gave a lead to many other workers across industry.

    The famous strikes for parity of pay in the car industry were a result of British Leyland plants striking for higher pay. This led to Ford workers striking to reach parity with Leyland workers.

    The political consciousness of these workers was also at a high level. They saw their struggles were common and needed to be organised politically as well as industrially. This had a dramatic effect on the Labour Party.

    In those days shop stewards’ committees, through their union branches, could send delegates directly to the local Labour Parties which had an affect on the national policies of the Labour Party.

    Many other points could be made on the experience of the 1970s shop stewards’ movement.

    Not least how a debate raged on the issue of workers’ control and workers’ management (the Bullock Report was officially titled “Report on Industrial Democracy”).

    The bosses raged at the time about “management’s right to manage”. The shop stewards were more and more encroaching on this so-called “right”. In reality what was happening was that the bosses were finding it difficult to get things done without the agreement of the shop stewards, who were answerable to the shop floor.

    Most shop stewards were regularly elected, more importantly they could also be instantly subject to recall if they were not doing the job well in the eyes of the shop floor.

    The 1970s war between the bosses and workers on the shop floor required a political conclusion but that did not happen. This was mainly because, under the impact of the economic crisis, the union leaders came under the influence of the Labour government.

    They managed to curb the number of struggles by entering the so-called “social contract” with the government. Many of the anti-union laws introduced by the previous Tory Heath government were removed from the statute books in return for the holding down of wages throughout the latter part of the decade.

    In the words of Hugh Scanlon: “we went to the brink and looked into an abyss”. He meant he did not have a perspective for a socialist change in society and the best that he could get was a Labour government. The main thing as he saw it, was to keep it in power.

    The rest is history, with the coming to power of Thatcher and the Tories once again.

    Organising today

    The election of the so-called ‘awkward squad’ in the early 2000s, gave hope to rank and file trade unionists that a fundamental change had happened in the trade union movement. This was the coming to power of a new layer of general secretaries such as Woodley (TGWU), Simpson (Amicus), Crow (RMT), Serwotka (PCS) and Hayes (CWU) on a ticket of opposition to the pro-Blairite ‘partnership with management’ strategy.

    Rob Williams, Swansea Visteon Unite Convenor, personal capacity

    However, the balance sheet of this experience is uneven to say the least. The PCS and RMT have continued their opposition to New Labour’s pro-business agenda, while Unite (formerly the TGWU and Amicus) and Unison in particular seem to be propping Brown’s government up.

    We’ve seen some important struggles in a period where union membership is still at historically low levels. Just over 28% of all workers are in a union, only 16% of private-sector workers but almost two-thirds of public-sector workers are in a union.

    There have been strikes in the civil service, rail industry, fire service and Royal Mail as well as Gate Gourmet. The labour movement has experienced victories and defeats in these battles and the countless individual disputes, both official and unofficial, which occur every day in both the public and private sector.

    This new more combative period is creating a new generation of activists in the trade union movement. But they are aware that much needs to be done to improve their trade unions so they can confidently face a confrontational management.

    Marxists have to be careful with too many generalisations but the two decades since the defeat of the miners’ strike have seen the employers on the front foot against a trade union leadership on the retreat.

    Firstly, the trade union leaders’ philosophy was called ‘new realism’, then ‘partnership’ and now over the last 5-6 years ‘concession bargaining’. Too many times, the full-time officers have approached a militant shop floor with the view of how to ‘calm them down’ rather than how to give them confidence to fight and win.

    Therefore, the creation of the RMT-initiated National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) is well timed. However, even if such an organisation wasn’t initiated, the need for a militant shop stewards movement is well overdue. The NSSN is at its very early beginnings and a genuine shop stewards’ movement will be built under the hammer blow of events, but already it has played a very useful role in bringing together hundreds if not thousands of shop stewards and trade union activists.

    Front line

    The position of shop steward is potentially the most important in the trade union movement. Directly elected by the shop floor, they are the front line representatives of the union, much more responsive and susceptible to the pressure from the workforce. They are the ones who actually face management on a daily basis.

    However, they have also experienced the effect of conservative full-time officers, many of whom are low in confidence after a series of defeats for the movement.

    With the thinning out of stewards, the specific weight of the officers has increased and of course, in a period of setbacks it is easier to convince stewards that “you can’t win”.

    The rebuilding of this confidence is an important role of the NSSN – by passing on information about the various national and local disputes and the victories that have been won. By analysing these struggles and learning the lessons from them, the problems that face stewards and a strategy to face them can be generalised.

    Undoubtedly, some major issues facing the movement have to be tackled. The continued existence of the anti-trade union laws over a decade since New Labour were elected is a millstone around the necks of the unions and just as importantly the livelihoods of millions of workers.

    The ability of the unions to defend their members’ jobs, terms, conditions and pensions has been continually hampered by these laws. Yet the main trade unions, especially Unite, Unison, GMB and CWU remain welded to New Labour. Therefore, affiliation to New Labour and the need for a new workers’ party based on the trade unions is a fundamental issue.

    This is not the position of the NSSN but Socialist Party members will continue to raise the need for disaffiliation from Labour and demand a new party.

    A powerful shop stewards’ movement numbering hundreds of thousands was built in the 1960s and 1970s. As well as keeping the trade union leaders under pressure, it also mobilised millions of workers at certain times.

    The NSSN is a small but important step in this direction. Hopefully the NSSN will be up to the task but whatever happens with it, the need to organise stewards nationally across the movement will be a vital part of re-arming the working-class for the conflicts to come.

    For more information on the NSSN see www.shopstewards.net

    Further reading:

    1926 General Strike, by Peter Taaffe £7.50
    Where is Britain Going? by Leon Trotsky (contained in volume 2 of Trotsky’s Writings on Britain) £4.95 or £12 for all three volumes

    Please add 10% for postage and packing and order from: Left Books , PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD or buy online www.leftbooks.co.uk, or ring 020 8988 8789