Rebuilding workplace union organisation – the National Shop Stewards Network
Wednesday April 2nd 2008, 7.30 p.m.
Venue: The Broadgreen Centre, Salisbury St
The guest speaker at Swindon TUC’s April 2008 meeting is Dave Chapple Secretary of Bridgwater TUC, and President of the CWU’s big Bristol Amalgamated branch covering Royal Mail. Dave is also Chair of the National Shop Stewards Network, in which capacity he is speaking.
As a result of the defeats which the trades unions suffered in the 1980’s and 1990’s union membership declined by nearly 50%. At the same time, the decimation of great swathes of British industry destroyed many of the most organised union workplaces.
Many union leaders drew the conclusion from these defeats that strikes and trade union struggles were ‘outdated’. Many union members asked the question, if the miners could be defeated what chance did the rest of us have? In the midst of this mood of demoralisation and defeatism, ‘social partnership’ (originating from the European Union) became the dominant outlook within the unions. A collaborative approach with the employers was imagined to be the means of overcoming employer hostility and stemming the decline in union membership
However, far from stemming the decline, such an approach made matters worse. In place of fighting for the independent interests of union members many unions identified their members’ interests with the commercial agenda of their employers; ‘winning in the marketplace’. For instance, in the privatised utilities where this approach was adopted there was a jobs massacre. This approach rendered the unions defenceless in the face of employers who came back for round after round of job cuts, supposedly to make them more ‘competitive’. In the worst cases, instead of building up membership in workplaces, unions approached the management to gain recognition agreements, often the worst of ‘sweetheart deals’. As Tony Woodley has said, in this period it was sometimes difficult for union members to tell the difference between the union and the management.
Over the past five years or so there has been a partial turn away from this approach. However, although the decline of the unions has been halted, there is no sign of upwards growth. To a large extent this is because of the lack of workplace strength of union organisation. A generation of shop stewards and workplace reps have been trained in the ‘partnership’ approach, especially in engineering and manufacturing. Managements have gotten too used to imposing their will too easily.
Rebuilding the unions requires the rebuilding of independent workplace organisation in order to change the balance of power in the workplace. The National Shop Stewards Network was launched at a conference organised by the RMT and supported by the CWU, FBU, PCS, POA and TGWU. It aims to serve as a network which brings together shop stewards (and other union reps) to share experience, to build support for disputes, and to develop a discussion on rebuilding workplace organisation in order to change the balance of power between the unions and employers.
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