Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Pathways to progress
Reproduced from the Morning Star

(Tuesday 31 October 2006)

GREGOR GALL looks at the potential for progress from two initiatives to get the trade union movement reactivated and draws positives from both approaches.

At the RMT-initiated national shop stewards' conference last Saturday, the 250 trade unionists present passed an enabling statement from the union's executive.

At the Respect-initiated Organising for fighting unions conference on Saturday November 11, those attending will be asked to vote on a statement called the Workers' Charter.

Many of the main speakers at the RMT conference, like Bob Crow and Matt Wrack, will also speak at the Respect conference and the Trade Union Freedom Bill, which was central to gathering at the weekend, will again be crucial.

The RMT statement outlined the basis for establishing a steering group whose task is to help orchestrate the first steps towards creating a national shop stewards network, primarily by organising a formal delegate conference in spring 2007. That conference would see the attempt to create the national shop stewards network itself.

The purpose of the national shop stewards network will be to offer trade unionists help and support in their campaigns and disputes as well as to support existing workplace committees and trades councils.

The proposed Workers' Charter has a much more ambitious task - to promote the right to living wages, union rights, decent public services, protection of the environment, wealth redistribution and the like.

More immediately, the proposed charter states that its priorities will be to organise lobbies and activities in support of the Trade Union Freedom Bill, the Public Services Not Private Profit initiative and so on.

So, although many on the left have commented on the great similarity of the two conferences, concluding that it would have been better to have just one united conference rather than two, the differences are actually quite stark. And they represent significantly different strategies.
If the RMT-initiated conference just gone had been called with the purpose of declaring the establishment of a national shop stewards movement, it would have rightly been derided for being unrealistic and far too ambitious. A conference, no matter how well attended, cannot simply call into being a movement. Movements emerge organically from mass struggles, where people engage in purposeful actions.

But the conference sought to begin the process of bringing together on a national level the workplace reps who have the potential to themselves constitute a national shop stewards network. The use of the term "network" and not "movement" is important, because it is more appropriate to the current state of workplace union organisation.

The conference, therefore, did not attempt to take on the lofty task of recreating the shop stewards movements of the past. Whether of the first world war period or the 1950s to 1970s, the shop steward movements of these periods emerged from more solid ground of entrenched workplace bargaining and in times of rising trade union struggle.

Today, we face the task of knitting together what grass-roots organisation has survived and is still working after a period of retreat and defeat. The job here is to try to make it into more than just the sum of its parts. So, the task of the shop stewards network is to support and encourage struggle when its breaks out rather than initiate it in the first place. Once this has been achieved, we may then be in a position to try as a network to initiate struggles.

There is where the Respect-initiated Workers' Charter is likely to come unstuck. All the demands are, in one sense, correct and sensible. The demands raise necessary and important issues, but they are also too wide-ranging and ambitious to be acted upon practically.
The social forces required to secure the charter's aims unfortunately do not yet exist. Put bluntly, the aims do not match up with the available means. No amount of exhortation and pulling of emotional, left-wing heartstrings can get around this. That is why the RMT initiative more squarely hits the nail on the head.

All of this should focus our attention on best way to introduce higher demands into the union movement, as well as to how higher demands can emerge themselves from within the union movement in a more organic manner.

Different organisations of varying sizes, but all of the far left, dating from the 1970s, have presented charters of rights and action programmes to the union movement. Some of these charters and programmes have been presented in more conducive times than those of the present.

Setting aside the barren party-building aspects of some of these attempts, what they have in common is that they have not connected with the active, non-aligned trade unionists in a widespread and concrete manner.

An obvious example of when this did happen concerns the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) at the time of the killing of both the In Place of Strife white paper in 1968 and the Industrial Relations Act 1971.

This lack of subsequent substantial connection of charters and programmes is because the demands either fail to do one or other or both of the following.

First, they do not match where the mass of the union movement is at, where the demands aim to take people two or three steps, as opposed to 10 or 20 steps, on from where they are. Second, the demands have not genuinely or organically arisen in a substantial way from the mass of workers' struggle.

Although only a single but, nonetheless, high-profile strike, the Gate Gourmet action highlighted to the workers involved and to a huge swathe of others looking on that legalised solidarity action is vitally needed to make trade unionism effective.
That is why the Trade Union Freedom Bill is so appropriate. Unfortunately, we have not seen any such similar examples since.

So, because the RMT initiative is more attuned to the lived experience of workplace reps as they are now and begins from where they are, it is more likely to be successful than the Respect initiative, which may serve the better purposes of raising ideas and creating discussion.
That does not mean that the RMT initiative is guaranteed success. In itself, it is quite ambitious. Its success will depend upon a higher level of trade union workplace struggle unfolding, workplace reps broadening their horizons out of their own industry and a clutch of successful struggles, aided by solidarity support, being seen as offering a way forward.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire's Centre for Research in Employment Studies.


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