workers go it alone

Jake Lagnado, who is involved in the Latin American Workers’ Association, wrote this report (in a personal capacity) on the March 22nd National Shop Stewards Network event for the Morning Star

As bosses use the recession to step up their attacks on workers, more and more rank-and-file union activists are declaring that they cannot afford to wait for union leaders to give the nod before fighting back.

Last week, the London Shop Stewards Network held a “workplace organising conference” to discuss how workers at the sharp end of the employer’s offensive, particularly agency staff and migrant workers, could learn from each others’ experience of resistance.

The London activists are part of the National Shop Stewards Network which was created in 2007 to forge grass-roots links between organised workers in different workplaces and rebuild the strength of our working-class movement.

Sponsored by local union branches and open to all activists, the network aims to organise solidarity with workers in dispute and strengthen confidence, democracy and accountability at all levels of our unions.

The London conference brought together stewards and activists from a variety of industries including transport, building services and call centres, as well as workers in engineering and local government, to “educate ourselves in the nuts and bolts of basic workplace organisation,” in the words of one union rep.

Colombian migrant workers related their experience fighting for a living wage and standing up against bosses’ threats to use workers’ immigration status to derail their efforts to unionise the workplace.

In a conference session organised by the Campaign Against Immigration Controls and the Latin American Workers Association, cleaner Alberto described how he and other cleaners at Schroder’s bank in the City had taken direct action when faced with attempts by the employer to trade off a wage increase for redundancies and a switch from evening to all-night working.

Despite a lack of support from their union, they went ahead and held a street demonstration to communicate their demands directly to their cleaning company bosses, forcing them to back down.

Alberto also highlighted how the shop steward and cleaners at the nearby Willis building were faced with a similar situation, but with the difference that the bosses had succeeded in forcing through redundancies – targeting key union activists in the process.

He explained that the workers were now blockading the financial corporation’s headquarters every week to demand their reinstatement and were gathering increasing support from other cleaners in the City, as well as from London’s huge Latin American community.

Alberto pointed out that the cleaners at both Schroder and Willis had been nervous about protesting without official union support, but had been inspired to do so by the series of public protests held by other Colombian workers at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) late last year.

NPL workers’ rep Julio Mayor used his experience to describe the perils of unions failing to respond to organising opportunities.

When three-quarters of the 36-strong workforce at the laboratory joined Unite, their applications were just filed away, he said.

Six months later, an immigration raid saw several of his workmates deported – leaving everyone else traumatised.

Mayor’s colleague Rodrigo, a former Justice for Cleaners organiser, argued this showed that, if unions were to unionise migrant workers, they had to take up the whole issue of immigration control and not just seek to increase union income through dues.

Andy Littlechild, a shop steward and Metronet employee in RMT’s engineering section, also emphasised the power of workers organising for themselves.

He described how Tube workers had been invigorated through a series of disputes since the inception of the public-private partnership (PPP) which brought in Metronet to run parts of the Underground in 2003.

PPP was successfully held up by union opposition for five years and even when it eventually went through, a “jobs for life” deal was won which guaranteed conditions.

However, it was the way the workers had organised themselves that proved key to union members’ involvement in standing up to management.

In the build-up to a huge strike in 2005, the workers had formed an independent strike committee with delegates from each section of Metronet.

Littlechild explained that the union’s official negotiating team was answerable to this committee, while management was also aware of its influence. This affected negotiations positively.

The strike committee was mandated by the members via their reps and the workers were careful not to suspend strikes while negotiations took place, holding out until a firm offer was on the table.

Andy pointed out that with Metronet staff currently being faced with 1,000 job cuts and a five-year pay freeze, such a “bottom-up” strategy would no doubt come to the fore again.

NUJ union activist and author Sheila Cohen summed up the work of the London Shop Stewards Network by describing the relationship of workplace activists to full-time union officials in the words of the famous declaration of the 1915 Clyde shipbuilders’ strike committee: “We will support them just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but will act independently immediately they misrepresent us.”