In January the National Shop Stewards’ Network fell apart when the Socialist Party declared the foundation of yet another national anti-cuts campaign. Sheila Cohen reflects on the deeper roots of NSSN’s failure
What follows will have to be taken as a personal account, given the fierce antagonisms and uncertain alliances involved in the split which took place at the National Shop Stewards’ Network (NSSN) conference on 22nd January. Since that time, the comments of the NSSN majority have focused largely on the “democracy” of the debate, which saw a large vote for the proposal that the NSSN launch an “anti-cuts campaign, bringing trade unions and communities together to save all jobs and services”.
There is no point commenting here on the methods available for securing such large majorities. That would be to detract from the central issue which saw up to 100 people leave the conference – and the NSSN. Our spirited discussion at a nearby pub was not based on any lack of formal “democracy”, but on the fundamental irrelevance of the debate, if such it can be called, on the future of working-class politics in Britain.
The movement is not short of anti-cuts campaigns – far from it. What it is short of, and has been for too long, is any serious attempt to link together the still-significant force of workplace activists in Britain in order to build a base for effective organisation and future struggles. The neglect by the NSSN majority has been of a far more fundamental democracy – the potentially revolutionary variety, based on workers’ organisation and struggle, and the need for a National Shop Stewards’ Network to do, as one oppositional speaker put it, what it says on the tin.
To my individual recollection (though see below) the NSSN has never done this – organised to bring together workplace activists across industries, sectors, regions and unions – since its formal foundation in July 2007. Despite the heroic efforts of many on the NSSN Steering Committee, officers’ committee and regional groups, the NSSN has been dominated from its beginnings by a sectarian political agenda directed at advancing the objectives of in particular the Socialist Party and to a lesser extent the Socialist Workers’ Party.
In the case of the SP, it is my recollection since the beginning of the process which set up the NSSN that the SP’s prime interest has been in establishing a political party to the left of Labour which can stand in elections. Their “Campaign for a New Workers’ Party” (CNWP) received support from the RMT rail union’s Bob Crow. It was a throwaway remark by Crow referring to the “need for a new shop stewards’ movement” while speaking on behalf of the CNWP which actually led to the setting up of the NSSN when rank and file RMT members held him to his word at the union’s 2006 conference. Their successful resolution in support of such a body led to an organising conference that October which began the process of establishing the network.
I became a member of the Steering Committee established at the July 2007 conference which launched the NSSN, and entered the process with high hopes. However, from the beginning there were problems and letdowns. The acting secretary showed a mysterious unwillingness to organise a meeting of the Steering Committee until that October; at that meeting, while I was expecting to receive a list of those who had attended the July conference in order to begin regional organising and, indeed, networking, such lists appeared to be unavailable. I discovered later that they had in fact been distributed to SP members – whose numbers, of course, dominated in the new Steering Committee – after the meeting.
Although I was eventually elected as a National Organiser for the NSSN, this was as co-organiser with Bill Mullins, an SP leading light. My one attempt to hold a meeting with him was thwarted when he simply failed to turn up. I had been impressed by intense lunchtime discussions at the July conference between workers belonging to the same employment group, but when I tried to introduce the same system at the first London regional NSSN conference, I was again thwarted by a prominent SPer who insisted on creating a farcically large group of “public sector workers” in general, rather than groups of health workers, local government workers etc. The huge circle thus formed of course could not conduct any meaningful discussion.
Genuine, non-sectarian networking? No…
These may seem trivial complaints, but they relate to the unwillingness of this and the other leading organisation, the SWP, to actually get on with any genuine, on the ground, non-sectarian networking. The SWP’s reluctance to commit itself fully to the NSSN from the beginning was illustrated by its preference for events organised by its own Organisation For Fighting Unions (OFFU) which was prioritised whenever its events clashed with those of the NSSN. When OFFU went the way of Respect, the SWP rapidly established another organisation, Right to Work, which again won out over attempts to integrate its activists into the project of building the NSSN.
As readers may remember, 2009 – two years after the founding of what could surely by that time have been a relatively viable cross-union network of activists – was a relatively combative year. It saw a number of occupations and the sporadic, highly militant and unofficial engineering construction workers’ disputes, which “drove a coach and horses”, or at least marched a posse of striking workers, through the anti-union laws.
Did the NSSN use this spike in struggle to build… the NSSN? Not a bit of it. Arriving at the Visteon picket-line, us naive non-sectarian NSSN-ers were appalled, though not, it must be said, surprised, to see SP and SWP papers, leaflets and propaganda festooning the arms and stalls of leading NSSN apparatchiks such as the secretary and other members of the officers’ committee. As for the engineering construction strikes, the SP used them as a recruiting ground, while the SWP got involved in an absurd and mendacious dispute over the supposed “nationalism” involved in the strikers’ mockery of Gordon Brown’s desperate “British Jobs for British Workers” slogan.
A slanging-match over this accusation dominated the last attempt by myself and a leading RMT activist to hold a London NSSN conference on organising. While his contribution was a fascinating and crucial series of tips on involving and building the rank and file membership in his depot, any such class-based strategic discussion was drowned out in the sectarian fray, with the one non-aligned workplace activist present leaving the meeting in bewilderment.
My own role in the NSSN, such as it was, fizzled out when I could no longer cope with the sectarian wrangling and manoeuvring on the Officers’ Committee, and resigned from the Steering Committee also at the 2009 NSSN conference.
The above is, it need hardly be said, a negative reckoning, and since the split I have been criticised, for implying, in post-NSSN discussions, that the Network achieved nothing. Clearly that would be absurd, and I apologise. Some regional initiatives were healthy and genuine – I probably experienced the worst of the NSSN in Party-HQ-heavy London – and the role of many of my fellow-sufferers on the officers’ committee, particularly the staunchly non-sectarian Chair, who has now resigned, must be acknowledged here. But the rest…
Perhaps some of the misdirection can be summed up in the NSSN report of 22nd January , which claims that “Left trade union leaders have since declared [the conference] a ‘resounding success’.” Is that what we want? Endorsement by left trade union leaders? The ones who, like Crow, Serwotka and Wrack, earn six-figure salaries? The ones who, as the writer of this NSSN statement once complained, are consistently forced by the law to repudiate strike action? To my mind, anything that comes out of this debacle has got to ally itself firmly with the real “left” of the movement, the section that actually experiences the rigours of hard work and lagging wages day after day, that stays with its members rather than rising above them into another world.
Now that the NSSN has finally come out in its true colours as Not-the-National-Shop-Stewards’-Network, why do I still feel it’s worth starting again on the same track? The crowd who met after the conference provisionally decided to set up an initiative which could actually be a network for workplace activists, provisionally and rather snappily entitled TURN (Trade Union Reps’ Network). Obviously, less than a month later, such organising is at an early stage, and has already been affected by the SWP’s compulsive sectarianism and double-dealing (despite its representatives having initially resigned from the NSSN Steering Committee, some are still intending to attend its next meeting).
Sectarians, as we know, just can’t help themselves – it goes with the party-building, “democratic”-centralist territory – so, although one or two extremely competent and impressive individuals have expressed their support for a TURN-style initiative, I’m sceptical.
So…why am I still hopeful? Because the working class hasn’t gone away. Because Jerry Hicks’ amazing result in the UNITE election – beating the right-wing candidate by over 10,000 votes – shows, as one rep put it, “that there is a huge appetite for a fighting left leadership that focuses on workers’ struggles and is prepared to confront the anti-union legislation.” As Jerry himself said in a recent interview for Trade Union Solidarity*, “The whole country is to the left of the government, UNITE members are to the left of the leadership… There are massive contradictions out there in the movement – huge anger wherever I went”.
Getting it the right way round
Something that calls itself a shop stewards’, or reps’, network should do what it says on the tin – go to the anger and action that already exists, right across the movement. Counter to the usual imaginings of the left, class conflict doesn’t need to be created – it’s always there, even at times of apparent passivity. Every week, every day, there is some kind of “issue” coming up in the workplace – complaints, grievances, incipient disputes. Recent ACAS figures on unions’ increasing use of strike ballots – rather than strikes – as a tactic for wringing concessions out of employers demonstrate a huge residue of potential conflict. Moreover, the vicious CBI moves to make strike ballots even more impossible show ruling class awareness of the extent of this hidden conflict – and make it all the more necessary to simply break the anti-union laws, not attempt to find our way around their increasingly mountainous obstacles. Yes, class consciousness may need to be “created” by more aware socialists – but the trigger for, the opening towards, receptiveness for socialist ideas is structured by and grows out of existing working-class experience and everyday collectivity and conflict at work. Let’s get it the right way round, folks.
As I’ve argued many times before, open class conflict is not a calm, gradual process but an explosive, unpredictable dynamic that erupts apparently out of nowhere – out of oppression, fear and apparent subjection. We have only to look at Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain. Who, two months ago, could ever have predicted that a massively oppressed workforce in a desert enclave ruled by oil sheiks would rise up? The British working class is much older, and beneath the apparent fatalism and cynicism lies an indomitable tradition of workplace organisation which comes into its own – and thus requires recognition and organisation – in those unpredictable, “spontaneous” uprisings. Let’s tap into that, this time, with a genuine workplace activists’ network that can rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the NSSN to build from the ground up – in time for the next upsurge.
– For a copy of Solidarity: The Trade Union Magazine, email Sheila on firstname.lastname@example.org