The National Shop Stewards Network, founded under the auspices of former RMT leader Bob Crow, represents a particular side of the trade union movement and is very much on its left. It is as legitimate a part of the trade union movement as any other; indeed, its regular news bulletin is particularly useful for tracking industrial relations in the UK. 

The stewards at this event are some of the most active and passionate in their unions and it is an important organising network. It is also part of the activist base that (due to the small turnout in trade union elections) supplements trade union leaders. This, as well as genuine commitment to lay trade unionism, is one of the reasons why union leaders (such as Sharon Graham) are in regular attendance and speak at the conference. 

A consistent theme throughout the event was the disappointment (and in some cases disdain) for the Labour Party. This is hardly surprising given that the NSSN originates from the RMT which had at the time disaffiliated from the party. Most of its official affiliate unions are also not affiliated to Labour, and there was a strong Socialist Party Presence at the conference. Even Labour’s left was not safe from criticism. The Unite organiser responsible for the ongoing dispute with the Labour-run Coventry Council, Onay Kasab, bemoaned that: “Our local MP, Zarah Sultana, has visited the picket line once and attempted an early day motion,” adding that, “If that’s all you’ve got, well thanks but no thanks”. 

Away from Labour issues, there were interesting bits of information from trade union officers. For instance, Terry Pullinger, deputy general secretary of the CWU, outlined the union’s current disputes with Royal Mail. Namely that Royal Mail will be the subject of two strike ballots, one on pay (which will close on the 19th of July), and another on terms and conditions (which will open on the 20th of July). Equally, Kasab outlined that Unite anticipates conflict with bus operating companies across regions in the near future, potentially indicating an escalation of unite’s industrial strategy from many local disputes (with a success rate of 74% winning members over £25 million) to concerted national action. However, this particular fight may well be one being forced on Unite before it would like, such is the nature of industrial disputes.

While the speeches from union officials were interesting (BFAWU leader Sarah Woolley’s deconstructing the concept of ‘skilled’ work was particularly good), the real highlight of the event was hearing stewards, the lifeblood of the trade union movement, talk about their experiences of work and organising. For example, a PCS member explained how the Civil Service’s Surge and Rapid Response Team that they worked in (and is responsible for covering gaps in the Civil Service) is taking on more staff while other departments are cutting theirs, indicating how the government plans to accommodate its 91,000 civil service job cuts

Another steward, this time from the RMT (a union that many at the event felt was inspirational, though it is still unclear what the outcome of their national dispute will be), spoke about their dispute with the London Underground over cuts to pensions and trying to terminate 600 jobs. Particularly striking was a CWU rep explaining how Royal Mail is currently proposing to change its sickness plan from six months of full pay and then six months of half pay to only apply in the first instance of sickness; any incidents after this and employees will be placed on Statutory Sick Pay.

Rob Williams, chair of the NSSN, said that the point of the event was to help “Iron out a fighting strategy to win,” and it was refreshing to hear attendees talk of organised labour’s failures and difficulties. Perhaps the steward who gave the best indication of how work can be oppressive and dominating was the NEU member working in a further education college who said that the excessive workload of their colleagues prevented members from going to meetings and organising. Stories such as this are just a snapshot of the difficulties workers and their unions face every day, and it is important that they are discussed. 

One USDAW rep highlighted the difficulties in winning a substantial pay increase at Morrisons, where a pay offer of a 2% increase had only been rejected by 11,000 to 9,000 votes and, thus, there was no clear majority for a substantial challenge. They said that this was because the last time a pay deal was rejected by the unioon, no substantial improvement had been won; demonstrating how the outcomes of campaigns and disputes affect future ones.

A consistent theme across the event was that the pandemic was a turning point in how workers related to work and organisation; the current economic climate is the main driver of the disputes. Either way, it is indisputable that there is currently an uptake in union militancy. This was best summarised by the National Association of Probation Officers Official Annoesjka Valent observing that NAPO is “Not a union known for its militancy, but that this is going to change because our members have had enough”. 

This was echoed by an USDAW rep who claimed that USDAW had only had five strikes in the last ten years, but last year accounted for three of those strikes (though they also argued that some victories had been won without strike action). The current economic crisis is a catalyst for a rise in the concerns of workers, but many speakers at the conference were keen to say that a lot of the current issues have longer term causes (for instance the cuts to the Probation Service and Royal Mail privatisation). 

The fact that tensions have been simmering for a long time before reaching the current crisis point matters. While it is very possible that this summer’s militancy achieves little, the efficacy of the trade unions involved and stewards will be an integral part of any success. Very few other events allow us to see the inner workings of the trade union movement as well as this one.