Resolving the dispute in the NSSN

This is a personal view from SOLIDARITY Editor, Martin Wicks

Download a PDF of this piece here

Six officers of the National Shop Stewards Network, together with 11 members of the steering committee have produced a statement on The future of the NSSN (see ). They refer to the disastrous outcome of the Steering Committee meeting on December 4th where a majority voted in favour of the January 22nd Anti-cuts conference setting up an NSSN All-Britain Anti-cuts campaign and the election of a committee at the conference for said campaign.

The statement says that Launching a further national anti-cuts campaign, while obstructing cooperation with other organisations would be a retrograde step, as well as changing the nature and direction of the NSSN. They say that if one organisation controls the NSSN then we would see no point in any further participation.

The reply from Linda Taff, Bill Mullins and Rob Williams (See says, Behind the disparate opposition to the NSSN majority is a clear difference on programme, strategy, and tactics.

The reply is curiously posed as a reply to Dave Chapple when the statement is signed by 17 people, as if the fact that everybody other than Socialist Party members were opposed to their proposals is of no consequence whatsoever.

In an unholy alliance with the SWP and their front organisation the Right to Work (RTW) he hoped to put the NSSN in the dock before fellow trade unionists as unprincipled splitters and sectarians.

It is apparently the accusers who are guilty of these crimes rather than the Socialist Party. What follows is an attack on the SWP for various misdemeanours, including the formation of the RTW campaign, sidestepping the real issues in dispute.

Those against these proposals believe that NSSN should step back, and leave leadership matters to other organisations, particularly like the RTW.

This is patently not true since the resolution which the non-SP officers and steering committee members puts forward says “that the NSSN Officers and Steering Committee do everything constructive, through discussions with Coalition of Resistance, Right To Work and other groups, to build and launch a single national anti-cuts organisation early in 2011.”

We then read (in Linda, Bill and Rob’s reply) that:

What workers are interested in is a fighting programme to defend ALL jobs and services. No other campaign other than the NSSN has such a programme. An anti-cuts committee democratically elected at the conference but linked to our NSSN steering committee, will make us even more able to intervene effectively in this movement at this volatile time.”

The first question in response to this is what programme? The NSSN hasn’t voted on any programme. The comrades can only be referring to the SP’s programme. The logic seems to be, we have the ‘correct’ programme, therefore, any campaign that we set up will be better than the others that exist. They don’t explain how such a committee would be ‘linked to our NSSN steering committee’. If the campaign was essentially that of the NSSN then why would other forces participate in it?

What seems to me to be self-evident is that any campaign which is launched at the NSSN anti-cuts conference would be an “All Britain Anti-cuts campaign” in name only. It is unlikely that the Right To Work campaign, the Coalition of Resistance, or the Labour Representation Committee would be involved. The Socialist Party may consider that this wouldn’t matter because these groupings don’t have a ‘correct’ programme, but in reality such a campaign would be little more than the Socialist Party and people close to them; the sort of thing that they criticise the SWP for. Whatever we may think of the RTW and CoR they have people involved in them beyond the organisations which launched them. Indeed Len McLuskey (who the SP supported in the election for General Secretary), in his recent Guardian article, declared that Unite would be supporting the CoR. Do we ignore them or campaign to bring them all together? Launching a campaign of its own would be a step in the wrong direction for the NSSN.

Unity” based on recognition of the ‘record’ of the SWP?

The “reply” says that the SP is in favour of unity but then undermines this statement by saying that:

To attempt even to forge a genuine unity in action with such people requires, above all, an open recognition of their history and record.”

It is difficult to imagine a more dogmatic and sectarian point of view than this. Are we supposed to agree on the history and record of the SWP in order to create unity”? This is patently absurd. We might just as well say that a precondition for unity is recognition of the opportunism of the SP in opposing the candidature of Mark Serwotka for PCS Secretary (and calling for support for a bureaucrat to ‘avoid splitting the vote’). That’s an historical record, though the SP obviously has its own interpretation. Would demanding agreement from the SP that this was a big mistake help to achieve unity to campaign against the cuts? Obviously not.

It is true that many activists were unhappy with the decision of the SWP to launch the RTW campaign, which was taken without discussion with other people. But many union activists are equally disenchanted with the methods of the SP which acts as if its ‘record’ means it will be the leadership of this movement.

Organisations that have long standing differences can only work together on the basis of discussing what to do, in this case in order to build resistance to the austerity drive of the coalition. How could you ever agree on any practical collaboration if agreement on differences from years past was a necessary precondition?

The non-party and cross-party nature of the NSSN”?

The dispute also relates to the nature of the NSSN and its method of operation. The idea behind its launch was to build a shop stewards movement. In practice because of the weakness of the unions and shop floor organisation, it has taken on the form more of a union activists network, since it is open to any trade unionist who is in an elected position, be it shop steward, health and safety rep, or union branch officer. Broadly speaking it has involved activists who are members of the various left groups, as well as the Labour Party, individual activists who are members of nothing other than their union, syndicalists of one stripe or another. What all these people share in common is opposition to ‘partnership’ and the desire to transform the unions into fighting organisations rather than class collaborationist ones.

Such a breadth of composition has created political tensions and the much maligned Dave Chapple has played the role of holding the ring between the various organisations, especially in preventing the political differences between the SP and the SWP from leading to either of them walking out. The 17 refer to the “non-party and cross-party nature of the NSSN”. Given the diversity of those people involved in it any indication that a single group controlled it would lead to its collapse.

One of the reasons for the lack of growth of the NSSN is that many activists already consider it to be an organisation dominated by the SP, so they have never seen it as a useful vehicle. Should the SP push through its proposal in the face of the opposition of the non-SP people involved in the NSSN, should it win on the basis that it can mobilise more people than the rest, then that would confirm the opinion of many people that the NSSN was an SP dominated organisation. Many activists would walk away from it and it would truly be reduced to an SP front. Even if the discussion and the vote was democratic it would not make a jot of difference. Why? Because the NSSN cannot continue, never mind prosper, unless there is a degree of consensus and compromise in order for people to work together in a collaborative fashion, despite their differences.

Anti-cuts candidates”

The attitude of the SP towards the NSSN was reflected in its original two pronged proposal: an All-Britain anti-cuts campaign and for the NSSN to make as a priority ‘anti-cuts candidates’ in the May local elections.

The latter proposal was problematic in a number of respects. The SP had at various times previously floated the idea of the NSSN supporting the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition and the No2EU campaign. It had not pressed the issue in the face of opposition. As pointed out at this time this would have led to the withdrawal of support for the NSSN from the Labour Affiliated Unions. It might be considered that this would not matter, but in any case the pros and cons should be discussed.

More importantly, to saddle the NSSN with a particular political/electoral strategy would have caused it’s break up since those activists who did not support such a course would have walked away. The NSSN is neither a political party nor an electoral initiative.

That the SP wanted the NSSN to endorse its political strategy was reflected not only in the resolution. Dave Nellist announced on the NSSN Facebook group that a conference to launch the TUSC election campaign would be held immediately after the NSSN conference finished! Thankfully, they withdrew this proposal when they were told by everybody else that this was guaranteed to split the NSSN. Yet the fact that they put forward such a proposal reflected a mistaken conception of the role of the NSSN.

Tackling obstacles to action in the unions

The idea of the NSSN as an organisation concentrating on building its own national anti-cuts campaign is in my view mistaken for a couple of reasons. Firstly, ant-cuts campaigns are being organised independently by activists, trades councils and so on, on the ground, since people do not need to be be told what to do in the face of such savage attacks. NSSN activists are already involved in this work in their areas, of course. The organisation of an NSSN anti-cuts movement would require a great deal of time and effort from already busy activists who are limited in number.

Secondly, the NSSN, as a movement of union activists should concentrate its efforts on tackling the obstacles which are being placed in the way of the “coordinated industrial action” which all the unions voted for at the TUC last September. There is no guarantee of a fight back emerging on the national level. In the NHS all the health unions signed up to the Mutually Agreed Resignation Scheme (See ) which encouraged staff to leave with only half the level of remuneration they would receive from redundancy. The idea was to create vacancies for soon to be redundant staff to be slotted into (thus accepting job losses and the inevitable worsening of the service). And now the idea of a no-compulsory redundancy scheme is being floated for the consideration of the health union membership. It is combined with the demand to accept a freeze in pay or 35,000 jobs will be at risk. The blackmail is bad enough, but this is in any case, a bogus scheme because it would constitute an enabling agreement which local trusts would not have to implement, and does not in any case apply to Foundation Trusts. How can you build a movement against the cuts if you are collaborating with management in their introduction?

There are also signs of acceptance by local union branches of “voluntary redundancies” in local government. Acceptance of “voluntary redundancies” in the context of unprecedented cuts would undermine the prospects of building a campaign together with service users. Of course, unions cannot stop their members taking voluntary redundancy if offered, but they should oppose them and spell out the consequences for service provision. Just because you are not strong enough to stop all job cuts it does not mean that you have to help management introduce some.

There is another factor which needs to be taken into account. Youth unemployment is already 20%. Trades unions have a responsibility towards the new generation. Acceptance of voluntary redundancies inevitably means a decline in the number of jobs available for them. Union density amongst young people is only 9% and the unions have their work cut out to tackle this low level. Campaigning for work for young people should be an essential part of trade union policy. Accepting voluntary redundancies undermines this task.

Activists also face a major political problem in the big 3 unions – UNISON, UNITE, GMB – where there is no sign whatsoever of “coordinated industrial action”. For instance, the NUT is preparing for a spring ballot for industrial action in defence of its members’ pension. So far only the PCS and UCU have indicated that they might coordinate action. There is no sign yet that the big three will do likewise.

In local government, where 140,000 job losses are predicted this coming financial year, there is no industrial action as yet, with moves towards balloting for action in only a few isolated areas. The big three dominate here of course.

Therefore the struggle in these unions for the implementation of the TUC resolution should be a priority for the NSSN. In order to build pressure for action the NSSN could organise a national meeting bringing together activists from the big three unions who work in local government to campaign for action. It might also do the same in relation to the NHS where the very future of the health service is at stake.

The Poll-Tax analogy

There has been much talk of building a mass anti-cuts movement on the lines of the anti-poll tax movement. This is a problematic analogy. The poll tax presented a much simpler issue because everybody was faced with paying it. You either did or you didn’t. Dealing with the coalition austerity drive is much more complicated because there are such a range of services under attack and not everybody is immediately or directly affected by them. We also face the problem that many people have to one degree or another swallowed the argument that some cuts are necessary in order to tackle the current account deficit.

These factors make it more difficult to build an anti-cuts movement because we have to overcome the fractured nature of opposition in which separate service user and community groups will oppose cuts which affect them but do not necessarily oppose all service cuts. We still have the task of convincing many people that the cuts are not necessary, that they are ideologically driven and are not simply a pragmatic response to the deficit. We have to convince people that there are practical alternatives.

When Linda, Bill and Rob say “what workers are interested in is a fighting programme to defend ALL jobs and services”, it is too sweeping a generalisation. Some workers are snapping up their voluntary redundancies without any consideration as to the consequences for the services they provide. This reflects the fact that, as a result of the defeats suffered from the 1980′s onwards, and the promotion of the ‘service model’ of trades unionism, many members see their union membership as a kind of insurance, rather than seeing themselves as members of a collective organisation for which they have a responsibility. We have a major task in rebuilding a collective class consciousness.

Resolving the dispute in the NSSN

Should the SP push through their proposal on January 22nd the NSSN is likely to break up. This will be to no one’s advantage. The resolution supported by the officers and steering committee members (see Addendum below) offers a compromise. The SP could accept this. All it has to do is recognise that the NSSN cannot build a genuinely All-Britain Anti-cuts campaign on its own, and that competing campaigns would be a retrograde step.

The situation we face is a dangerous one, with an unprecedented assault on public services, the welfare state and jobs. Unless there is a sufficient mass movement, including industrial action, then there will be a further decline in union membership and union organisation on the ground.

Any organisations that have aspirations to provide leadership in the struggle against the coalition government programme should recognise that building practical unity requires that the interests of the working class are put above narrow party interest. Differences over strategy and tactics can be debated passionately but they will be tested out in the struggle. Sectarian arrogance and methods of work will only serve to undermine the chance of building practical working class unity in the unions, the workplaces and in working class communities.

The NSSN can play its role in building an anti-cuts movement, but as an organisation which brings together trade union activists it should concentrate its effort on campaigning for the “coordinated industrial action in defence of jobs and services” that all the trades unions voted for last year.

Finally, if the SP could accept withdrawing its attempt to get the NSSN to support anti-cuts candidates, why can it not compromise over the issue of an ‘All-Britain anti-cuts campaign’? We can surely agree on the need to work for one. All that is required is for the SP to accept that they cannot build one on their own through the vehicle of the NSSN.

Martin Wicks

20th December 2010


Resolution put forward by George Binette and Pete Firmin with the support of all the non-Socialist Party members of the Steering Committee

“The NSSN calls upon all its trade union supporters and affiliates to ensure the largest possible turnout for our national anti-cuts conference on January 22nd.

We re-affirm our commitment, as trades unionists, to work to build and strengthen the local, regional and national anti-cuts movement, between now and January 22nd.

Given our basis as an industrial organisation, the January Conference should concentrate on providing the widest possible debate on the tactics and strategy needed to ensure that trade union strike action against the cuts begins sooner rather than later, that it is coordinated at local and national level, and that if possible it is sustained rather than restricted to token efforts.

It follows from this that this conference should NOT declare the NSSN as THE lead organisation of a national anti-cuts movement: rather, that the NSSN Officers and Steering Committee do everything constructive, through discussions with Coalition of Resistance, Right To Work and other groups, to build and launch a single national anti-cuts organisation early in 2011.

Whilst Conference should allow time for a full and necessary debate concerning trade union bodies supporting anti-cuts candidates in 2011 elections, the NSSN will leave decisions whether to stand such candidates to our local and national affiliates.”

To move: George Binnette

To second: Pete Firmin