Academic journal article Capital & Class

Renewal or Resilience? the Persistence of Shop Steward Organisation in the Tyneside Maritime Construction Industry

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Renewal or Resilience? the Persistence of Shop Steward Organisation in the Tyneside Maritime Construction Industry

Article excerpt

The debate surrounding 'union renewal' has resulted in the emergence of a significant body of literature. Alternative views have ranged from a focus on the changing strategies of national trade unions to rebuilding their membership in terms of a move from 'servicing' to 'organising'. Others have suggested that the locus for union renewal will not succeed through a 'top down' process, but rather the focus should be concerned with a 'bottom up' regeneration at workplace level. The central argument from this perspective is that, while developments at national level may be important, the impetus of trade union renewal depends crucially on organisation and activity at the workplace. It is claimed that it is within the workplace where recruitment and replenishment of union members is predominantly achieved and maintained. Together with this, it is maintained that the experience of workers at the workplace is far removed from trade union initiatives at national level, and it is at the workplace where the majority of members are actively involved in unionism. Such active workplace unionism has led to a further perspective emerging in this debate, a question of renewal or resilience. Empirical studies have illustrated that workplace organisation has persisted in some areas without the 'need' to build workplace activity through a 'new' generation of activists. It has also been claimed that this persistence could be attributed to the neglected role of political activism amongst workplace representatives. Nonetheless, the underlying theme of these arguments, and indeed a major focus of this article, is that by solely using top down strategies for renewal and survival, trade unions are neglecting their existing traditional sources of power. However, the nature and extent of resilience remains only partially examined within the literature, and the renewal arguments have been made principally, although not exclusively, in relation to the public sector. Therefore, it is the intention of this article to provide some new empirical data, from a traditional industry in the private sector, to contribute to the resilience debate.

The focus of the research is upon the Tyneside Maritime Construction Industry (TMCI) and the assessment of shop steward and workplace organisation. The article begins by examining the literature relating to the renewal/resilience debates and draws upon three themes identified as being the central features of workplace unionism. Firstly, it examines the effectiveness of shop steward organisation in two case studies from the TMCI. Then it considers the levels of activity in membership participation in these workplaces. Finally, it assesses the significance of workplace union democracy in the TMCI. The findings are very positive and indicate support for a thesis of resilience. However, the empirical data also pushes the resilience arguments further than most, in that it illustrates, not simply resilience in a reactive form, but a proactive and on-going form of unionism. Together with this, it introduces a further development to the debate in that, in the second case study it is illustrated how union organisation has to be rebuilt with each new contract. There is therefore a constant, ongoing process of rebuilding an undoubtedly well-organised and vigorous unionism. Some consideration of the conditions of this process of rebuilding unionism is outlined within the case study and the discussion.

The debate on union renewal

As the decline of trade unionism gathered pace after decades of extensive legislative reforms to restrict union activities, together with employer strategies seeking to demobilise trade unionism, academic analysis turned attention to prognosis for union survival and growth. An abundance of literature has emerged concerned with the development of national trade union strategies to 'modernise' themselves into 'new unions'. Such strategies have included a series of mergers of trade unions (Willman & Cave 1994), internal reorganisation of structures (for example Heery, 1996; Fairbrother, 2000) and the promotion of services to members with the focus largely upon encouraging recruitment and retention (for example Heery, 1996). …

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