|Socialism Today Socialist Party magazine|
RMT on the frontline
NOT SINCE Margaret Thatcher declared class war on the trade union movement in the early 1980s have Britain’s unions faced such a challenge to defend workers’ interests. Tony Blair’s New Labour party is attempting to carry through the next phase of the neo-liberal project, which poses three immediate tasks before the trade union movement. Firstly, to conduct an offensive to increase wages and improve conditions at work (including reducing working hours). Secondly, to stop the privatisation programme that has been a disaster for public services. And thirdly, to build a new party to represent the working class, independent of big-business interests.
No union is currently better placed to drive on this project than the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers). Together with the train drivers’ union, Aslef, the RMT has embarked on a round of aggressive pay disputes which have succeeded in ratcheting up the pay rates of train drivers. The RMT is also to the forefront of combating New Labour’s privatisation drive. The public/private partnership (PPP) scheme for London Underground (LUL) represents half the cash value of Blair’s entire PFI/PPP programme. RMT members on the Tube have no illusions in the government and most find it unbelievable that our union is still giving members’ money to New Labour. With a new general secretary, Bob Crow (who has never been in the Labour Party), the possibility exists for the RMT to take a lead in calling for and organising a new workers’ party.
Bob Crow’s election reflects the combative mood of RMT members. There is no doubt that they knew what they would be getting. National and London newspapers ran prominent pieces calling for an anti-Crow vote and did their utmost to initiate a red scare. Part of the criticism was Crow’s failure to fully support New Labour but this rebounded as opposition to the government is just what members want to see. Right-wingers in the Trades Union Congress (TUC) briefed journalists and produced a ‘secret’ report outlining opposition to Crow’s policies. In the event, he won by a three-to-one majority over all other candidates combined. This was a victory not only for Bob Crow and the RMT but for the whole trade union movement. Together with the election of Mark Serwotka (PCS), Mick Rix (Aslef) and others, this victory demonstrates that union members, especially in the public sector, are not prepared to accept leaders who act as poodles to New Labour.
At present, rail unions are able to use the shortage of staff, especially of qualified drivers, to extract some significant pay rises. One challenge for the RMT is to attend to the needs of lower paid members in station, engineering and ancillary grades. This year’s pay claim on LUL must avoid adopting sectional claims for different groups of workers and base itself on the real cost of living, including London housing costs.
But the most pressing struggle facing rail workers is over PPP. This is not only a matter for LUL workers but for the whole union. A defeat for Blair over PPP would make it almost impossible to return Railtrack to the private sector and would create a momentum to force the full re-nationalisation of the entire rail network. This means the union must prepare now for further strike action.
Last year, RMT and Aslef members took two days of action against PPP and brought the Tube to a standstill. Despite legal threats against both unions, and even individual reps, members stood firm and LUL conceded a ‘no compulsory redundancy deal’ under direction from the government. Union officials, including Bob Crow, urged members to accept this offer to safeguard engineering workers’ jobs. But a meeting of reps threw out the deal, making it clear that the fight to end PPP must go on. Unfortunately, the leadership had already called-off the action once and, by now in the run-up to a strike in general election week, the government came back with a re-worded offer on redundancy. Further action was again called off and the critical momentum dissipated. Activists were split but, with leading regional and national officers – including many of ‘the left’ – supporting the offer, the deal was done.
Even at that time, the wording suggested several escape routes for LUL and the private ‘infracos’ (infrastructure companies) but no one expected it to fall apart so soon. Yet it is unravelling already, as LUL has failed to include the agreed terms in its contracts with the infracos. This is an opportunity to organise new strike action which could destroy the whole PPP project, but it also presents a potential problem. If the RMT, hopefully alongside Aslef, conducts a successful dispute demanding the original deal, the government could settle while still proceeding with PPP.
Of course, the ideal option would be for a strike against PPP as a whole, and to hell with the anti-union laws which rule that anti-PPP action would be a political (and illegal) strike and not an industrial dispute. Had this been embarked on last spring, when confidence and determination amongst the members were high, it could have succeeded but the national executive would not have sanctioned such a move.
The right-wing controlled executive remains a barrier but with Bob Crow now at the helm we must demand the executive fights to smash PPP. Privatisation must be opposed on every front. We should explain that we are fighting it on grounds of safety, working conditions and cost to the public. The union’s officers, in conjunction with its lawyers, should quickly agree on legal wording for a ballot that makes this a dispute to stop the privatisation of the Tube.
Tube workers are aware that PPP is at source a political dispute. Hostility to the government is growing. Last year’s national conference agreed to review our support for New Labour unless it changed its anti-union policies. Now an extensive debate will be required to reach agreement on how we should respond.
During his election campaign, Bob Crow argued to remove RMT sponsorship from some Labour MPs, including John Prescott, former secretary of state for transport. Already he has written to every Labour MP inviting them to act as union-sponsored MPs through opposing PPP and supporting the union’s aims. But supporters of this approach counterpoise this kind of campaign of fighting for union policies within New Labour to a clear strategy of breaking from Blair’s party and establishing a new, independent, workers’ party. They don’t explain to union members what influence they believe we will receive from New Labour in return for our money. Last year’s Labour conference did not even discuss PPP because there was insufficient support to get it on the agenda!
There is a mistaken view amongst some activists that RMT members are not ready to break away. This confuses the mind-set of activists who have lived with a Labour/Tory political landscape for many years with the attitude of those members who are indifferent, at best, or just contemptuous of Blair and New Labour. The RMT could use its authority as a major trade union to call together all those to the left of Labour – the Socialist Party, Socialist Alliance, Socialist Labour Party and, most importantly, others who are not members of left groups – into the nucleus of a new party. Nevertheless, even the limited demands to review our sponsored MPs and open up possibilities of funding non-Labour Party candidates in elections would be a step forward if adopted.
This new phase of trade union struggle presents new challenges and responsibilities. Signs are that a new industrial militancy has arisen in response to a nakedly pro-business New Labour regime. Those who seek to build this resistance in the RMT need to come together to organise. A united rank-and-file structure is required both to prevent any counter-attack from the rightwing and to build the positions of those officers who want to support members fighting back. Moreover, an organised left is needed to discuss tactics within the union. There is, of course, still room for groups of workers affiliated to one or another organisation to meet together. But a new organisation, open to any member who wants to fight privatisation and build a democratic union controlled by the members, is an urgent requirement.
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