Interview with Vaughan Thomas, RMT London region chair (LUL)
For many trade unionists outside of the rail industry the situation of trade unions in the London Underground/Transport for London has been considered a positive example of a different approach to organising, campaigning and representation. Is this reputation deserved and why is it so different?
At the anti-fascist rally in Denby last year RMT General Secretary Bob Crow was given a hero’s welcome by trade unionists. As he made his speech a number of activists from Unison and Unite were begging permission to join the RMT! I realise that this may have been comradely banter, but similar requests are being made formally and informally from people in many different industries. In London our core rail membership is being boosted by bus workers who are spontaneously joining on-line having become disenchanted with the Unite Bus Section. We are also being approached by car park attendants, lorry drivers, airport workers, riverboat operatives and even bar staff. Workers seem to like the militant approach of the RMT leadership who make it absolutely clear that they are 100% on the side of their members and have no interest in backroom deals with employers.
Unlike many other sectors, union membership density in the rail industry has remained very high. There are a number of reasons for this – not least the need for legal cover in a job where we are constantly under scrutiny by the public as well as managers, and a mistake may well result in not just a disciplinary hearing but also prosecution. We are amongst the highest spenders proportionately in the TU movement on legal assistance for our members. But there also exists a great deal of loyalty to the RMT for consistently fighting for improved wages and conditions. The tactic used by Bob Crow of maintaining a high profile by pursuing a militant industrial strategy has paid off with the RMT becoming the fastest growing union in the country.
Tory Mayor Boris Johnson has declared he wants to change the industrial relations, there is rumours of a new ‘Company Plan’ and of the use of anti-union consultants. Combined with the wider problem of the recession do you think you are facing a major threat?
There is undoubtedly a major battle coming up, but it is not just as a result of Johnson’s election. Under previous mayor Livingstone the move started to introduce an American system of employee relations. Bob Kiley, (the famous union-buster hand-picked by Livingstone) and Tim O’Toole are just the tip of an iceberg of consultants whose sole aim is to undermine the collective bargaining power of the trade unions. Livingstone infamously, despite wearing his rather threadbare leftwing credentials on his sleeve, urged workers to cross an official picket line during a dispute a few years back.
They are currently spending millions on a “Valuing Time” initiative to persuade rail workers that managers are their friends and that only by working together will LUL thrive as an organisation. They are also recruiting heavily from outside the rail industry in the hope that such people will not be “polluted” by trade unionism. Fortunately the vast majority of the new staff, including middle managers, sign up to the union within a few days of arriving. It doesn’t take them long to realise that the conditions and wages that attracted them in the first place are only there because they have been fought for over decades, but could disappear overnight if the unions are weakened.
What do you think needs to be done to meet these challenges?
We need to carry on recruiting new staff into the RMT, educating them in the importance of collective bargaining and the efficacy of militant trade unionism. We need to rebuild a degree of class consciousness that has disappeared to a certain extent as workers become sectionalised. And we need to persuade our comrades in the other unions, in particular Aslef and TSSA, that united we will be far greater than the sum of our parts. We should unite in one transport union to improve our conditions; we are currently pushing for a 4 day week, it would be so much easier to achieve if we spoke with one voice. We should never be complacent about our achievements; with the recession opening up like a chasm in front of us, the employers may well attempt to seize the opportunity for an all-out assault and remove the benefits for which we have fought so hard. Petty rivalries between sections of workers cannot allow this to happen.
One complaint amongst reps that there is that there a real problem of bureaucracy, lack of communication and separation of the union leadership from the activists on the ground. Do you agree? What then should be done?
I don’t accept this as a fair criticism and am frankly surprised that such a comment is made about the RMT. I sometimes think that the RMT is too democratic, with the constant electoral processes taking up valuable time that could be spent on campaigning and education! All our Regional Organisers are elected by the membership and have to resubmit themselves for election to those same members every 5 years; if they are too aloof from the membership they will be kicked out. Similarly our Council of Executives serve a 3 year term of office and then have to return to the tools for a minimum of a year before standing again for re-election. The activists in my union regard the General Secretary as a friend as well as a leader, his mobile phone number is freely available and he regularly attends branch meetings across the country.
As for a lack of communication, I believe that this has now been effectively addressed. The London Transport region of the RMT has its own website which is regularly updated by a large number of contributors and which includes an interactive section for members to add their own comments. We may have been dragged kicking and screaming, but we have very definitely joined the information super-highway.
Both RMT and ASLEF backed John McDonnell MP for leader of the Labour Party, since then the problem of working class political representation has grown worse. What do you think your union should be doing?
The RMT has been at the forefront of organising conferences trying to address this very question of working class representation; but it’s going to be a very difficult process. There are many first rate MPs like John McDonnell still in the Labour Party, the RMT Parliamentary Group for example, work tirelessly for policies to support the transport industry and its workers. But it seems as if the Party itself is beyond redemption, in thrall as it is to neo-liberalism and international capital. The Party I knew as a young man is dead in the water and I see no point in trying to resuscitate it. It was a good thing that we were expelled from the Labour Party when we were; maybe it’s time for the RMT to help form a new party in the way our predecessors helped to set up Labour over a hundred years ago. We certainly can’t rely on Labour to defend workers, nor should we allow those workers betrayed by Labour to be wooed by the BNP. A viable alternative has to be set up, trade unions have the resources so let’s do it.
As for the TUC, I personally think that it is no longer fit for purpose; with the exception of the education department it has no relevance for me. The formation of the super-unions has virtually disenfranchised the smaller unions such as the RMT. It’s time for a new organisation to represent workers’ interests; unions such as ours, the PCS the FBU and any other union that believes in democratic accountability and militancy should look at a way of seceding from the TUC to set up an alternative. We may be too late to save the Labour Party, but we still have time to save trade unions.