Gaby Rubin welcomes the RMT’s successful strike action and sees an opportunity to re-establish trade union strength and power - if there is a willingness to defy the law
The first day of strikes called by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union was an undoubted success. On June 21, in the biggest national rail stoppage since 1989, virtually the whole network across Britain was brought to a standstill. The London Underground was deserted.
While opinion polls show a very wide body of support for the RMT, that cannot be said of Sir Keir Starmer. He has offered not the slightest encouragement, even instructing Labour MPs to stay away from picket lines. True, a few shadow ministers ignored him (disciplinary measures are expected to follow after the end of the strikes). Sir Keir wants to appear prime ministerial before the media.
Some might say that this treachery is not surprising. But the fact of the matter is that the Labour Party has always had two souls, two wings … and even when Jeremy Corbyn was leader the RMT did not take up the opportunity to re-affiliate. A sad tale. In 2004 it had backed non-Labour candidates in the shape of the left‑nationalist Scottish Socialist Party, which the Labour leadership treated as an expulsion matter. The RMT opposed Labour’s turn to the right under Tony Blair and eventually threw its lot in with the hopeless Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - a micro Labour Party mark two, set up at the initiative of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Given that the precursor of the RMT was the original proposer of setting up the Labour Party in 1900, this is a supreme irony.
The union is saying, ‘Enough is enough’. Enough of being asked not to demand a wage rise above the 3% on offer, despite inflation now running at 9.1%, petrol up to almost £2 a litre and food prices rising by the day. Enough of being told by the lying transport minister, Grant Shapps, that the average RMT member is earning the princely sum of £44,000 - the actual figure is £31,000. Enough of being told to pay increased contributions in return for a smaller pension by Network Rail chief Andrew Haines - annual salary £600,000. Enough of job insecurity in the name of introducing ‘modernisation’ - an example being getting rid of around 1,800, mainly maintenance, workers.
There is much talk of a Summer of Discontent and going back to the 1970s. However, it needs to be understood that trade union concentration is far, far lower nowadays. Membership is down from around 12 million in the early 1980s to just over six million today … and meanwhile the total size of the workforce has doubled. And, of course, the trade unions themselves have become ever more bureaucratic. The power that shop stewards once wielded, including at a national level, has long gone. On the one hand, we have the rise of trade union officialdom and employment tribunals and on the other, the oppressive anti-trade union laws introduced by the Thatcher and subsequent Tory governments (and not repealed under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown).
So workers face many obstacles to exercising their democratic rights. Anti-union laws have, for instance, made solidarity action - so-called secondary action - illegal. Scabbing, by agency workers, is meanwhile actively encouraged, not least by Grant Shapps. There are, moreover, draconian restrictions on picketing and strike ballots - workers may only go on strike if more than 50% of the relevant membership take part in a postal ballot in addition to more than 50% of those taking part voting in favour.
The Tories (and the Blairites) obviously thought this would prevent most strikes … which organisation, which political party, can get more than 50% of its members voting on anything? Well, the RMT smashed right through these barriers. According to the union, out of the 40,000 balloted, the turnout was 71%, with 89% voting in favour of strike action.
The RMT has repeatedly called for the government to be involved in negotiations, but so far it has noisily declined. Tim Shoveller, chief negotiator for Network Rail, said that the government should not be involved, as this is an issue for the industry and trade unions to resolve. This is, in fact, the position enforced on the rail companies by Johnson, Shapps and co. But, argues Matthew Gill of the Institute for Government, it is:
a difficult line to hold: rail is a natural monopoly and a public utility which has received £16bn of subsidy during the pandemic precisely because the government thought it an essential service to preserve. Since privatisation, the government has remained intimately involved in determining fares, service levels and industry structures; timetabling and ticketing changes frequently end up on ministers’ desks.
Without the government presence, negotiations are stalled. It is clear, then, that the Johnson government wants this fight - presumably because it sees an opportunity to smash the rail unions. Certainly taking on the unions is a popular cause amongst the Tory rank and file and the true‑blue heartlands. But many here rely on the rails to get them to and from work. This is especially the case in the home counties. Aloof government non-intervention could easily become very unpopular. And how adopting such a hostile approach to the unions plays in the so-called red wall constituencies could also prove to be highly problematic for the government.
Other unions are readying to follow in the RMT’s wake:
- The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) is balloting 6,000 members for a possible strike in July. The third largest rail union is demanding no compulsory redundancies, and a pay increase in line with inflation after the freeze on wages during the pandemic.
- The National Education Union is planning to ballot in the autumn - also over a pathetic pay offer and increased workload.
- The Criminal Bar Association - which represents barristers in England and Wales, many dealing with legal aid defendants - will stage walkouts from courts in the coming weeks. The CBA said that 81% of its 2,000 members have supported this industrial action.
- Junior doctors are also considering a walkout, as they did in 2015, while other unions in the health service are contemplating similar action.
Many more trade unions will soon be making similar moves. What lies behind all this is, among other things, the crisis caused by the Covid pandemic. But the answer to the question, ‘Who pays for the crisis under capitalism?’, depends on whose side you are on: the capitalists say the workers must pay, but right now the workers are starting to fight back.
This provides an opportunity to coordinate actions and re-establish union strength. Trade unions certainly need to reach out to the millions who are unorganised, especially young workers. Not that re-establishing trade union strength can be separated from defying the anti-trade union laws and the fight to democratise the trade unions and revive shop steward initiative and power.